January 24, 2010

Morning Rounds in Delhi Neighbourhoods

In the winter, when it gets too cold to step out of the house, women in Delhi neighbourhoods are relieved to hear the vegetable vendor outside their homes calling attention to his cartload of vegetables as he cycles past squat buildings with Sintex and Raj water tanks dotting the walls on the outside. Sintex tanks have steadily given way to Raj, the latter apparently cheaper than the former.

Dogs curled up in corners by staircases twitch their ears on hearing the vegetable hawker list in a sharp, loud voice the vegetables heaped in his cart. Behind curtained windows ears anticipating the morning call tune in to the list of vegetables as it floats up in the morning chill. Occasionally a window will be flung open, and a head appears asking the hawker below for a particular vegetable. If it is too cold the voice will issue forth from behind the closed window. The hawker replies to the voice from the window.

The quiet of the morning ensures the exchange is heard by all.

While the Delhi cold will immobilize most dogs into immovable lumps of unknown lineage, the enterprising among them will stir from their place and lift their heads in anticipation of a door opening so they can wander nonchalantly to the cart and remind the lady of the house come to buy vegetables of their presence. It can result in a biscuit or two, sometimes more.

It is not uncommon for Delhi neighbourhoods to have resident strays who’ve made them their homes after warming their way into happy consciousness of children before establishing nodding familiarity with adults, in turn ensuring food from kindly souls. In the winters the strays can count on old mattresses sent their way where they’ll curl up and lie inert until awakened by unfamiliar feet before letting out a mandatory bark or two. If it is too cold they’ll gladly pass up the opportunity to bare their teeth.

The call of the vegetable vendor stirs the morning as families prepare for the day ahead, beginning with breakfast. In the winter the familiar call of the hawker cycling into the neighbourhood dawns even before the Sun does.

Folks who’ve lived and survived Delhi winters will point out that the fog last December made a late appearance, reducing visibility severely in the first week of the New Year instead of Christmas time as is its wont.

Hearing the vegetable vendor call out on a bitingly cold winter morning, it is easy to feel for him as he pedals along from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, house to house, his voice ringing against walls graying from lack of paint.

After waiting by the side of the road for early morning walkers and joggers eager to make a quick purchase before heading home, the hawker will then make rounds of neighbourhoods in time for women looking for fresh vegetables to get through the day. A hawker who knows his way about the neighbourhood will in turn remember customer preferences, calling out the preferences accordingly as he nears their homes.

It’s not uncommon for Delhi neighbourhoods to see more than one vegetable hawker come calling. In time housewives learn to identify hawkers by voice, favouring one over the other and answering the call accordingly.

Sometimes the choice of hawker has more to do with the time of day - children waiting for their tiffins to be packed before being sent their way, husband at the table before leaving for his job.

While hawkers will circle through the neighbourhood they’ll arrange among themselves to avoid coming calling on a neighbourhood at the same time, each typically cycling through for a fixed duration before leaving the place to the next hawker. The first call will typically sound around half-past seven, continuing through the morning.

When their presence does overlap as happens occasionally the hawkers will help each other with vegetables should either of them run out of any.

A quick glance out the window as women step over to the cart to buy vegetables and you can fairly predict the lunch menu at the Guptas, the Kapoors, and the Sharmas.

The diet common to a Delhi winter has much to do with the winter crop – Gobi (cauliflower), Matar (green peas), Gaajar (red carrots), and Aloo (potatoes). Among Aloo, the pahari variety is favoured for its taste.

Lunches packed for the office will usually vary between preparations of Aloo-Gobi, Matar-Paneer, Aloo-Matar, and Sarson-ka-Saag, accompanied with Chapatis or Makkai-ki-Roti. Methi (fenugreek leaves) is used in preparing Methi-Aloo and Methi-Parathas. Parathas topped with butter will do just fine with Methi-Aloo or Paalak-Paneer.

For the diabetic, Gaajar-Matar will substitute Aloo-Matar.

Gathering at the vegetable cart each morning the women catch up with their neighbours, exchanging news, complaining about water shortage or inefficiency of the maid common to their households, and sharing a laugh or two before going their separate ways, carrying vegetables home.

Shortly after, the hawker prepares to cycle away, calling out as he pedals past more homes, stopping for familiar voices answering from behind closed doors.

