The Essential Street Entrepreneurs of India

Waiting for Customers

Waiting for Customers

With a population now bursting at just over 1.2 billion people, the competition for jobs and just about anything else is fierce in India. There aren’t enough jobs for every one who wants one nor are there enough schools and universities for every one who desires an education. It is simply a question of supply and demand. The demand is there; the supply is inadequate. What is that expression? Necessity is the father of invention, or something like that. India certainly exemplifies that, especially when it comes to earning a living.

Coming from a long line of entrepreneurs myself, my admiration and respect for this group of hard-working souls is boundless. What this small series has in common is that each entrepreneur photographed here has little more than the item(s) they are selling. To my mind, this is the essence of the retail business in its purest state, unaided and unadorned. You want it, I have it. Please buy it. Here is the price. Take it. Finish.

In the photograph above, the man seated reading the paper is selling small packets of a tobacco laced stimulant known as gutka or pan masala which is extraordinarily popular. He sits in the doorway of an unoccupied building with just his wooden box for display and a canvas tote bag with his back-up inventory. How much simpler can it get? He comes nearly every day; I look out for him with interest. I doubt that he earns very much though he certainly doesn’t look worried about it.

 

 

Itinerant Duster Vendor

Itinerant Duster Vendor

The subject in this photograph, the Duster Vendor, has no display equipment or visible back-up inventory. He carries his dusters wherever he goes. He has chosen an outdoor market to drum up some sales. I suspect that his primary audience are the formal shops that border the edge of the market. He sells a very specialized duster, used for distant and high up places like dusting the top of a ceiling fan or a high shelf because the duster has such a very long handle. A shopkeeper might just find this tool handy.

 

 

Sikh Bracelet Merchant

Sikh Bracelet Merchant

This smiling Sikh merchant has nothing more than his supply of steel kara bracelets and a white cloth for display. He seems pleased that I want to take his photograph. You may notice that behind him is yet another vendor, the sugar cane vendor. At every turn entrepreneurs engage in small-scale business out on the street.

Flower Seller

Flower Seller

While exploring the flower market in Madurai, I came across this gorgeous display of roses. This vendor actually purchased her goods at the very market where she is selling them! She was gracious and allowed me to take a few photographs and even offered to put some roses in my hair for free. I didn’t have any hair pins so another woman took a pin out of her hair and helped to arrange the flowers for me.

 

Cloth Merchant

Cloth Merchant

This Muslim cloth merchant still falls into this category but is burdened by the weight of such a bulky and heavy item, cloth. But he comes to his selling spot with nothing more than a plastic tarp that he spreads on the ground where he neatly piles his selection of fabrics. He also has a mark that indicates a meter and can measure the cloth that way but mostly he uses a particular arm length for his measuring system.

Book Seller

Book Seller

 

Last but certainly not least is the book seller. He, too, has a heavy product that he packs into cartons and spreads on a plastic cloth right on the pavement.  I have often shopped these stalls and chatted with the vendors.  They truly epitomize the clever, wily entrepreneur. More often than not, they are not serious readers. They know what sells, what the public wants and carry all the popular titles but most of them have never read any of the books that they sell. I’ve tried discussing some of the books with them and they openly admit this.

For me, one of the many delights of spending time in India are all the wonderful books available in English everywhere at reasonable rates when compared to the west.

These imaginative and creative entrepreneurs can easily be overlooked as they are so omnipresent and an essential part of the landscape but like so many things that strike you at first, like the cows, they eventually fade into the background and you stop noticing them.

Ironically, their survival is under threat by India’s very own progress. With their rudimentary methods of merchandising, marketing and selling, these people represent the essential entrepreneur of India; I call them the street-preneurs.

 

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Life of the Holy Cow in India

City Cow

City Cow

Of all the myths and mystiques associated with India, the most puzzling for a westerner to grasp is the cow’s elevated status in Hindu society. With my many decades of travel in India, the veneration of cows is just another aspect of Indian life that I now take for granted, find charming and in an odd way, has rubbed off on me but it is not something that I understood easily at first.

