Always on the Move: Stories of the Street Food Vendors at Police Bazaar, Shillong
By Richa Chilana & Rashi Bhargava
Images of migrant labourers walking lock, stock and barrel to their homes, the homes they once left behind for greener pastures will haunt us for a long, long time. The journey that they used to undertake for a festival or a family celebration or mourning is now undertaken on foot because the reasons/needs that made them move in the first place are not fulfilled anymore and also because social and political structures have failed them miserably. These images reminded us of the migrant labourers from Bihar we saw, met and heard at Police Bazaar in Shillong in October, 2019. This photo essay is about the stories we heard from migrant labourers who were working as street vendors at Police Bazaar in Shillong and it is also a tribute to their kindness and generosity. They not only shared their stories with us but also gave us space near their stalls to park our luggage which they meticulously guarded, while we loitered in the lanes and by lanes of Police Bazaar collecting souvenirs for our family and friends back home.
WJ.T. Mitchell in his article, “Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture” (2002) has argued that seeing is a social act, and we are made to see in a certain way, visibilising some things while simultaneously invisibilising the others. When we are out of our comfort zone, the things we had taken for granted or were ordinary to us, suddenly appear unusual or extraordinary as is also evident in the pandemic we are facing wherein our ideas of what constitutes normalcy are turned on their head. In retrospect, those conversations happened only because we were in a new place, exploring and soaking in as many details as possible. Possibly, the distance from our everyday environment (Delhi) where street food vendors (not the street food, though) were invisible to us, suddenly were made vivid and conspicuous in Shillong. These conversations made the images of migrant labourers even more poignant for us because we knew the trials and tribulations of some of them.
When both of us travel we make conscious efforts to not be ‘tourists’, make an elaborate list of popular and obscure places, quirky cafes and beautiful trails but almost always we remember a place not because of the sights that dazzled us or the food that satiated us or the bargains made but the people we met and the tales heard during chance encounters with those who reside in these places or fellow travellers. It was drizzling as our cab pulled over at the roundabout at Police Bazaar in Shillong. We got off the cab only to witness a nip in the air, raindrops on the roads, a string of colorful umbrellas, deafening sound of cars honking and that huge building which houses one of the oldest hotels, Centre Point. The Shillong that we had arrived to, was so similar and yet so different from the one in 2013. The traffic at Police Bazaar was still maddening, there were black yellow maruti suzuki cars sprawling across the entire space, continuous chants of Cherrapunji and Mawlynnong by taxi drivers were still loud enough to catch anyone’s attention and the market was still alive with a variety of people and products. But this time there were more people, a bustling market, more hotels and structures like the Reliance Mall and also more and longer traffic jams. As we had two hours to kill before we could check into our hotel in Laitumkhrah, we found ourselves lost in the midst of people who were walking by with a purpose, stopping occasionally only to protect themselves from the sudden downpour that would last for a few minutes. It seemed like we were the only tourists in the city, which in hindsight could be because of our time of arrival in the city. We arrived in the middle of the day which a lot of people would probably avoid so as to make the most of the day either at their place of origin or at their place of destination.
After having spent an entire day trying to find our way around the city, we were famished and the only thing on our minds was khana. We walked through the area only to find numerous vendors donning red aprons and red caps with ‘Nestle’ written on them and their carts with multicoloured umbrellas arranged symmetrically in one of the lanes. Somehow, when we had arrived at Police Bazaar in the afternoon either they were inconspicuous or we were oblivious of their presence. Still confused, we headed to the cart of a tea vendor. Only after spending some time there, one of us, who had visited Shillong in 2013, was reminded of how during her last visit, she had come across this same lane occupied by a number of vendors selling tea, momos, chowmein with chole (chickpeas), poori sabzi, parantha and omelette. It was not until we talked to the tea vendor that we realised that they shift their locations throughout the day selling different food items (they call it fast food) at different hours of the day. Poori sabzi/chole, paranthas and omelettes are for the morning slot (from 6 a.m. till 10 a.m.) while in the evening (post 4:30-5:00 p.m.) the items that are sold are chowmein, momos, chaat, etc.
No wonder, we did not see them in the afternoon since most of them go back after the first shift to get some rest after having woken up at 4 a.m. to put up their stalls at 6 a.m. Through a casual conversation with a tea vendor, D (to respect their privacy, we have referred to all our respondents with an italicised first alphabet of their names), we learnt that all the vendors had come from neighbouring regions in Bihar and were related to each other. This made us curious and eager to hear more about their lives. Thus began our regular visits to Police Bazaar for the next three days we were in Shillong.
In our subsequent conversations with him, we learnt that D is a 35-year-old man who came to Shillong in 1997 at the age of 13 and has been selling tea since then. His family is in Motihari (Bihar) and he visits them once or twice a year. When we spoke to him, he wistfully said that he wanted to visit his hometown during Chhat Puja. He loves the weather in Shillong and has a decent income since it is a popular tourist destination and there is no dearth of chai lovers. Though his business runs well because of the touristy nature of the place, in his 22 years in Shillong, he has never visited any of the popular tourist sites in and around Shillong. He informed us about his lack of interest in studying, the pressure to get a decently paying job since he is the eldest son in the family and hence responsible for the household as well. Shillong came up as an option since there were others from his village who had already come here and he had an existing support system in the new place. One is instantly reminded of the significance of kinship and village networks (social capital) as an important pull factor for migrants. Jan Breman, a famous Dutch sociologist with years of ethnographic work experience in India, has shown that in a scenario that offers scarce educational and economic opportunities, familiar social mechanisms and particularistic loyalties are still extremely powerful determinants in assaying economic participation of migrants from rural areas. In the 1960s, most farm labourers and unskilled workers from Bihar were heading towards Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh because of the green revolution leading to a difference in wages (Tanweer Fazal, “Migrant, Home and Politics: Bihari Labour in the Metropolis” Indian Anthropologist, 2016). D and many others from Bihar migrated to Shillong because of the already existing support system in the form of people from their village/ community who had “settled” in Shillong. It is manifested by the entire community of vendors we chanced upon in Shillong wherein most vendors are dependent upon each other, not only for their entry into the economic sphere but also to maintain the positions that they get “assigned” at the bazaar. The bazaar space was structured in a way that the first row of street food stalls was managed by men while the women and that too a miniscule number were behind them, thus indicating the gendered nature of the space.
