The air is dreadfully hot. A breeze does little. In fact, the only good thing about it is it dries some the sweat gathered on one’s back, underarms and face. Otherwise it only adds to the feeling that everything around is melting. I have been warned of the summer months in India, particularly April and May, from professors, friends and the occasional passer-by. It was described to me as almost a rite of passage in the experience of India. If so, this is a badge of honor I don’t care to wear. The temperature here in Gujarat consistently hovers around 105 degrees Fahrenheit. In May it reaches close to 120 degrees. With such heat waiting outside it forces one to think twice before traveling or exploring. Despite this (and perhaps against better judgment, given the weather) I have done a considerable amount of traveling and exploring since my last post. I am eager to talk about it!
In my last post I described some of the disappointments and setbacks I have faced while doing my thesis. I prefaced that post by saying that what I’ve experienced was tame in comparison to some of the horror stories I’ve heard. I want to start this post by clearing that up. I did not intend for any one to worry. In fact, everything is back on track. I’ve made significant progress writing and conceptualizing my thesis. It hasn’t been easy and I know things will change. The craft of writing occurs in editing. It will take some distance from my fieldwork to really appreciate the information I have, but I strongly believe I am gathering life stories. However, I’m not really sure how I’ve been able to manage it. I could say it was all by design, but truth is it’s been blind luck.
Those who have been reading my posts know that I am studying the Gujari Bazaar or Sunday Market in Ahmedabad. This is a fascinating space where informality, heritage and globalization all intersect. Due to the Sabarmati Riverfront Development (SRD) project, the market is being shifted to a new location. Only some vendors will be given formal and permanent stalls. The Ahmedabad Gujari Association (AGA) represents the market vendors and advocates their interests. The AGA’s proximity to the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), however has in some respects led to its formalization. This has created some tensions and mistrust among market vendors towards the AGA. In the meantime vendors still continue to sell every Sunday. And many look upon the new market location and infrastructure fondly. Many see the AMC providing the market vendors what the AGA never could.
My thesis is, first, trying to understand how the market operates. Second, trying to trace the market’s historical roots. Third (and most interestingly), I am trying to understand how people respond to and negotiate with the profound transformations occurring in and around this market as a result of major urban redevelopment projects. To conduct this study I have been meeting several people. I have met the project manager of the SRD project at HCP (the planning consultant). I have also been meeting with professors and journalist who have written about the SRD project in general or Gujari Bazaar in particular. But principally I have been talking with market vendors themselves.
My fieldwork is seriously challenging my earlier conceptions of this place and the kind of sentiments I expected to find. For instance, the market vendors I spoke to do not see this space as under threat. I had expected to find market vendors heroically resisting incorporation into the SRD project by defending their values, tradition and informality. I expected most vendors invoking the market’s supposed 600-year history. I did not find this. I had expected to find vendors that disliked the project for its displacements and disapproved of its aesthetic sense. I did not find this. I had expected to find vendors in appreciation of the Ahmedabad Gujari Association for their defense of the market. And I expected vendors wanting to remain in their current location with minimal disruption. While these expectations were sometimes confirmed they were always complicated by issues I hadn’t considered. While there does seem to be a general and widely held confusion of the projects intentions and what it means for the Gujari Bazaar, in many respects vendors are aware of its affects and are politically literate.
