One has travelled fairly extensively all over the world during one’s hey days, and one of the things I noticed was the difference in the character and ambience of the roads/ streets in Europe, the USA as compared to our own Indian towns and cities. Those in the developed countries are very well engineered and regulated as compared to ours. But they are all so sanitised and sterile, uniform in their disciplined lifelessness, meant only for traffic to pass through as quickly as possible. They have no “character”. Our Indian roads and streets, on the other hand, support a distinct, albeit chaotic, eco-system of people- murderous motorists, suicidal jay-walkers, illegal hawkers, teeming masses of pedestrians, persistent beggars, quick fingered pickpockets, ruminating cows- a veritable sub culture of Indianness or of the particular region that town belongs to. Over time various roads have even specialised in the business they support: think College street in Calcutta (books), Meston road in Kanpur (leather items), Lakkar bazaar and Tibetan market in Shimla, Johari bazaar Jaipur, Chor bazaar Mumbai, Fashion street Pune, Arpora bazaar Goa, Police bazaar Shillong, Jew Town Kochi, Ima market Shillong (where all shopkeepers are women!). Quite often these streets define the towns themselves and they reflect the richness and historicity of our many cultures.
These street markets have grown organically with their towns and cities and quite often are better known than the towns they are located in, such is their iconic status. But they are now endangered in our blind rush to “modernise” our cities to make them fit for a five trillion dollar economy. They are being torn down and banished on grounds of security and “urban planning”, to make way for flyovers, broader roads, metros, more cars and the ubiquitous ” transit oriented development.” In the process decades of history, tradition and culture are being buried under tarmacadam and concrete piles and livelihoods of thousands being snatched away.
One such market was the Daryaganj Book Market, held on the pavements of Daryaganj (Delhi) every Sunday. According to the historian Sohail Hashmi, Daryaganj was established as a market by one of the queens of Shah Jehan and was known as Akbarbadi bazaar after her. The book market evolved naturally in the early sixties. It has been a landmark for sixty years and has served countless generations of students, scholars, researchers and book lovers with a deep desire for reading but shallow pockets. During my impecunious days in Delhi university I was there every second Sunday with my friends, buying all our text and reference books there at rock bottom prices, along with “The Sensuous Man” and the occasional Perry Mason and James Hadley Chase if a couple of rupees were left over. Future generations, unfortunately, have now been deprived of this experience by the Delhi High Court which in August this year ordered the market to be shut down, because it obstructed traffic. To me, this is a metaphor of our times: a car is more important than a book, ease of driving more important than love of reading.
Kabadi Bazaar, behind the Red Fort, was another such market which has also been consigned to history. It was exclusively dedicated to old, recycled clothes of which Delhi generates plenty, thanks to the purchase therapy of Amazon, Flipkart, Myntra and their likes. The market supports a whole community of “bartanwalis”, a traditional trade by which (mainly) women go house to house taking your old clothes in exchange for kitchen utensils. This informal business supports a whole community of 40000 people in the JJ Colony of West Delhi’s Raghubir Nagar. But they, like the booksellers of Daryaganj, have become helpless pawns in our rush for urban planning: in 2001 the market was shifted to a location near the Indraprastha power station, but was deemed to be an eye sore for the Commonwealth Games and was again moved to Subhash Park near the Red Fort. With each translocation the markets lose a big chunk of their business.
And then there are the flea markets all over a city, functioning from pavements, selling every thing you would find in a mega mart, but which function for only a few hours one fixed day in a week. There are two in my area of I.P. Extension in Delhi – one on Monday evenings called Som Bazaar and one on Saturdays called, naturally, Shani Bazaar. I find them utterly fascinating and do a lot of my shopping there. They exemplify all the management mantras taught in fancy B schools – Farm to Fork, Seller to Buyer, Direct to Home – for here there are no middlemen or rapacious commission agents or “arhtiyas” between the seller and the buyer. Everything is available at about 30% to 40% below regular store prices and the vegetables and fruits are fresh from the farms. I am a dedicated patron of these two bazaars and pick up a lot of my requirements here: track pants, jackets, running shoes, T shirts, underwear (no one will know the difference!), coffee mugs, kitchen appliances. Everything costs 40 to 50 percent less than your fancy malls, lasts just as long and Indian ingenuity ensures that just about every international brand is available, either copies, export surplus or stuff with minor defects. The pavement shops are a boon for not only the poorer sections but also for the middle classes like yours truly, always in danger of sliding into the BPL category. These markets are the downstream points of the informal manufacturing sector which Mr. Modi has almost decimated with Demonetisation, GST and his dream of a cashless economy. A hundred meter stretch of these flea markets generates more employment than any mega mart or Mall.