Through our initial conversation with D, we were able to talk to a couple of more vendors in the vicinity, most significantly, A, who as we were informed, is one of their leaders after an association of vendors and shopkeepers was formed to put forth their concerns before the Municipal Corporation. A too came to Shillong very early on, sometime around 1989. He is from Hajipur in Bihar and before selling food items (poori sabzi in the morning and chowmein and chaat in the evening), he worked in the transport sector. Unlike D’s family, A’s family (his wife and children) is with him in Shillong itself. His eldest son has already made a place for himself in the existing bazaar system, and has started to sell ‘fast food’ items. However, much to the dismay of A, he doesn’t sell vegetarian food and egg dishes only but has dabbled in non-vegetarian dishes like chicken biryani, chilly chicken, manchurian, fried rice, etc., the demand for which is higher in the contemporary tourist landscape.
While chicken was acceptable as a selling item for the vendors from Bihar, pork was an abomination. We were told by more than one vendor and also the taxi driver who took us around that a Khasi dish called Joddah, is prepared “with blood of the pig” and hence they do not eat it. We could sense a certain judgement that came from cultural differences especially those manifested in cuisine between the two communities which was sustained through hearsay. Interestingly enough, during our interaction with a woman selling Joddah (along with other items like chicken, fish, pork, dal, dry vegetables and chutney), there was no mention of the pig fat or blood when she shared the recipe with us. It made us wonder about the level of cultural interaction between the two communities in Shillong which we could not explore in detail because of the paucity of time. However, we can only speculate that the promise of immense possibilities of self-employment as a vendor in an ever-growing tourist attraction like Shillong is a mirage since the entry into this sphere is guarded and distinction between different sections are set (who will sell what and where) and cultural boundaries (between migrants and locals) are hardly transcended.
Despite little cultural interaction, they did come together to voice their concerns with regard to the constant pestering by the Municipal Corporation in Shillong. Contrary to the widespread assumption, that street vendors and casual labour form an incoherent mass of workers with little or no consciousness, the street vendors in Shillong have managed to unionise and to systematically articulate their interests vis-a-vis the authorities. Currently, their union has more than 4000 members, spread over various pockets in Shillong city. It has a proper organisational structure with one representative for every 100 vendors which is a heterogeneous group formed because of the exigencies of the situation. It reminds one of Judith Butler’s idea of coalition politics (Gender Trouble, 1990) that calls for “an emerging and unpredictable assemblage of positions.” It was this coalition that we saw in Police Bazaar which brought vendors from Bihar and Khasi vendors and shopkeepers who came together and organized themselves above and beyond their social and cultural differences. As informed by A and D, their agreed upon positions which change throughout the day could only be reached after their unionisation in 2004-05. This lends a certain structure to the ostensible chaos in Police Bazaar. The nature of this space changes at different times of the day, calling for attention. Thus, in the morning, they are stationed at the front, then shift to a by-lane in the afternoon and in the evening to another by-lane. On Sundays, it seems that they own the entire place and do not move at all.
Thus, unionisation gave them a bargaining power with authorities which made the government acknowledge their presence and their indispensability in promoting tourism which improved their situation. It can be speculated that such a move is also aided by the growing popularity of Shillong as a tourist destination (according to an article in Shillong Times in 2016, the state is placed 6th on the list of the most favoured destinations in the world by Skyscanner). Food has always been a point of concern for tourists, especially familiar cuisines and clean and hygienic food. Only recently, i.e. on 17 September, 2019, the government collaborated with Nestle, a private company for organising a training programme for street food vendors about hygiene and good service. The vendors through their unionisation, have thus ceased to be inconspicuous anymore. They are right there, at the roundabout, at different places at different hours, with their red caps and red aprons and one cannot miss them.
Having visited Police Bazaar at different times of the day, we realised that it is not only a marketplace that might offer insights into the changing dynamics of urban economy in a tourist destination but is also a space that is infused with meanings, metaphors and emotions. When we went to the place on the last day to board a cab to Guwahati airport, D offered us our last cup of tea and wished us a safe journey hoping that we would visit again. When we see millions who are walking back to their homes, we wonder if the street vendors of Shillong are a part of the walking multitude grappling with hunger, heat, apathy and the sheer lack of humanity and invisible to the state authorities despite their visual presence. When they were needed to give a boost to the tourist economy of the state, they were paid heed, trained and given a place to make it their own. Now when the travel, tourism and hospitality industry is worst hit we wonder if the street food vendors from Bihar, who were once a wonderfully red and cherished presence, considered dispensable goods?
Richa Chilana, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi.
Dr. Rashi Bhargava, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.