Sure enough, more doors open.


Kathy G said...

Thanks for the fascinating glance into a culture very different than mine.

Riot Kitty said...

That is a really neat kind of interaction. We have a farmer's market here during the summer - not quite as personal, but more personal than going to a grocery store.

And I love how people take care of the dogs :)

Anu said...

Great post!!! It is really admirable the way u write about absolutely normal stuff in such a wonderful way!!! I really enjoy reading ur blogs....

u reminded me of my childhood at delhi,,, getting up early in the morning, or rather being forcibly woken up and marched to the bus stop where would huddle together till the bus came!! i had almost forgotten about it !!

marja-leena said...

An enjoyable read! Brings back faint memories of vegetable farmers with their trucks making similar rounds through neigbourhoods in Winnipeg (Canada) when I was a child, but not in the depth of the kind of winters there! I think the practise stopped not long after and we had to use the shops, but milk delivery continued for years, even here in Vancouver.

Antarman said...

very authentic:)..loved the picture of vegetable hawker.so colorful vegetables.

Amber Star said...

The picture taken from above the vegetable hawker is very good. It shows how tidy the vegetable seller is.

I was starting to wonder if your weather is similar to ours here in Texas. I looked up Delhi and it looked to be similar...64F right now, but when I looked up Mumbai it was much warmer there. What the heck is up with all the smoke? I remember looking on Wunderground last year and it said it was smokey then. Not good for lungs and such, but if that is the only fuel you have...I guess that is the way it goes or smokes.

Anjuli said...

delightful post which brought back some fond memories of when I was living in Delhi. It is good to know some things have not changed at all.

bobbie said...

I enjoyed this post very much, and the pictures accompanying it. We do not have hawkers like this any more, but I do remember wagons or trucks coming through the neighborhood when I was a child, calling out. Sometimes it was produce, sometimes butter and eggs.

Anil P said...

Kathy G: Thank you.

Riot Kitty: There're variations on the farmers' markets here as well except that small retailers will source vegetables from wholesalers who truck in vegetables from the countryside.

The retailers then transport it to their retail shops, often run from temporary set-ups, or sold from baskets by the roadside.

Door-to-door selling of vegetables is common in Delhi, but folks who've lived in Delhi from long will tell you that salesmen / vendors are smaller in number now.

Anu: Thank you. It's a pleasure to learn yoou enjoy reading these posts.

In the winters of Delhi, waking up for school must've been intimidating.

Marja-leena: Thank you.

Warm memories those. Farmers riding their trucks into towns must've fostered community feelings.

In Bombay, many housing complexes allow a vendor to truck in vegetable produce on one of the weekdays, usually fixed, sometimes two days.

The vegetables are then sold from the back of a tempo carrier or a truck parked out front in the housing society / complex.

These vendors are not farmers, instead sourcing their vegetable stock from wholesale vegetable markets.

Farmers in India, atleast most of them, are not rich enough to be able to afford trucks of their own, so they will hire trucks to truck in their vegetable supplies to wholesale markets, or will sell their produce to middlemen in village markets who will then truck in vegetables to town and city vegetable markets.

Antarman: Thank you.

Amber Star: Temperatures in Delhi winters will drop to 5-6 degree centigrade. And it gets cold. Mumbai is surely warmer.

In all probability you must have seen the fog cover over Delhi. This year the fog started late, and is continuing even as I write this. Scores of trains, and flights have been cancelled in North India over the last fortnight as a result of the fog.

Anjuli: Thank you. And hope they do not.

Bobbie: Thank you. Their presence must have marked time as well as marking memories. I do hope they, and the practice returns someday.

Paz said...

Looks like those vegetable hawkers are very important. ;-)

I love that dog photo. ;-)


Coffee Messiah said...

Those vegetables look better than anything we can find out here!

Unlike the west coast, despite being in farm country here, they've given up, for the most part "real" farming and crossed over to government enticed farming: soy and corn. The latter, for the seemingly death cry of ethanol, that will not be as large a factor in the usa as we've been told. Although, if you look at how much a plant needs from locals, it was obvious plenty more has to be shipped in from elsewhere, which negates the whole reason for it in the first place.

Woe is us!

Thanks for another interesting post! Cheers!

radha said...

