Travel Theme : “Street Markets” – The face behind the cart

I live in a part of the world where street markets are a norm rather than the exception. Here, in India, we don’t necessarily look at them with wonder. To our accustomed eyes Street markets are not exotic, quaint, or “oh so lovely”!They are just there! We don’t give them any more thought than an American may give to say a lane lined with trees, or a cemented motorway. Thus when this challenge came up, it got me thinking about street markets. How they affect my life? How they function? Why these  mundane and ordinary  features so typical of a poor country like mine, continue to exist and flourish despite government regulations against them. What are the economics behind a street market and who are the people behind these markets. The ones who run the show. The “shopkeepers “.

A street shop image courtesy indianbazaars.blogspot.com

As many of you know I live in a small town.  For years after I got married and shifted into this small city, I felt like a complete stranger.Asked for a million directions before I ventured out of the house and continued to drive down to my parents city to do all my shopping! And then slowly with time and responsibility this  “strange city”  became “mine”. The transition came about so stealthily that I hardly noticed when it happened. I developed “links”. Became familiar with lanes. I think one starts to belong to a place,  when one walks down ones “block” or “colony” (as we call it here in India), and finds oneself nodding to at least 3 or 4 people on the street. And at least in India, the litmus test of belonging is when you acquire  your own “sabji wali”.

‘Sabji wali‘ (loosely translates as ‘the  vegetable woman’) The person who greets you as soon as your car stops near her cart, smiles and says “bhindi achchi aayi hai bhabhiji – baby ke liye aadha kilo dey doo” which again, loosely translated means “ fresh ladyfingers today “sis in law/ madam” should I pack half a kg for the little one” .  She knows what my family eats, and more importantly, what they don’t eat! She knows how I like my apples! “Not red and perfect but the stained natural looking ones please”. She has seen me struggling as a new homemaker,  not sure which vegetables to pick. Rubbishing my clumsily picked  ‘lauki‘ (bottle gourd)  she picks two pieces that look almost like the ones I had picked and  says “Those were too ripe, Make these. They will come out well”. Patiently with a bemused smile at my inexperience, she has taught me how to pick ripe tomatoes, avoid over ripe gourds, choose the best cabbage! She introduced me to new vegetables, varieties of local produce I had never seen. Generously sharing with me her recipes, giving me tips on how to cook them.    “Just add a little salt and let it simmer for ten minutes – don’t add any water “. She doesn’t speak English, has hardly been to school, I would never see her in a party or visit her at her home! But if friendship is about learning and guiding and counting on each other. We are friends! Or at-least she is my friend and I hope some day I can return the favor.

For the street market theme I wish to introduce you  to my street market friend!! Bharti the proud owner of a small vegetable street shop in a locality in my city, Ajmer

Meet Mrs Bharti Bagdi

Bharti – My sabji wali

Bharti is 29 (I got to know this only today! Always assumed she was older than me. she sure knows much more than me.)

She is married to Mr Shambhu since 2002 and has two sons. The older one is 8 years and studying in class 3 and the younger is 6 yrs in class 2.

Bharti, says they started this shop two years after her marriage. Her husband used to work in his uncle’s juice shop for many years. With tears in her eyes,  She remembers the tough period when the uncle cheated them and the family was stranded literally on the roads. Her husband found odd jobs at a brick making factory and other places, to make ends meet. Then after a lot of thought, he purchased a sugarcane crushing machine and set up a small juice stall in the spot, where Bharti’s shop today stands. He chose this place because it was a relatively new locality and there were no juice shops.

(street markets cater to un-catered areas)

Realizing that there was scope for a vegetable shop, Bharti’s husband took a loan and expanded the business. As the business expanded they had to hire help. Two young boys were hired to help in running the vegetable shop.

(Street shops meet unmet needs of their localities and provide employment )

The boys they had kept to help the husband look after the shop started to steal money and had to be removed. Bharti says, “I had sold my jewellery to help get the boy married and he cheated us, we were crushed, my husband was crushed. The interest on the loan we had taken had to be paid and it started pinching us badly. We did not want to leave the cart, because working for someone though “safe’ is not like working for one self! Then I decided to do something. I decided to join  the shop.

