Archivist Farah Yameen has spent countless hours in Delhi’s mandis. Here, she examines some of the relationships she built with care, and her own shifting identities in the field.
“Koyla liye jao!” (Why don’t you carry the coals with you?) Shahnawaz jokes, in a tone heard only in Old Delhi, to the man standing over his kebab grill drying his kurta, drenched in an unseasonable Delhi shower. Nawaz has been rotating the metal skewers expertly over the coal fire, and moving some of the coal towards the edge to allow the man to dry off.
He squats on the floor, smiling companionably at this man while handing out kebabs, dropping hot skewers in cold water and folding fresh mince on cooled skewers. He moves with the finesse of someone who has refined the art of wrapping the tender mince on metal, and grilling it to the perfect char over years of practice. He is called a karigar (craftsperson) for a reason.
The kebabchi is an excellent place to catch gossip. There is an order to the evening piety in the neighbourhood—namaz followed by kebabs. I get a running commentary on all the men that pass through the shop from Shahnawaz and Shoaib, who is at the shop for the conversation.
There is the paan-loving gentleman who ‘never lets his mouth empty’, the resident who stores copious amounts of wire in the shop to sell as scrap, the shopkeeper with an unmarried daughter who desires arduously to go for a pilgrimage to Mecca, and the man who wishes to be buried at the central Delhi cemetery that is blessed by the saint Baqi Billah so all his sins are forgiven in the hereafter. Being buried in the cemetery costs upwards of a lakh. Forgiveness is an expensive affair.
I am conscious of the men’s awareness of me observing them. My presence at the shop stints the conversation. I am an odd figure sitting squashed against the rear wall of the shop. There is initial unease at my persistent sitting. But I am not unwelcome. I am plied with kebab and rumali roti from the vendor across the shop, and the inevitable chai. The trouble with fieldwork is that I do not (or more precisely, cannot on account of a food intolerance I developed recently) have chai. The unwritten rule of fieldwork is to accept that first chai. It binds you by the mores of the host-guest relationship. Conversations do not begin until after. I accept.
Am I a food blogger? No. I have no YouTube following to show for my work. How will my presence benefit them then? The question has no comfortable answer. I am there for my own ends; ends I can pursue because of who I am. At a paratha stall far away from the kebabchi in Old Delhi, Salim breaks down the equation with disquieting insight: “You are here because I am on the street, and you can simply walk up to me. If I were rich, and comfortably in my home, I could have refused to meet you. You’d never have seen me.”
Salim is right. I keep sitting where I am, the acute honesty of his words baring open my moral conundrum. There is no lofty edifice to the cause of knowledge behind which to hide. I have followed the ‘participant information’ rules of fieldwork assiduously.
I explain my purpose: I am on a research assignment for a project at New York University. I am attempting to understand how street vendors engage with the neighbourhood, and the city. I’d appreciate permission to observe them. My notes will be used for further research, and some of it will be published. It might, in the long run, inform more sensitive policy towards street vendors in city planning, but will probably have no immediate benefits. Done. I have ticked off my script: Why am I here, what will I be doing, how will it be used, how will it benefit them? That last bit makes my conscience squirm.
The truth is that I will be paid for this research, while they’ll get an honorarium. The long run is on the other side of the horizon that neither of us can clearly visualise. Long enough to not make any difference to Shahnawaz, or Salim, or anyone else I work with. Salim knows that. It is oddly comforting to be exposed. There are no prevarications in this relationship anymore. An hour later, Salim announces to an acquaintance who comes to the stall: “She has come from America (I haven’t, and he knows it) to interview me. And she is a Muslim!” At least he makes a sale off my presence.
Not all my interlocutors immediately register that I am Muslim. There is some dissembling on my part. I give them my name. But it doesn’t immediately register as a ‘Muslim’ name. I might be any one of those names that rich people conjure up for their children. My class allows me to dress like any jhola-carrying, ajrakh-wearing, university-bred woman in Delhi.
My fieldwork years started in 2014. As I travel to stretches of Delhi that do not occupy my parochial south Delhi consciousness as belonging to the city, I change my name on Uber to my initials alone. An Uber driver tells me that Muslims breed too much. My South Delhi neighbours turn out their Muslim cleaning woman in the wake of the CAA-NRC violence. Yet, I allow myself the fiction of safety in my posh South Delhi neighbourhood.
In Connaught Place, a fruit-seller from Khichripur I call Amma gives me a slice of fruit every time she cuts one for herself. I want to go with her to Azadpur Mandi—that sprawling, chaotic heart of Delhi’s produce trade. She laughs and tells me she’ll show me the corpulent red maulavis (a pejorative used for Muslim men) who have swelled from the buffaloes they gorge upon. A day before, she had rained upon a man who said that a Muslim NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Corporation) official was on the rounds.
