A TRIP ABROAD EXCITES US. WHETHER IT IS SINGAPORE OR any of the cities of Europe or America, firstly the sense of space on the streets overwhelms us. The near absence of vending, hawking and peddling as we understand it, makes us long to te import the same clean pavements and clutter free sidewalks, back is home. But to emulate those highly organised societies presents a dilemma, because we live in two distinct worlds. When it suits us we take the high moral ground and grumble aloud about the apathy and corruption of the municipal staff and the police. They too know what is going on but life just goes on as usual. When it suits us, we happily live off the streets.
Appalled at the exorbitant prices of Delhi’s ‘bon marche’ Khan Market or its country cousin the Bengali Market, many a merrisahib still selects the dusty pavements over those snooty shops. Some years ago (until I became conversant with the politics of teh bazari,) I too befriended the nearby pavement sellers. As I picked each tomato feeling it for its firmness, I watched hundreds of morning commuters descending from the railway station and marching to work. Pangs of hunger made them stop to tuck into hot parathas rolled out by my vegetables seller’s enterprising wife. Deftly she stuffed each paratha with unsold vegetables from the previous day, puffing and toasting them to a perfect finish. A long queue of commuters waited patiently to be served, literally hot from the footpath. The resourceful woman happily stole electricity from under the pavement, a hazard that perturbed no one, least of all her husband or her hungry clients.
Vending in Indian cities remains a far cry from what was envisaged when the Supreme Court of India gave its landmark judgement in the case of Shodhan Singh vs NDMC in 1989. So, on the one side we have complete bedlam spilling onto the streets. On the other, we have people who bemoan the fact that we can never become a world-class city as long as such chaos exists. Behind the scenes, academics and activists publish weighty tomes supporting the whole vending business, eulogising it as an age old ‘Indian tradition’. They lament how the meddlesome British unnecessarily implanted their ridiculous laws on this country, accompanied with their narrow-minded Anglo-Saxon mindsets. Many a scribe must have got a Ph.D. for this erudition and many a lecture invitation must have come forth for propounding such innovative out-cries.
While many of us continue to be incensed by the free-for all that exists on the footpaths, an equal number can never get enough of nature’s bounty from the streets. The vast array of kheera, mooli, shakarkandi, singara, and bhutta which are hawked with seasonal regularity are what an American tourist called ‘amazingly healthy snacks’. Our samosas, cholay-bhature and kachoris which may not make that grade have nevertheless been acclaimed by the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Kolkata to be highly nutritious, calorific and great value for money.
So the dilemma continues. Do we want to be like Singapore and fine the hawkers and cane them if the need arises? Or do we want to savour the summer jamun from under the trees or gobble gobhi-ke-pakore wrapped in the morning newspaper on a winter evening? Let’s face it — no one can match the infinite variety that our pavements offer and whether or not it makes economic, social or civic sense it makes gastronomic sense airight.