Vanishing Vendors…..

Way back in the 70s, when I was a very small boy, Vellore Fort Maidan (Vellore town is some 120 kms from Chennai in Tamil Nadu) used to have some very unusual vendors :- One selling Root slice of a very special root ( they used to call it BHUMI CHAKRA KIZHANGU ) – the 2 or 3 feet high root column will be placed in a wet sack, and the vendor used to thinly slice the root and give it for 25 paise. The root was supposed to have medicinal qualities which can not only heal stomach disorders, but also give other benefits such as improving immunity against diseases, etc. Another occasional vendor was the one selling a milk sweet made from the first milk given out by the cow after the calf is born – this milk, called SEEMA PAL, is supposed to be very nutritious. There was also the fried bees for the Non veg eaters – the fort maidan had an unusual ground bee population – just before it rained, a large number of ground bees (called YEESAL in Tamil) used to come out of the ground at dusk (these bee stings don’t hurt at all – in fact, many will vouchsafe that they don’t sting!) in thousands searching for light – the bee vendor will simply attract them using a gas lamp and catch them in the net, fry and sell them – I have personally never eaten them, but this was supposed to be a delicacy in those days.

Then there was the Kolamav (white powder used for rangoli) seller, the occasional Date seller who will give dates in exchange for iron waste that we dispose. Then there was this Bhoom Bhoom Mattu Kaaran, called Gudu Guduppaandi, who will come with his bull, bedecked with all kinds of finery, and try to predict the future and earn some money. There were other regulars : the raw ground nut seller, the fruit and vegetable vendor, the regular greens lady, etc. In Madurai, one could find idli vendors even in past midnight, vending idlis and dosas and omelettes along with hot, spicy chutney. Like this, in every city, village, and town, vendors who once were doing brisk businesses, have vanished….

The very fact that you could sell something odd like the root slice I was talking about, or like just small items that one would normally not expect in a shopping mall, speaks of the business prospects of any place – be it a dish to be eaten, or an ornamental piece to be kept on the table.

But today the scene is different, with many of the street vendors avoiding to come to residential areas. The greens vendors have considerably reduced, because they discovered that more and more people are buying the same greens to the shopping malls. The same greens that the greens lady would give for 3 rupees, and for which we will haggle baggle for 50 paise less, we will very dignifiedly give Rs.10 in a shopping mall – the only add on will be a plastic cover, to increase pollution.

Handicrafts, which comprised a huge portion of the Indian economy in 1947, have somehow been pushed to the background. Nobody wants handmade items anymore. All the children want are foreign toys – Who wants the mud doll, or who wants the wooden doll? So, these dolls have become very costly, because of so many factors, including limited supply. The makers of these toys are always scared that it won’t sell. Which is why if you want handicrafts, you have to go to a showroom. Sad to see the average Indian Middle class family not wanting mud toys anymore than they would like to see the back of wooden toys – It is gadgets, gadgets, gadgets all the way. Perhaps this is what is called Science dominating Art….

Whatever happened to the fairs that were so common sometime back? We used to have evening bazaars where one could get everything, from a pin to a pistol – Most of these small vendors used to trick or cheat also – but somehow, it always added colour to life, when one sees these vendors.

But over the last few years of this decade, these kinds of vendors have simply vanished, especially in cities. Instead, huge shopping malls have cropped up everywhere. All over India, commercial and residential complexes are coming up at lands which once produced crops. There is a huge shift in the spending pattern of the Great Indian Middle class families. No longer are they content with indigenously produced goods. Right from Cornflakes to Colourful shirts, they are looking for foreign brands. Streets that never had cars are now fully lined up with cars on either side. Many families have two cars. India, all of sudden, has become a paradise for foreign companies that wants to sell its products and services. In short, India, has suddenly become a seller’s dream.

If one were to ask, where have all the vendors gone? The answers can be found in a series of answers. Nobody trusts a street vendor anymore, especially in cities where terrorist threat perceptions are more. Street Vendors have themselves diversified into other businesses or taken up jobs. Families of such vendors do not want to continue the traditional business. Instead, many branch out into other jobs. The vendors themselves are seeking other vocational avenues. And suddenly, the ordinary street vendor has become extinct in many cities and places. Some have been bitten by the development bug (Which is good if that has happened) so that their families are now trained in computers or IT field or some other field other than his/her art of vending – that is also nice. Otherwise, if he/she has pushed their families out of this business because they themselves could not survive, then it is bad…..

I had to take it upon myself to write about these vanishing vendors because sometime back, I spoke to a journalist friend from a reputed financial paper and asked her to write about these vanishing vendors. She told me that her editors would never approve of it if she did ever write in about vendors. Vendors? She echoed. Her voice still echoes inside my head. In my opinion, Ordinary vendors only make up a bright and vibrant economy – be it beedis or bindis that they sell.