I would like to tell you about five of the vendors I have met since beginning my research at the Gujari Bazaar. First: Satyam. Satyam sells charpies, which are a common wooden bed fitted with rope. He is 23 years old, very thin, handsome and speaks with a high-pitched, raspy voice. He was the first person I ever spoke with at the market. He is a third generation vendor. He remembers, back when he was seven years old, helping his father sell charpies and simultaneously doing homework for his courses on Monday morning. Satyam’s grandfather migrated to Ahmedabad from Hyderabad in 1958. His grandfather was a tailor and was attracted (at that time) to the booming textile industry in Ahmedabad. Satyam’s grandfather migrated alone, leaving his wife and son (Satyam’s father) in Hyderabad until he could afford enough to bring them to Ahmedabad. So, in order to make extra money on the side Satyam’s grandfather, on the suggestion of a friend, began selling charpies every Sunday. Eventually, after ten years (other factors involved) he earned enough to bring his family to Ahmedabad in 1968. Satyam’s father came and began his schooling in Ahmedabad. He also began selling charpies every Sunday in the bed of the Sabarmti River with his father. As Satyam’s father grew up he sensed the decline in Ahmedabad’s textile industry, which completely collapsed in the 1980s. Because of this he did not take an interest in tailoring or anything related to textiles for that matter. Instead he became a mechanic. He opened a shop close to H.L. Commerce College simply called “The Auto Clinic”. As Satyam grew up he fell under his father’s assuming shadow. Satyam is also a mechanic six days during the week, but every Sunday you’ll find him at the back on the Gujari Bazaar selling charpies, usually fifty beds per day at 450-500 rupees per bed (about $450). The best part about this is Satyam does not manufacture the beds. He buys them from a town 40 kilometers from Ahmedabad. The person he buys from even delivers the bed to the Gujari Bazaar on Sunday morning around 5:30am. Satyam simply puts them together and makes considerable profit. Satyam’s cost per bed is around 200-250 rupees after delivery. Satyam used to live in a home under Ellis Bridge (the area where the market currently takes place) but because of the SRD project his home was demolished and he was shifted to an area 5-8 kilometers away. He seems to harbor little resentment about this. In fact, he speaks fondly of the SRD project and even admires the look of it. He even intimately associates the project with Gujarat’s Chief Minister (CM) Nendera Modi. Upon hearing this I asked Satyam what he thought of M.K. Gandhi. He responded, “Why talk about a dead man?” His response beautifully encapsulated a sentiment I have come across a lot lately. The Gujari Bazaar occurs around the 80 year old Maha Laxmi Mandir (Laxmi is the goddess of wealth and prosperity). Satyam’s family (mother, father, uncle and brother) live in a small home attached to the side of the Maha Laxmi Mandir, opposite the Ahmedabad Gujari Association office. They live here on rent to the Mandir Trust, paid presumably to the pandits (priests) of the mandir. They have lived in this home ever since Satyam’s grandfather moved to Ahmedabad in search of work in 1958.
Second: a group of three brothers, Sureshbhai (jokingly referred to as big brother), Kishorlal (medium brother) and Bharatbhai (small brother). They all sell books, magazines, textbooks, diaries, etc. If it’s made with paper ‘the brothers’ (as I call them) either have it or know where to find it. They second generation vendors and have been vending at the market together for over fifteen years. Their father used to sell textbooks to schools in Ahmedabad. Eventually he opened a shop called “Pravin Traders” located in the Khanpur area of Ahmedabad. His three sons inherited this business and a tradition that their father started of going every Sunday to the Gujari Bazaar laying down a mat, putting up an umbrella for shade and vending. On average ‘the brothers’ sell 200 books on a Sunday, which brings them around 3,000 rupees (about $60). Obviously, not as good as Satyam, but their cost per item is significantly less therefore their profit margin is still presumably high. They collect these books over time and have amassed quite a collection. Their store resembles something more like a warehouse. All of the books they sell at the market are second-hand. They purchase these books from bastiwallas (or recyclers who live in slums). I have not tracked down which bastiwallas or for how much they purchase the books. It should be said here that I am not principally interested in the economy of the Gujari Bazaar, rather, its social life. But invariably this social life includes economy, as the Gujari is first and foremost a space for doing business. Anyway, back to ‘the brothers’: I found the sharpest antagonisms towards the AGA among ‘the brothers’. I would not characterize it as tension and perhaps “antagonisms” is not the right word either. They seem to harbor a healthy skepticism towards the AGA, which has been amplified in the past few years because of the SRD project and the court case in which they obtained the new market space (more on this later). The AGA “requires” but does not force every vendor to register for a license. To obtain this license a vendor completes a form and pays 5-10 rupees. The license lasts for a lifetime but must be renewed every year for 5 rupees. Sureshbhai said, “We pay all this money, but where is it going? The AGA doesn’t provide us any infrastructure to sell our products. They simply assign a place for us.” I know 5 rupees per year does not sound like a lot, but with 1,200 registered vendors it adds up. 6,000-12,000 rupees per year is not enough money for the AGA to provide much if anything. Although I have yet to ask, I assume most of this money goes