“Why do you name people by their religion? So what if he is Muslim? He is doing his job!” I struggle with my field notes, unable to pin a label onto Amma. Bigot? Not? She sends me home with bananas for the way, and instructions to cook myself and my husband a fresh meal.
I do not go to Azadpur with Amma. She has to leave for Jhansi where her husband has farmland. They get a small farmer’s allowance for which they’ll walk three hours to the office that dispenses it. Instead, I visit a smaller mandi at Mehrauli with Suresh, a vegetable vendor, in the hope of getting under the skin of the wholesale to retail move of produce.
Suresh has an ethic and an expedience—a system he keeps expertly oiled to preserve his place on the pavement of the gated south Delhi DDA flats where he operates. His ethic is to keep his clientele happy. He compliments the elderly woman who claims to never step in the ‘parlour-sharlour’ except to dye her hair, “You are beautiful yet. True beauty is within.” The woman smiles, and complains of her knees as Suresh sends her off with mushrooms she clearly didn’t intend to buy.
His business runs on his finely honed customer relationship skills. He picks produce that is a mix of those that are worse for wear, and those that glow crisp. It is a sweet spot that allows him to rationalise cost: he declares to me that he buys only the best produce. He owes large sums to the vendors at the mandi. The honorarium I pay him disappears instantly to settle some of it. Suresh makes just enough to keep his family afloat. He is acutely aware that the Big Bazaar down the road, or the Safal mandi run by Mother Dairy in the neighbourhood, sell vegetables at rates that would throw him off the pavement. But neither deal in free coriander, chillies, compliments, or chopping mangoes for pickles.
It is five thirty in the morning, almost late for the mandi that is wide awake at four. I am given unambiguous directions by a local: stop when you can move no more. I am met by a truck and the smell of wet burlap, and a mix of fresh and rotting vegetables. I am only one of two women in a hive of men, backs bent under the weight of potatoes and brinjals, moving animatedly, from trucks to shops. The mandi, locals say, was the annexe of an old haveli from the Bahadur Shah Zafar period. The inscription on the entrance says that this passage, famous as Hafiz Ji ki sarai, was built in 1944, nearly a century after Bahadur Shah. There are many truths, one learns on the field.
The mandi is relatively silent at this hour. No one is shouting rates. In corporate terminology, this is business to business exchange. Everyone knows that costs and negotiations are made over complaints of the failing economy, and morning chai and biscuits. No one notices me. There is work to do. But I am offered chai. Breakfast isn’t an affordance in a life where work commences before break of day.
In seven years on the field, and talking to over 200 interlocutors, I have always been offered a meal if it was time for one. If there were but three rotis for the day’s meal, I’d still be offered a share. The only exceptions were when I visited the well-to-do upper middle-class homes where, as Salim put it, they could refuse to see me.
An elaborate web of care has been woven for me whenever I have stepped onto the street. I am perhaps a nuisance while I perch at the edge of their shops making notes. Was I a municipal official? Worse, was I a competitor taking notes of their business practice? Trust is hard to build. It is precarious, and comes only with a return of care. I look up the municipal corporation’s licensing forms to apply for a vending license. I am invited to a family wedding. I raise funds to help repay part of a loan. I am sent food in the pandemic from 40 kilometers away. I bring food. They bring food.
We cultivate relationships that are meaningful, if not equal. There are assumptions made on both our parts. I assume my own ‘progressive feminism’ and that I must ‘dress down’ for the field. My friend, artist Indu Harikumar, often quotes someone who told her, “Wear everything you have in your wardrobe when you come here (her then place of work). When you dress down, you are being dishonest. No trust is built when you are dishonest.” I haven’t yet worked up the courage to that level of honesty. They assume I need ‘RO water’ and financial advice. Why do I live in a rented apartment? I should get a plot of my own. They know of plots in their neighbourhood. They will inquire about them. “Do you educated people have no intelligence?”
I smile and sigh. We are bound, as I sit by them, in these mutually untranslatable worlds of needs and moralities, attempting to read each other through the squinted lenses of our limited experience, imagining each other’s impossible lives.
Farah Yameen loves a story told well. In her work with food, oral histories and archives, she is always looking for a story. She likes to think that she nurtures stories, just as they nurture her. Her work is available on her website https://farahyameen.com
This is based on the author’s observations and field work (including the photographs used here) for the City Food Research Project at the department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University.