In September when we signed our lease for our flat I noticed a byline on our address; in addition to the building number, road, sector of the city, it said: “near A-Block Market”, as if this was the key to the geographic puzzle. In first viewing the flat, I had never seen this market en route to the residence, but shortly after moving in, I did discover it: its community, its ethos.
Leaving from our building, one must weave through some alley-like roads – left, left, right, then straight ahead – into the belly of the market.
This (the market) is one of our dearest neighbors.
While it is teeming with goods – both basic and indulgent, it is also teeming with people – merchants and customers.
Yes, maybe like your local mall, or even our local mall –
but we have yet to get to the magic of the market place.
That is: the relationships.
Like Ashu. An accountant turned shop owner – for now.
He has been running his father’s appliance shop since his father’s health has fallen. We first met Ashu late October, passing by his store while looking for a hot water geyser: as winter was approaching and our sinks and showerheads were no longer getting summer sun-heated water. When it was time to install the heater, he came by our flat to assure the laborers were thorough. While he semi-supervised, we chatted. He shared about how his work as an accountant over the years had given him the opportunity to work with a few local NGOs, and nodded an affirmative as we noted our work here in Delhi as AIF Fellows. As he went back and forth with the laborers, who were late to arrive, on the phone, we discussed a larger matter: the supply and demand of such a labor force in Delhi. He noted about how it’s now a “laborer’s market” with the increasing immigration to cities from the villages….
Closer to our flat, in fact – right outside our door, is an elder woman who mans a culinary kiosk that, most respectfully, is comparable to a clown car. That is to say, she has about everything there. I – personally – have had very few occasions to purchase anything from her, though I have tried her chai (excellent) and paranthas (also quite good). Nonetheless, she never fails to engage me with a hello and a smile in my daily comings and goings. It gets really dynamic when I am making a purchase – such as bottled water – and she tells me about how many paranthas my flatmate has ordered from her that morning or asks me why I (apparently) eat so many Whoopies (she’s exaggerating – I promise).
There’s a young boy, perhaps in his early teens, that mans a corner store of bedding fabrics, deeper into the market.
He has a joyous and laid-back demeanor, yet is an astute businessman when it comes to bargaining for these pillow covers. He says 200 rupees, and we finally settle on 120 rupees for two. He smiles – we smile – we go through this each time, like the previous week when my flatmates and I were simply getting bed sheets. He is patient with our indecision – which color, which print.
This is very similar to the other shop across the street, selling bedding. A slightly older – but still young – gentleman helps us there. He is very conversational and commends us, in a way, for the work we are doing and for our Hindi – or Hinglish – depending how deep the conversation goes. He is more adamant about making a sale, but also more energized about making conversation – genuinely curious conversation.
Our special treat in the marketplace is the fresh juice stand. There are two men who usually man this operation. Often though, when we arrive, we have to get their attention somehow. Either one has stepped away, or he is there – caught up with the cricket match or Bollywood music video booming from the television in the back of this retail stall. Whichever gentleman is there, he smiles – widely, in what seems to appreciation… of a familiar customer? Us? or simply standard customer service? The latter seems unlike, as the reception is very familial. Again our conversation is a tit-for-tat – what size, what fruit(s), salt? sugar? They still don’t have vegetables in season; he assures me it will be available in early November. So, every week in November I ask him – then settle for a mixed fruit juice, medium, no salt, no sugar.
Both of us brightened up in December.
On evening I finally saw carrots and beets lining their stand, and they had purchased a new juicer. Sure, I could have had a vegetable juice at one of the other half dozen stands in the neighborhood, but this one, these juice wallas – I know.
This was worth the wait.