This personal essay is the third instalment of our Migration series. Published originally in 2017 in a small independent journal called Carry On, this is a piece reminiscing trips to the local Shani bazar (weekly Saturday market) in the 90s. Staffed by hundreds of sabziwallas (comprising of both farmers and hawkers), the weekly bazars in the cities of India are an experience in themselves. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, many have fled to their hometowns in a search of security and sustenance. The hasty lockdown enforced by the Indian government resulted in a long migration of many of these hawkers. Our families back home report that there are no longer any weekly bazars organised in their cities and that has had a great impact on these hawkers’ economic and social wellbeing. We share some resources at the end of this write up for you to help those who are worst affected.
Pining for the Shani Bazar
by Sakshi Kapoor
Each day is like a puzzle, and often the same one that weaves through our minds – what we’re going to cook, is anything out of stock, do we have enough rice in the house, bought the expensive basmati variety this time, must use it for only special occasions- and then we end up eating it almost every day! All these decisions, budgeting and the endless task of doing groceries, cooking and putting food at the table, often two home cooked meals, constitutes what urban slang calls ‘adulting’ for my husband and I.
In 2014 after moving to the United Arab Emirates to join my husband, we immediately set about making our apartment feel like home by trying to set up our kitchen. Food has always been an important part in our families. Before we moved to UAE buying groceries and stocking the kitchen were tasks that we had only interned for at our respective parental homes. As a child there was a sense of wonder about the entire experience, going out of the house to buy goodies, fruits, vegetables, thinking maybe we’ll get a chocolate or a pack of our favourite biscuits or perhaps, just maybe even a pack of Uncle Chips!
In the 90s every Saturday evening as dusk descended, my parents would drive to an empty plot of land in Noida. It was a ritual that arose out of necessity. Only recently, since I learned about the effort that goes into running a household, have I begun to appreciate the importance of their weekly excursion. My parents would scramble for a parking space for their blue Maruti 800, a symbol of prosperity in middle class India. They would reach for their large jute bags and soon as the doors opened, a general white noise would permeate the scene, engulfing everything that came close to it.
And then, a few steps from the car, it would start.
One could hear the hollering that grew louder with each approaching step, “das rupaye, das rupaye!” (Ten rupees, ten rupees). An array of tungsten bulbs hanging on top of thelas (carts)- wired illegally from a nearby electricity pole- lit up geometrically stacked vegetables and fruits.
Navigating the maze that is Shani Bazar
Some vendors on the periphery of the actual Shani-bazar or Saturday Market always offered better deals, hoping to finish their stock and pack up for the day. Further ahead, beyond this first layer, sat hawkers with the most enticing and delicious smelling fruit found in the market. So whether you budgeted for fruits or not, whether you were entering or exiting the market you had to pass through this shield of aromatic goodness. Falling prey to this tactic was so common, that after a few visits I knew we wouldn’t return home without buying a few kilos of fruits.
The cacophony of vendor calls and the sight of fresh produce in different shapes, sizes, colours and textures would envelop all our senses. It always felt like we were stepping into a chaotic void. And yet, it all made sense to us!
The rest of the vendors created a winding maze by arranging their carts, always in the same order. One onion-potato vendor set up next to the guy who sold saag, who was always next to the guy who sold seasonal vegetables like tori, bhindi and ghiya (snake gourd, okra and bottle gourd) in the summers and kathal (jackfruit), gajar (carrots) and mattar (pea pods) in the winters. And then there were some selling exotic broccolis, red and yellow bell peppers and even zucchini. Exotic, because this is not what we grew up eating in the 90s.
To add to the chaos of this strangely organised pop-up bazaar were young boys who roamed the lanes with wide cane baskets that hung from their necks and overflowed with bundles of dhaniya and pudina (coriander and mint). Their hallmark quality was their sing-song call to purchase. They parroted the rates while waving the herb bundles in your face. The cacophony of vendor calls and the sight of fresh produce in different shapes, sizes, colours and textures would envelop all our senses. It always felt like we were stepping into a chaotic void. And yet, it all made sense to us!
Bazaars in India are incomplete without their bovine patrons. At our Shani Bazaar, resident cows would sneak up behind unsuspecting shoppers, eyeing their plastic bags full of veggies to find a quick snack, while they haggled with a vendor and monitored how the produce was weighed. Such events always led to the unfolding of a dramatic struggle between cow and shopper until a vendor came to chase the cow away.
A substantial corner of the maze sold plastic goods- soap-dishes, ropes and cheap clothing- sarees, bras and underwear. My parents rarely went that side unless there was an exit to the kutcha parking. One could also find cast iron tawas (flat pans), kadhai (wok), desi sickle like knives called darrati, belan (rolling pin) and chakla (flat circular board), all heavy duty stuff for great bargains. This was a saner part of the Shani bazar. To me these objects would seem rustic and unworldly. Only now as I browse online, portal after portal to find a cast iron skillet, do I wish for those bargain prices to be available here!
Despite the crowds and noise, cows chewing up your expensive and beautiful-looking gobhi (cauliflower), going to Shani Bazaar was always a sensory experience. I hardly ever missed the chance to tag along. We would often bump into ex-neighbours and others we’d met just an hour ago in the colony and even teachers from my school. Everyone came to Shani Bazaar!