Most Hindus claim that they do not worship the cow, per se, but honor the cow for what it represents, that which they hold dear, important and sacred. The average person on the street in India would probably tell you that the cow is like the mother who protects its offspring and whose body produce milk to nourish it. Hindu rituals employ all the products and by-products that come from the cow for their prayers or pujas. These five products include milk, curd, ghee (clarified butter), urine and dung. The cow gives selflessly as the undemanding provider, never considering what it will receive in return. It gives more than it takes, just as a good mother does.

It has taken many centuries for this view to evolve. In ancient verses of the Rigveda,there are references to the cow being associated with Aditi, the mother of the Gods. Before the birth of Christ, the giving of a cow as a gift to a Brahmin was the only gift acceptable to give to a Brahmin. Later, this evolved into the strict protection of cows until the killing of a cow became associated with the killing of Brahmins or priests. For the Hindus, the cow is Aghanya or that which cannot be slaughtered.

What this boils down to is that Hindus adore cows. All over India, except in the downtown areas of the big cities, cows roam freely. Indians feed them, touch them with reverence and treat them like royalty.

 

 

 

Cow at the Door

Cow at the Door

The cow shown in the photograph above is waiting for food. No doubt, the woman of the house saves her vegetable peels, scraps and leftovers for this cow who probably visits on a daily basis.

Don't You Dare

Don’t You Dare

This dark brown cow comes dangerously close to this coconut vendor. The vendor watches patiently, waiting in case the cow crosses the line. Once crossed, the vendor will take action but he will not harm the cow.

Bottom View

Bottom View

These women are washing their pots and pans. This cow has stepped up hoping to get some leftovers.

Cow Relief

Cow Relief

I clicked this shot not really sure what was happening. I think that the cow may have been sick or injured and they were lifting it inside for its comfort.

Licking the Pot Clean

Licking the Pot Clean

At a small, local eatery, the cook brought out this pot with a bit of food still clinging to its sides for this cow to savor, not an eatery that I frequent!

Cow on the Beach

Cow on the Beach

Cow Portrait with Horns

Cow Portrait with Horns

No matter what your opinion of cows was before visiting India, your views will definitely be permanently altered after your visit. When a cow passes by me in India, I touch its flank without thinking. I sneak a blessing. And I keep coming back. This is my blessing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mehendi and the Feminine Mystique in India

Marriage Bangles & Mehendi

Marriage Bangles with Mehendi Patterns

I am not the only one who finds the ornate patterns painted on Indian women’s hands with a paste of mehendi (also known as henna)  alluring, as it is one of the many important features of the bridal attire and accompanying rituals. The bride’s mehendi patterns are the most intricate, elaborate and expensive. It is not unheard of for the mehendi artist to deftly paint in the groom’s name, hidden amongst all the swirls and arabesques. On their wedding night, the groom is now allowed to see his new wife’s painted limbs and attempts to find his camouflaged name, a very romantic tradition.

I clicked the above photograph during the “marriage season,” whose dates are determined according to astrology. Nearly all newly wedded Hindu brides wear a set of matched red and white bangle bracelets known as choora or choori, which is the plural form. She wears them for forty days. Traditionally, they are gifted to her from her mother’s brother. After the forty days end, so does the honeymoon. I read that this tradition began in the Punjab but has spread throughout most of India. The design of the choori has distinct regional differences but the red and white ones are the most popular.

Women all over Indian enjoy preparing for a special occasion by getting their hands decorated with mehendi, myself included. I admit, though, I don’t need a special occasion to have it done. I especially like to have my hands hennaed  when I am about to leave India. It lasts for about a week and helps me to say farewell. I look down at my hands when I am back in the west with fondness. Though I am sad, there is this visible reminder of my connection to India even though it is fading, it gives me pleasure and is a reassurance that it was real, that I really was there and that I will return.