(Street shop vendors are usually the epitome of entrepreneurship. With modest means, and a spirit of courage,they wish to create their “own” business )

I lived in a large joint family. I have 6 brother in-laws and there were many  responsibilities that I was expected to fulfill. My older one was three at the time and the younger was a baby.  I used to get up very early in the morning, cook for the family, wash clothes, get my children ready, drop them to my parents home and then come to the shop by 12 noon. I have three younger sisters, they pitched in  to take care of my children. It was difficult in the beginning, I had never stepped out to work. My In laws were not happy, but when we saw the difference it was making to our profits I decided to stick with it.

(This is when Bharti left the confines of her home and stepped out for the first time. In the Indian context this was a bold step and shows Bharti’s courage)

We live a tough life. our days are long, starting at 5:30 in the morning (when my husband leaves for the wholesale market to buy  fresh produce) till 12:30 in the night.    My parents have been a great help. My mother comes to the cart at 4 p:m to relieve me so I can go home and eat my lunch and check on my children. My father works as a peon and joins her here at the cart after 5 p:m. Together my parents look after my shop till my husband and I reach back by 6 p:m. They return at 11 p:M  to help us wind up the shop. “ It takes the all of us more than an hour each day to close shop. All the vegetables and fruits need to be packed and carefully transported back home.  If my parents did not pitch in we would not be able to get home before 1 in the morning.

(Not only Street shop vendors themselves, often their entire families also pitch in to make these modest shop work. In that sense they are almost like little family run businesses)

(A street shop poses its own unique challenges. A street shop vendor is his own supply chain, sales man, cashier, transporter etc. etc.  The lack of a solid safe structure means that everything has to be taken out each night to be physically stored in another location and rearranged each morning!)

shambhuji offloading the day’s purchase

I like working here, even if the hours are killing and I get almost no free time. The shop means freedom. I get to spend the day by my husband’s side. I get to learn  a lot. It also means money. It is our hope for the future. I have three younger sisters and no brothers. It is also my responsibility to settle my three sisters and my two sons. My husband and me are making sure they all study well. We have recently fixed the wedding of one of my sisters.The boy is a computer engineer.We want to do the best for her. The pride is evident in Bhart’is voice.

(A modest street shop is the ray of hope for many people. A way of stepping out of the circle of poverty for its proud owners)

Now my in-laws have also accepted my work. My husband’s older brother had a mental problem and had been sitting at home for years. He was unable to find any work. Now we have got him also into the ‘business’. He has started coming here everyday and my in-laws are happy! We also find the help useful.

(Street shops can be a good alternative for providing employment to people who do not fit into traditional  ‘workplaces’)

With tears in her eyes she says “we have seen very tough times. This shop, though not much is our hope for the future. We don’t wish our children to see the hardships that we have. Recently the government has taken back the shops that they had leased to us. Now , more than ever we are victims of harassment from the local authorities. They take away our baskets, crates even fruits. Recently we had to pay Rs 2, 500 to get our stuff back. There is so much corruption in every office of the government that there is no other go but to pay bribes. But we are not complaining.

(Often uncarefully thought out government rules and regulations are the biggest hurdles in people’s progress: street shops need to be recognized for both – their usefulness to the community and the employment they create. Improperly placed street shops do create chaos and traffic hassles. But sympathetic and better planning can open many options that are viable and even healthy for the whole community)

We try to do what we can for the society. We serve chilled water to everyone free of charge. No matter how busy we are we drop everything and refill the water tanks. Its not much, but right now its all that we can do. We wish to do something big. My husband is a great man. He is very intelligent. I know he can do anything. Its just that we don’t have the means to do anything bigger. Some day, with god’s help we will be able to do much more!

Bharti with her husband Shambhuji


In this day and age when millions are being spent by the government on teaching entrepreneurship as a subject in schools and colleges to encourage self employment. People like Bharti and Shambhu are role models. One can not help admire their courage and grit. Fighting against odds they have been able to create not only livelihood for themselves but hope for a better future for both their families besides being a  friend to me and many like me. Kudos Bharti! and shambhu ji!

for more posts on this theme please visit http://wheresmybackpack.com/2012/05/25/street-markets/

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9 thoughts on “Travel Theme : “Street Markets” – The face behind the cart

  1. Hey this is a neat post. Love posts which focus on the ones that don’t get the attention but are nevertheless very important in our lives. Kudos to you for writing on this theme!

  2. Another really wonderful post, so great to meet your sabji wali and get an insight into her life. Tell Bharti I say hello next time you visit her stall! xxx Ailsa

  3. Pingback: Sunday Street Market | this man's journey

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