It’s not often that I look forward to Mondays. In Tejgadh, where I am placed for the AIF Clinton Fellowship, things are different. For just one morning each week, the otherwise sleepy village breaks character and transforms itself from a quiet little village to a bustling marketplace. The designated market site which is near the panchayat office, post office and school turn into a market selling everything from spices to flashlights, bhajjis (batter-fried vegetables) to hair brushes and fruits to clothing.
Weekly markets or haats are an important tradition in this part of Gujarat. So important, in fact, that before a uniform calendar was introduced, the days of the week were named by which place the weekly market was at. For example, Saturdays were known as Udaipuri as the haat is in Chhota Udaipur. Thursdays were Devhati as the haat is in Devhat village.
Traditionally, the haat was a driver of the village barter economy. Articles produced by a household could be battered for those not produced. For example, a farmer could trade grain for fruit and pots while the potter (who would not be charged a fee for setting up at the market due to the fragility of his wares) could trade pots for grain and clothing. While earlier wares for the haat were mostly locally produced and entirely natural, comprising mostly of locally grown vegetables, earthenware, cane baskets etc. these are being rapidly replaced by produce which uses chemical fertilizer and insecticide and factory-made plastic and metal utensils. This means that money which would remain within the village leaches out towards city-based industries.
Traditionally, the haat was also the place to be seen. Adivasi men and women would find potential partners there. Specific flutes (pihis) and tunes which were played by Adivasi men to get the attention of women who may show interest. For those who already had partners, the haat provided objects such as combs, mirrors and jewellery which could be obtained for their partners as a sign of affection. In the area around the Gujarat and Maharashtra border, traders cross over state boundaries by boat to sell their wares at these weekly markets.
The Adivasi Academy has tried to keep alive locally made traditional artifacts by sourcing them for their ‘Museum of Voice’ from haats in the district. This provides an impetus to local craftspeople to continue practicing their traditional crafts. This has helped develop a loose but vibrant network of Adivasi artists and craftspeople. From time to time, the Adivasi Academy conducts workshops to demonstrate their craft and hand their skills down to the next generation.
For me the haat provides an opportunity to not only develop bonds with the community, but also buy some of the freshest vegetables I have ever had. I do my grocery shopping before I head out to work since vendors started arriving at the haat with their sackful of produce or wares from early in the morning. I make it a point to buy vegetables from local Adivasi women who grow the produce on small plots and divide them into lots rather than commercial vendors who buy them from wholesale markets and sell them by weight.
The first few times I went were awkward since I did not know any of the Gujarati or Rathawi names for the vegetables. It was not common for men in the village to shop for vegetables. The vendors soon got used to a bumbling city-dweller who would come to look for vegetables and fruit at the weekly haat. Seeing my curiosity many of the vendors and a few customers, would guide me on how to prepare vegetables which I was not familiar with. After each visit to the haat, I also used to regularly debrief with the Adivasi Academy’s kitchen staff about what I bought each week and how best to cook it given the limited kitchen equipment at my disposal.
While the varieties of vegetables available changed according to season and was at times limiting, it was more than made up for by their freshness and affordability. While a number of green leafy vegetables were available through the post-monsoon season and the winter, they disappeared in the summer and were replaced by a bewildering, but delicious varieties of gourds.
The fruits sold at the haat were extraordinarily fresh. From pomegranates and custard apples to grapes, mangoes and water-melons, they were all locally. Sometimes, I would not need to buy fruit since staff members of the Adivasi Academy would either pick enough fruit for everyone on campus or bring it from the fruit trees they had at their homes. Before the summer got far too hot to move about during the day, you could join the children in their post-lunch sojourns to pick tamarind, raw mangoes and berries from the many trees on campus.
If there is one thing I shall miss after the Fellowship is over, it will be simplicity of village life. It may not accommodate all needs and indeed very few wants, but it is sufficient to ensure that whatever is available is abundant and given with an open hand. This was highlighted when buying a bagful of brinjals. These brinjals which would easily last me a week, were usually priced at 10 rupees. When the vendor gave me nearly two bagfuls, I wondered if she had misunderstood my broken Gujarati. When I asked why there were so many, she explained that she wasn’t charging money for the extra ones. She was giving me extra since a change in the weather may have caused some to go bad. For someone whose brinjal crop had spoiled due to a change in weather, she was giving me more so that I would not be left wanting. This simple gesture of kindness reinstilled my faith in humanity.
While the haat lasted for just a few hours each week, it was a transformative experience, not only for the village of Tejgadh but also for everyone who visited. In the last few months of the Fellowship, the vendors at the haat had become quite friendly. On my last visit there I didn’t have change and the vendor told me I could pay her next week. I had to tell her with a heavy heart that I would not be in Tejgadh from next week. My Fellowship was nearly at an end.