to paying its very small staff, which is barely enough to keep up. When I asked Sureshbhai what he wanted from this market he said, “I want the market to sell on Friday or Saturday also.” He expressed that this market is their lifeline and having more days to sell would be a major improvement. Him telling me this forced me to question the sense among vendors of maintaining tradition; of preserving heritage. The Gujari Bazaar only occurs on Sunday…isn’t this a part of its heritage? Well, as with most notions of “heritage” the Gujari’s is contested. When one speaks to the AGA or professors they are quick and enthusiastic to tell you the market is nearly 600 years old (apparently it will celebrate its 600 birthday in 2014). I am skeptical of these claims. By all accounts there was a bazaar tradition in Ahmedabad since its founding. But because Ahmedabad began as a Muslim city the weekly market occurred on Friday, not Sunday, in order to coincide with Friday worship. Also the weekly bazaar took place not in its current location but around Sidi Saiyad Masjid near Lal Darwaja. It is claimed that the market began on decree from Ahmed Shah (founder of the city) in 1414. This date is extremely significant because although the first masjid (mosque) was built in 1412 (Sidi Saiyad), where the market is claimed to have formed around, the Masjid of Ahmed Shah was completed in 1414. I’m just speculating here, but it very possible that the market began around the Masjid of Ahmed Shah, which is only a few steps from its current location. From 1414 to 1952 the main weekly market in Ahmedabad occurred on Friday. After 1952 (due to some government policy, which I have been thus far unable to track down), the market was shifted to Sunday. It is still unclear when the name Gujari came to define the market. And certainly the name “Sunday Market” only came after 1952. When I asked several vendors: how old is this market. They responded not by claiming a 600-year old history but by invoking a much more human scale. Sureshbhai said, at least 50 years old. When I asked Satyam’s father he said at least 75 years old. These dates coincide around the time the market was shifted from Friday to Sunday in 1952 and assigned a new location. Thus, the historical roots of the Gujari as understood by vendors and the AGA (and other “official” sources) are at odds. It may not be enough to say they are contested, but I suspect more political motivations in the invocation of a 600-year history that directly traces back to the founding of the city than one borne out by the facts of history. There are other conflicts between vendors and the AGA. I asked Bharatbhai, “What do you want for this market?” He responded in his typically calm philosophizing way, “Its not what I want from this market, but what this market wants from me. It is not up to me. It is up to the AGA and what they want from us.” I hesitate to make much out of this comment. This was the concluding remark in a long discussion about vendors’ relations to the AGA and I suspect tensions were tossed up from my questions. But this comment led me to think that prior to the influence of the SRD project, vendors may have felt or actually had a greater independence to conduct their own business and self-regulate their trade. In turn this may have led to a sense of place comprising a loose confederacy of independence evolving into a confederacy for informality. By this I mean, each vendor had or perceived autonomy in the marketplace and was able to assert themselves and their business as they saw fit, but this was generally in relation to others. A relationship built by social agreement. The AGA’s role was minor and only helped resist police harassment and extortion and settle large internal disputes. I suspect that after the formalization of the AGA due to its dealings with and proximity to the AMC, many of the vendors have felt a loss of this independence; that the AGA does not fully represent their interests anymore. There is a tendency among academics to intellectualize where none is needed. Perhaps I am already guilty of this, but this is a case where intellectualizing is both required and deeply inadequate. I am not sure how to think about this comment from Bharatbhai but it is a sense I have felt among passing comments by other vendors as well.
Third: Amit. Amit is a second-generation vendor at Gujari. He sells antiques that he finds in the rivers around Ahmedabad (Sabarmati and Narmada as well as the urban canals). He has anything from wristwatches and necklaces to eyeglasses and cameras to statues, big and small, of Ganesh, Hunuman, Radha-Krishna, Shiva…you name it! The collection he has amassed from the junk other people throw (or winds up) in the bottoms of rivers is extraordinary. He has been vending now for 15-20 years. He appears to be in his mid to late 20s. Amit has a wife and two children, all of which accompany him every Sunday. His stall is located directly under Ellis Bridge, opposite Manek Burj (the foundation stone of the ancient fort wall). I still know very little about Amit, but I look forward to learning more. What I do know however is that unlike Satyam, who renewed his father’s license, and ‘the brothers’, who each have individual licenses, Amit does not have a license to vend at Gujari. I was surprised to hear this. I asked Amit why he never applied for a license. He said, “Why should I be forced to get a license? I was born here. I grew up playing over there (gesturing to an area under Ellis Bridge) and my family used to vend right here.” Amit grew up in a hutment under Ellis Bridge. To him this is as much a personal space (a space integral to his life) as it is a space of business. From his point of view it is understandable not to apply for a license. He feels more connected to this space than the AGA, yet they are the stewards of this space; they are the ones making rules.