Saw this when I was in Delhi in December. There are people ( as it is generally in Mumbai) where they drop a bag from the top floors ( to avoid the walk) and pick up their vegetables and again send the money down in the same bag.

kenju said...

You paint such lovely word pictures. I wish we had vegetable vendors on carts here in my area!

Mama Zen said...

What a marvelous post!

Grannymar said...

Anil, your posts bring my right to the early morning streets of Delhi. I love the colour of the vegetable cart.

Cate said...

I like the way you led me on a journey almost as though I were the hawker. Seeing the strays, the people the other hawkers, all this movement and life on the streets, nothing out of the ordinary. But a big part of Delhi.

Anil P said...

Paz: Yes, they are. It saves some families a trip to the vegetable market.

Coffee Messiah: The vegetables are fresh, and being winter they retain their freshness longer than in the Delhi summers.

With the USA emerging as the largest producer of Ethanol as an Oxygenate to gasoline, replacing Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE), the growth of corn farming for producing Ethanol would inevitably mirror the rise in vehicles on the roads and their demand for gasoline.

Agreed. It'll put the available acreage of American arable land for growing vegetables under pressure, possibly increasing prices of vegetables, affecting distribution and increasing costs of transportation if arable land used for growing vegetables is not fairly distributed geographically.

It's ironic that the desire for clean air led to the use of Oxygenation agents, and hence the Ethanol, and in turn the growth of corn farming to meet the demand for Ethanol!

I'm not sure what percentage of Gasoline production in the USA uses a higher proportion of Ethanol as a partial fuel instead of using it merely as an Oxygenating agent to reduce Carbon Monoxide.

Like you implied, subsidies to farmers will ensure corn farming for Ethanol.

The only remedy could be if more Americans and nations elsewhere used public transport, cut down on the use of Cars or restricted the use of cars to essential trips, or if the American government encouraged the use of public transport by making available robust and viable public transport system.

Else increasing pressure on availability of vegetables might spur policy changes - questions that societies around the world will increasingly ask over time.

In India, small and subsistence farmers with access to sufficient irrigation will plant vegetables in their small farms, alternating the crop to suit seasons. The larger farms might mix their crop, growing vegetables along with major crops, or might grow vegetables between two major crop cycles.

I have faith in the concept of Kitchen gardening. I'm not sure though how cost efficient that might be.

Or maybe the concept of Urban Gardening as Detroit wonders if farming can revive a post-industrial scenario.

Radha: Some families do drop a bag down by rope to collect vegetables. Recently I saw this happen in Varanasi as well. A lady dropped a bag down in front of a shop below her house to collect provisions.

Kenju: Thank you. Their presence lends a certain character to early mornings.

Mama Zen: Thank you.

Grannymar: Thank you. Yes, the presence of vegetables in the cart itself lends such colour to the mornings.

Cate: Thank you. It is so much a part of a city that still manages to retain some moorings to its past.

Abhilash Pillai said...

really a nice post. It was interesting to read and you presented it in a very great way.

Fishbowl said...

Oh, what a lovely post:)

Anil P said...

Abhilash Pillai: Thank you.

Fishbowl: Thank you :-)

Nancy said...

What a beautiful post. It captured the gentleness and freshness of mornings, which are particularly special while traveling. Love your writing.

Lynn said...

I love the thought of the vegetable cart coming by.

Anil P said...

Nancy: Thank you. Yes, early mornings are special moments when travelling.

Lynn: There's a whole lot of activity associated with the coming of the vegetable cart in a neighbourhood.

Sarah Laurence said...

I love that vegetable cart image, but it is sad that there are strays. You give such a good sense of the neighborhood. I can hear it all.

Anil P said...

Sarah Laurence: The colourful vegetables in the cart make for a fresh image. Nice to know you liked the neighbourhod story.

Twilight Fairy said...

u were in delhi and u never told me. u deserve a punishment. humph.

Anil P said...

TFairy: :-) :-)

neha said...

I got a little homesick after reading this post! Lovely, as always.

Anil P said...

Neha: No place like home, nor will there ever be. Home sweet home.

ummon said...

Vivid description indeed. Brought back my Madras memories. The vegetable vendor, on my last trip back home, complained that my folks were not eating healthy 'cos they were not buying enough vegetables :)
Really miss every service coming to our doorsteps!