December 17, 2014

Two Fruit Ninjas

          Like I've said before in a few other posts, having gone through Architecture School and being an architect, I have had and continue to have many adventures - some near death experiences (Check out Our Tryst with Death #collegediaries), some jaunt gone hilariously wrong and some experiences that just blew my mind (Check out Cause I love you just the way you look tonight ). I've begun to lose count of the number of times I've had to risk my life for a project.
         I did a bit of research on Sabzi Madis (fruit and vegetable markets) in a couple of cities in India. After visiting the markets at Bangalore and Chennai the next one on the list was the Azadpur Sabzi Mandi a small distance from the National Capital. A friend who was travelling to Delhi for her own project decided to tag along. My friend, the lovely person that she is, is that type of kid who grew up sheltered and pampered, escorted everywhere she went by her doting family. After her parents did a background check on me, and were convinced that I had no criminal record except the lone fine I paid for taking a wrong Free-Left, we booked our flight tickets.  
         We reached New Delhi around mid-day, checked into our room at the Tamil Nadu House in the posh embassy area in Chanakyapuri not far from The Leela Palace. It was my friend's first time alone in Delhi. Since she couldn't speak the language I was her official translator and like any good friend I volunteered to show her around and help with her project which we got done first. 
        We set off for the 'mandi' next morning, bright and early. Knowing my friend was used to going around in a car I suggested we book a cab to take us to Azadpur, but I guess she was in a mood to 'explore' so she insisted we took the metro. For those of us who have lived in Delhi we know what the peak hour is like on the yellow line. We were practically shoved into the general compartment of the train at Central Secretariat. I saw disgust, shock and then helplessness on my friend's face. After much jostling we finally found a place to stand where we could read the ticker that flashed the name of the stations. The crowd thinned out after Kashmere Gate and my friend's tense face began to ease and she was quite relieved when we got off at Azadpur Metro Station.    

       We took an auto to the mandi ; we paid more to the auto guy than both our metro tickets together for less than quarter the distance from our hotel to Azadpur. I casually strolled into Hira Singh Wholesale market, one of largest and busiest in Asia. The air was heavy with the smell of fermenting fruit and vegetable. I must say this was a lot better than the other mandis I went to, as I wasn't constantly suppressing the nausea and covering my nose and mouth with a handkerchief. I casually walked around with my jot pad taking notes and clicking away on my DSLR camera. I struck up a conversation with some of the private retailers who answered my questions in the best English they knew. 
"Madam, fruits coming from all over India. Vegetables also coming same places". 
"Mandi is big but getting small also."
As we walked further into the market we noticed there wasn't a single woman anywhere and by then we had begun to grab the attention of the multitude of men who were moving crates, packing the fruit and who were basking in the warm winter's sun lying on the bonnet of their trucks. We were getting more and more aware of the many many pairs of eyes following us as we went about our work. 
        We ignored it and walked on determined to finish what we set out to do until we were suddenly stopped by one of the laborers. The man was from the 'oranges' section of the market and seemed very disturbed by our presence. My friend and I were obviously out of place among the sweaty grimy vendors and laborers and my large camera and notebook seemed intimidating. 
The man stopped me suddenly and asked loudly,
"Aare madam, aap kahan se aaye hai?" "Photo mat kheecho!" (Where are you from? Don't take photos!) 
Before I could entirely explain, a very distressed mob had gathered around us. My friend held onto my arm scared to death. Although she couldn't understand what the man was saying she could tell from the look on his face he sure wasn't happy. I knew if this went south and the situation got out of hand there was no way I was going home in one piece. I began to brainstorm explanations. At that moment I felt like I was in a game of Fruit Ninja. If the mob got any angrier they would start hurling melons and oranges at us. The downside? We had NO swords! No way would the people here even understand what I do or know who an architect was. I decided, for what its worth, to be honest. 
I calmly explained to the man that I wasn't a government official or an NRI journalist who was on a mission to expose the poverty in India. Once he has convinced that we meant him no harm he lightened up and began the Modi bashing. 
"Usne kya kiya humare liye?" "Mandi mein pani nahin hai, toilet nahin hai!
"Modi sirf baat karta hai!" *thu* "Kya Modi sarkar?!"      
(What has he (Modi) done for us? There is no water or toilets in the market. Modi just talks! What Modi government?)
I had to tactfully steer the conversation towards my research before our dear orange vendor decided to star a revolution. I wore the sweetest smile possible, nodded my head in agreement and sympathized with them and eventually the mob seemed to finally warm up to us and began enthusiastically answering my questions. When one man answered, it was followed by a chorus of "Haan Haan!" (Yes Yes) from the rest. I wrapped up my work, profusely thanked the men, bid them goodbye with a lot of 'Ram Ram'. I was glad I was alive and glad I went. My friend is very convinced that I should become a diplomat and I was wasting time in the wrong profession. So much for that idea!  
          It always seemed to me the way Modi took the elections by storm that perhaps he had won the people of the country over. My experience at the Sabzi Mandi opened my mind to a lot of things. What we see may not be what it IS. People who have seen a lot of hardship are not easily trusting. People with the least money and opportunity are ironically also the happiest. The people from outbacks are simple with large hearts have few wants. I feel it is not the government or well-to-do expats who can make a difference. It is US the common man who can help change their lives for the better.
This is where I intend to make a contribution in my little way.   

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Happy Holidays! 
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RAM RAM!! @ Hira Singh Sabzi Mandi, Azadpur, ND