So this was just a short vignette about some of the vendors I have met at Gujari. Like I said before, I did not expect to find such skepticism among vendors towards the AGA. And in a way I feel sorry for the AGA. The president of the AGA, Nafis, is a good man. The AGA is made up of only him, his son, a secretary and five guards to keep watch and maintain the market. They are a bit disorganized and have certainly never faced the kind of political and legal pressure brought on by the SRD project.
So from here on I just want to share some thoughts: To me, to suggest that these vendors are “co-opted through their inclusion” (which one study suggested) holds little weight when explored on the ground. For the simple reason that “co-option” in whatever form is not permanent. To me, this idea and others like it appear conceptually valid from a distance, but to blanket a concept over a population residing or operating in one particular geographic area just because that area happens to coincide with the projects implementation is irresponsible. And once again, in such analytical prescriptions people are pushed to the margins. People like Satyam, Sureshbhai, Amit, and Bharatbhai (four of my good friends at the market), with their very attune and subtle socio-political perspectives are lost in such discourses. They are granted little to no agency, relegating them to the position of passive observes by an authoritarian state. But even worse than this they have no voice to articulate their subjection. Just because people like Satyam or Sureshbhai aren’t openly resisting does not mean they aren’t participating or, through negotiation, carving out a space for themselves in this new riverfront project. Revolutions and principled resistance are for the middle class or (at the very least) people privileged enough not to be so concerned about their day-to-day needs and circumstances. A project of this size is bound to accommodate individual and collective transformations from below as people move in and begin to claim and define the space in their image. To me, it is not the initial constitution of space that is troubling or that demands critique, but rather the future maintenance of the space. Will people like Sureshbhai and Satyam be able to realize their aspirations in the new marketplace or will their aspirations be determined for them? And, in such a context, how will future social negotiations play out?
This market appears to me to be an extraordinary space for fostering and maintaining social relationships. At the same time it should not be forgotten that this space is primarily a place of business; of transaction and exchange; of making a living. Sometimes the terms of sociality are found in these moments of conducting business. For instance, among vendors especially, the act of spending an entire day at the market among family members and friends offers an opportunity to joke, play, argue, gossip, engage in politics, and discuss business. Thus, while social maintenance is certainly at play the primary motive is business, but one does not seem to come at the exclusion of the other. There is a healthy balance of the social at work. It cannot be forgotten that Sunday is a day of leisure; a day when most people don’t work. I believe this attitude towards the use of a Sunday is carried over among market vendors. They come here to sell because its profitable, but they enjoy it because they are among family and friends.
I have begun to rethink this space as one of communal “harmony”. I fear this essentializes the day-to-day reality. Maybe communal “co-operation” or “mixture” might be more accurate. But even still I fear such labels homogenize the people here as a non-contentious mass. Even though this market has a profound mixture across religion, caste and class it is clear that individual disputes, arguments, and antagonisms exist and are sometimes acted upon. I witnessed a very heated dispute between a goat merchant (who was Muslim) and a “middle-man” (who was, I assume, Hindu). They were arguing, shoving and yelling about, what I found out later, was a dispute over a proper commission in which the man who was Hindu felt he deserved for managing and selling the goats. A commission per goat is to the tune of 500-1,000 rupees. I am still unsure of how many goats were involved in the dispute between these two men. This matters a great deal because 4-5 goats would drastically inflate the total commission, in which case a dispute is understandable although not acceptable. I am not theorizing from this dispute, but it simply caused me to rethink how I characterize this place, especially using shorthand expressions like “communal harmony.”
There is a striking ignorance about the Sunday Market among some middle-class or upper middle-class residents in Ahmedabad. Even some of the friends that I’ve made in Ahmedabad have never heard of the Sunday Market and certainly inscribe no significance to it. Even among the older, presumably well educated, English-speaking middle class there is little awareness or misinformation about the market itself. So much so that when I was at the British Library (mistakenly asking for any historical information on the Gujari Bazaar) a woman interjected that she knew the Gujari Bazaar but then couldn’t remember where it was or the name of Ellis Bridge. In light of such anecdotes it is tempting to confirm what I’ve heard, namely that the Gujari Bazaar is a “poor person’s market”. However, such caricatures fail, or at least breakdown, at a certain point. Certainly it is inadequate to describe what I’ve experienced at the Gujari Bazaar. I have met doctors and dentist, professors and tourists, businessman and students coming every Sunday. But in light of such isolations, at least as far as the Sunday Market is concerned, it is clear that the market caters to, or for whatever reason, attracts a very particular crowd of which clear lines cannot be distinguished. Market goers cross lines of class, religion, geographic distance and (most interestingly for me) age.