Out of all the weekly bazaars: Som, Mangal, Budh, Veer, Shukkar and Ravi, Shani bazar attracted people from various corners of Noida because it fell on a holiday for most folks. Little has changed in the ways of weekly Bazars. Cows still lurk around for dinner but vendors now fiddle with their cellphones between customers. Zucchini, peppers and broccoli are much more visible, tungsten has been replaced by CFLs but the ground still remains muddy.
The Legend of the Dadi wale Baba
Another habit that hasn’t changed in our town that is a satellite of the national capital, New Delhi, is shopping at a local kirana (grocery) for dry rations like aata (flour), chawal (rice) and dals (lentils) along with toiletries and other groceries. In our house these almost always come from “Daadi wale baba ki dukaan”, an old grocer with a white Santa Claus beard. It was and still is one of the oldest kirana shops in Noida, a regular haunt for longtime residents. At Daadi wale Baba ki dukan, one would have to stand at the counter, eyes scanning a packed display on the back wall and call out each item as it was spotted or popped into mind. The cashier, as if on cue, would take this down as a dictated note, jot down prices from memory and before you knew it the bill was ready. Meanwhile his attendants would collect and bag items. It was tiresome and required a lot of patience because the store’s only cashier attended to all the customers, one at a time! I’ve watched old couples slowly narrating their lists as if they were reading out stories to their sleepy grandchildren.
Decades later, hypermarkets have mushroomed all over the city, yet, this place and its patrons seem to be stuck in a time loop, continuing their routine without a hiccup.
Little has changed in the ways of weekly Bazars. Cows still lurk around for dinner but vendors now fiddle with their cellphones between customers. Zucchini, peppers and broccoli are much more visible, tungsten has been replaced by CFLs but the ground still remains muddy.
Shopping for groceries and produce is still an exciting chore. But in Dubai, farmer’s markets- the closest equivalent to Indian Mandis like Shani Bazaar- are almost beyond reach for the average shopper. With organic produce that is priced much higher than the regular vegetables, these are fancy with locations in posher localities. Then there are wholesale markets that offer quantities better suited for small businesses rather than a household of two. Our only choice then is to head to a nearby supermarket that stocks a limited variety.
Thanks to the wonders of technology, transportation and refrigeration, every vegetable is available all year round. In the past three years, an increasing number of grocery stores have opened in our neighbourhood in Dubai catering to the needs of expats from India with things like dals (lentils), spices and particular brands of atta. They even offer things like fresh dosa and idli batter, something we couldn’t get as easily in Noida.
Home Deliveries Galore!
Another spin on the Indian experience is home delivery of groceries. At home, one could ask the neighbourhood grocer to deliver some sealed, dry rations when there was an emergency. But in Dubai, anything can be ordered! In the beginning I felt guilty when I saw smiling men with sweaty patches on their shirts coming to deliver things in the infamous 50 degree celsius (122 F) Dubai summers. I would always wait until evening for the temperatures to drop before stepping out to buy produce myself. When I discovered that their grocery delivery vans are air-conditioned, my guilt soon melted away.
On a recent visit to the neighbouring store for vegetables, I was picking tomatoes. An Indian lady probably in her 50s and dressed in a pristine white salwar kameez with pearls, was picking okras, scanning the lot with raised eyebrows on her angular, stern face. I continued to move towards the weighing counter when the quiet of the store was disrupted by a yelp.
The same lady shopper was squirming as she jerked her hand to get rid of the okra she had been holding. She called out to the attendant and scolded him for the quality of vegetables the store stocked. She announced for everyone’s benefit that a happy caterpillar had crawled up her hand from the box containing okra. Her barrage included a threat to complain to the manager and a battery of charges about the store’s unprofessionalism. She joined me at the weighing counter and started complaining to me about how ‘they’, the store employees, were not doing their job properly. I smiled awkwardly and nodded but couldn’t stop myself from telling her that this bhindi (okra) crop was probably organic and escaped being sprayed with pesticides which is great news!
She nodded toward me smiling and replied, “Still, they should at least have cleaned out the compartments in which they store vegetables”. I smiled some more and said goodbye!
While walking back home, I couldn’t help but wonder if this lady had ever been to a local Shani bazar!
Thank you for spending some time reading this personal essay.
We urge you to consider contributing to civic society organisations that are active on the ground. News cycles change quickly and while migrants might not be in the headlines, their hunger, lack of sanitation and access to healthcare are still real problems.
How can you help?
If at all, it makes you curious and concerned about what migration and hardship could actually mean in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, please consider some of the resources mentioned below.
PARI or People’s Archive of Rural India
SATHI or Support for Advocacy and Training to Health Initiatives (Maharashtra)
Trust for Reaching the Unreached or TRU (Gujarat)
Jan Swasthya Sahyog (Chhattisgarh)
Sambhawna Trust Clinic (Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh)
Association for India’s Development or AID
Stay informed; share reliable news
To follow stories from the ground we would recommend following some of these sources; freelance photographers and independent news websites:
– Kanika & Sakshi
Loving this series, thank you for transporting us back in time, when we shopped at the local sabzi mandi with our parents.
Thank you! Glad we could bring back some good memories 🙂