Shyam would stop his cart or thela under an old lady’s home in Delhi every single day, singing names of fresh vegetables. Rhymingaaloowith kachalu,gobi with mooli, creating his own unique jingles. The old lady would come into the balcony and drop a basket attached to a little rope from above. She would tell Shyam what she wanted, he would measure the vegetables while engaging in loud banter, after which she would pull up the rope. It always looked like she was pulling vegetables out of a well. After checking the vegetables, the old lady would drop the basket again; Shyam would collect his money, and push the basket back. He would leave, singing names of fresh vegetables. Pushing his cart through the narrow lanes.
The interaction between the old lady and the cart puller not just makes for an evocative anecdote but is also a window into time, place and culture. Revealing how the not-so-hyped up fruit and vegetable cart has been such an important part of our lives, living on through generations and decades.
Indian villages may wake up to the sound of the rooster but big and small cities have, for as long as we can remember, woken up to the sound of the vegetable or the fruit seller advertising his fresh produce in his hi-pitched voice. With the class divide in India, this sort of scene is more common in intimate neighbourhoods and not exclusive localities. Come to think of it, the mobile cart is actually the original version of home-delivery, way before the app rhyming with a dance step was even conceived. Most importantly, this mode of transport is pollution free – in that sense, it is not just a source of nutrients for people but also supports sustainably of the planet.
So then, why is nobody talking about such an important mode of transport?
We decided to initiate a conversation on the subject and conducted a bunch of interviews with fruit and vegetable cart-owners on a spring afternoon, during their down time. In return, we got free apples and a few priceless answers.
Read excerpts from one of the interviews conducted with Moin from Ballia, Uttar Pradesh. He is a fruit-cart owner and lives in Mumbai. The Hindi interview has been translated for the benefit of a larger audience.
Q. Moin,do you know what is sustainable transport?
A. No, I am not aware.
Q. Your fruit-cart is actually sustainable, which means it is planet-friendly and doesn’t pollute the environment. How do you feel about that?
A. I didn’t think about it but now I feel good. I also must tell you that since the plastic ban, I have actually been spending a little extra and buying these bags instead. [shows bio-degradable bag].
Q. How many kilometers do you travel everyday?
A. I walk about 7kms everyday.
Q. Do you have a formal parking policy for you thela? Where do you park at night?
A. I park my thela inside my house and a lot of my friends do the same. No, there is no formal parking space for our vehicle.
Q. Do you get any kind of right of way in traffic?
A. No. Only the ambulance gets it. (Laughs)
Q. Do you feel you should get some preference since you are carrying nutrients?
A. Yes, I should. And some people are helpful too. For example, if our fruits topple over, some people help us pick them.
[Another cart owner interjects]
But some taporis (ruffians) also forcibly take our fruits and while manhandling, if the fruits fall, they don’t even pick them up.
Q. What do you do with fruits that don’t get sold?
A. After two-three days, we sell them in cheaper rates to chawl dwellers and hawkers who sell fruit juice.
Q. How do you manage life around your thelasaround monsoon and hot summer months? What about weather protection?
A. In summer months, we mostly sell mango so it’s not a problem. For our own protection, we use umbrellas. On the other hand, during monsoon we take shelter under shop roofs and cover our fruits with plastic sheets. But now with plastic ban, we’ll have to see.
Q. Do you know it’s possible to convert your hand thela into an electric one? If yes, are you willing to invest in something like that?
A. I didn’t know about it but if another cart owner tries and it works for him, I am happy to invest. But not on my own.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about the politics of cart-owners – do you have to come and take control of the space first, is there any hierarchy?
A. Where will we go if we fight with each other? No point harbouring envy. We all have an understanding towards each other and we all have our designated spots.
Q. Since everyone’s cart looks the same and the fruits are more or less similar – how do you advertise / market/ attract the customer? Is it about personal relationships?
A. People begin to recognize our faces and our designated spots and that’s how they become regulars at our cart. Rest all is luck.
Q/ How does having a cart as opposed to having a shop impact your day’s business?
A. A proper shop is definitely an advantage. People prefer buying from a shop, there is a trust factor involved. Moreover, people believe that if they don’t like the product, they can always go back and return. With a hawker, there is no such guarantee of finding him again.
Q. As a mode of transport, tell us a little bit about the maintenance of your cart.
A. We don’t own these carts, we rent them. So the carts are maintained by the cart-owners.
Q. One a lighter note, what is your favourite fruit and why do you like it.
A. Custard apple. I like the taste.
Q. As we conclude – tell us about our dreams, aspirations?
A. My only dream is to make sure that my parents, wife and children are happy.
When you are out to buy fruits and vegetables next time, support the cart over a shop or mall – it’s one of the ways of supporting the planet.