Sensing the layers: notes from a weekly market
I remember, as a teenager, reluctantly accompanying my mother to the weekly market in our neighbourhood in East Delhi every Thursday. In the evening, the usual shopping street would be taken over by street vendors selling clothes, artificial jewellery, utensils and miscellaneous household items and vegetables. The residents would tick items off their weekly shopping list. My mother would insist that we take our jute bags along to make it easier to bring home a week-worth of vegetables. To be sure, we weren’t the only ones to stock-up for a week, and I would spot one or two, if not more, people dragging trolley bags or suitcases across the market.
Almost every neighbourhood in Delhi has a similar weekly market that acts as a one-stop shopping destination for the residents of nearby colonies. In the course of our fieldwork for the Neighbourhood Museum Project in 2014-15 and subsequent years, we developed the approach of reading the city and its people through neighbourhoods and sites such as weekly markets. While the site of my childhood memory is from a different neighbourhood, the Shadipur Shani Bazaar (Shadipur Saturday Market) is used in this article as a similar example, to explore how local voices and perceptions, however small and commonplace, are important in understanding the complexities and multi-layered realities of a place.
More than the products sold there
The Shadipur Shani Bazaar is a large weekly informal market in XYZ block of Shadi-Khampur neighbourhood in West Delhi, India.1 Officially known as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Colony, the XYZ block (known as such unofficially) was a resettlement colony for the families who lost their homes during the demolitions that took place during the Emergency in 1975-77 in Old Delhi area. This weekly market is best known for its unstitched and stitched fabrics. Among its many customers are high-end boutique owners from West Delhi, who buy fabric and embellishments to accessorise their products. While some residents say that the market started around 1995-97, others remember its beginnings as a small cloth market in the late 1970s, to be discontinued and set-up again in the 90s. Today, this weekly market, like others, also has vendors selling food, spices, toys and knick-knacks. But the is much more than the products sold there. It is also a site where various interconnections between the city, neighbourhoods and its people are visible at the micro-level. These interconnections could be that of economic co-dependence between vendors and residents or of the power dynamics between genders in the market space.
Imitation of Stayfree sanitary pads sold at the Saturday Market
An interesting way of observing these interconnections and relationships between people and place is through narratives and local walkabouts. In our walkabout, we noticed an exchange of money and a payment-slip between vendors and a group of men. During an interview with the market pradhan [organiser], we were told that each vendor selling at the weekly market is required to make a token payment, ranging from Rs 10-50 depending on the size of the stall. The pradhan uses a portion of the money collected to pay off the police while the rest goes to the local Madrasa [Islamic educational institution]. The pradhan, responsible for space management and for handling disputes at the market, provides access to the colony parks and streets where the vendors man their shops between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Since the streets are narrow, he also ensures that residents move their cars out every Saturday morning to make space for the stalls.
Visual observations such as these put together with narratives from people’s memory and their experience of a place helped us understand the broader framework of how spaces within a city are managed and organised. Similarly, other sensorial observations or experiences, such as sounds, smells, touch and taste, also became interesting tools in exploring the concepts of space, community, gender, identity and class aspirations, among others. These sensorial experiences are, however, not always independent of each other. It is when layered together that they reveal a holistic picture of the place and its people. To gain a meaningful and locally embedded understanding of a neighbourhood it is important to go beyond the simplistic or literal meaning of the senses. For example, when we feel a texture or touch a person, the full experience of 'touch' is more than just a physical feeling.
Visuals of class aspirations
After a close look at a stall selling cosmetic products, one might very well spot a copy of some well-known brand. With brand imitation of everyday products such as sanitary napkins or make-up products, sold at low prices, this market primarily, but not exclusively, caters to customers from the middleclass who aspire to lead a certain lifestyle, as a marker of upward class mobility. In conversation, a local vendor stated that the daily soaps on TV also influence the demand for certain cosmetics. Female customers often ask for products sported by their favourite television actors. This makes the low-cost weekly street markets a significant destination for imitation products. These products create distribution channels and establish an economic presence in society and also create local job opportunities.
Smells like home?
Filling the streets of the neighbourhood with mouth-watering aromas are food stalls selling meat, fish and vegetarian chaat (savoury bites of fruits or potatoes). Street vendors and customers alike visit these stalls to relish their delicacies. While most vendors prefer to save money and bring along their own food and water, some opt for the tiffins [lunchbox] of dal chawal (lentil and rice dish) or rajma chawal (kidney bean and rice dish) prepared at local stalls. The latter are generally migrants in search of a livelihood in the big city, without access to home-cooked meals. While studying a marketplace, such everyday negotiations of the workers are often overlooked. Details such as these give us a better understanding of who the service providers/receivers are in an informal market and from where they come.
Vendor measuring spices in paper bags made of old newspaper
When asked whether there had been any visible changes in the taste preferences of the customers, a resident of Shadipur told us, “You now get sambar (a type of South Indian curry) packets and all kinds of South Indian vegetables…, we get a packet of mixed cut vegetables for sambar at Rs 30...”. As the neighbourhood saw an increased influx of people from South India, especially Kerala, the market introduced new products and staples to cater to this specific demographic. Interpersonal relationships, in which the vendors know their customers, are important aspects on which such informal markets thrive. To know what will sell, one needs to know to whom one is selling. These patterns of consumption not only hint towards a changing demographic in the neighbourhood, but also illustrate the various economic flows in the market that connect people and food.
Reading a place becomes more meaningful when we also take note of what is absent. What is it that is missing that one might find in other similar places? Easiest to notice are the visual absences. The Shadipur Saturday market barely has any female vendors, even though such markets are essential for the women who manage the household. The few female vendors shared that the lack of local contacts and inadequate facilities such as toilets were reasons that discouraged participation. Unlike male vendors, the female vendors didn’t have an extensive network of already established vendors that made it easier to find a place in the market. While the male vendors can access the public toilets located just outside the colony, the women either have to hold it till they return home or rely on a resident to be kind enough to let them use their toilet. Taking note of such absences and using them as cues for exploration helps to unravel issues of infrastructure and space management and the ways in which they add to the gendering of spaces.
My memory of being dragged to the weekly market is now grounded in a larger perspective. The above exploration attempts to break away from stereotypes of city neighbourhoods by researching local histories, stories and places relevant to life within a community. Studying the flow of people, livelihoods, goods and commerce in Shadi-Khampur brings forth the multi-layered reality of the everyday, which usually tends to be ignored in the imaginings of the city space. The neighbourhood thus becomes a site of exploring micro-histories of living in a city and how places evolve to accommodate the changing needs and lifestyle of its residents. Using such sensorial experiences (not limited to those mentioned above) as tools of observation and exploration can help draw our attention to the complexities and nuances of everyday realities that are sometimes missed in research on neighbourhoods guided by abstract concepts alone.
Mesha Murali, Senior Research Assistant at the Centre for Community Knowledge, Ambedkar University Delhi firstname.lastname@example.org