Mehendi in Process

Mehendi Painting Drying

While seated on a low stool where many mehendiwallas offer their skills in Delhi, waiting for my hands to dry, a foreigner stopped to watch with fascination. After a few minutes he asked if he could take a photograph of my hands. I agreed. Afterwards, he asked if I had a camera and if I wanted him to take a photograph with my camera. He was pleasant and had an honest face or I wouldn’t have allowed him to open my bag and take out my camera and take this photo of me! My hands were damp with the mehendi paste and the drying process is essential to its success. Without drying properly, you could end up with a big smudged mess.

The art of mehendi has been part of the cultures of India, Pakistan, Africa and the Middle  East for more than 5,000 years. It is known to have cooling properties too. In the desert districts of Rajasthan, especially during the summer, the locals apply mehendi  to their palms and feet and even to the scalp, without any pattern just to help maintain a slightly lower body temperature and to keep them cool.

Bride at the Beauty Salon

Bride at the Beauty Salon

I love going to Indian beauty salons, partly because they are much more affordable than in the west but also because of all the unusual treatments that are on offer. While waiting for my pedicure and threading in the salon that I photographed above, I couldn’t help but notice the exquisite and finely detailed mehendi patterns on this bride- to- be’s arms. She traveled to Bombay solely for this purpose. Here, back in Rajasthan, she is having her hair styled. Unfortunately, my battery ran out, my spare was back in the room and this was the only shot I got!

The Indian treatment of all things feminine is so beautiful that next year I am going to incorporate them into one of my tours. Who knows, you might just want to discover, ” The Feminine Mystique in India” with me.

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Buri Nazar – Warding Off the Evil Eye

Baby Uglification

Baby Uglification

The desire to ward off the evil-eye or buri nazar in Hindi and drishti in Sanskrit is ubiquitous in India and it takes numerous forms. But what you may ask are the effects of the evil-eye that every one is so keen to prevent? From what I understand, it often comes from envy and jealousy and general negativity directed at you. It can arrive in the form of illness, misfortune and cause misunderstandings between people, inexplicable bad luck and in the worst case, death.

In the West, we are eager to call this superstition and regard it with condescension as unscientific and brush it off as ignorance. Yet nearly every culture has something akin to buri-nazar and it merits more than a casual dismissal.  I certainly am not qualified to offer an explanation but with so many people world-wide believing in the power of the evil-eye, it should make us all stop and wonder. Just maybe there is something to it and maybe that something stems from the power of faith; something that scientists have never been able to adequately explain.

To ward off the evil-eye people chant mantras, call upon the services of pandits or Hindu priests and astrologers, wear amulets and place demon’s faces and other assorted effigies on the exteriors of their homes for protection.

In the photograph above, a young mother has placed an “uglification” mark on her baby’s forehead to protect it from harm so that no one will be envious or jealous of her lovely child and to ensure that no harm will come to it.

 

Pompoms and Tassels

Pompoms and Tassels

All over India one sees vehicles adorned with black tassels and pompoms to ward off the evil- eye and as insurance against a potential accident.

Homes also have their special talismans to keep the evil- eye away. These talisman can take many forms. Often the image of a demon’s face is hung outside toward the roof of a home and sometimes demon dolls are placed there or over an entrance. The stringing of lemons with green chiles is another means of keeping the evil- eye at bay.

Demon Image Outside a Home

Demon Image Outside a Home

Demon Doll

Demon Doll

Key Ring with Plastic Chiles and Lemon

Key Ring with Plastic Chiles and Lemon

I do not think of myself as superstitious yet I readily accept that there are forces more powerful in the universe than mankind. If most of the world believes that these amulets and talismans can help ward off evil then I will go along with them and employ a few. I also consider them a charming form of folk art that I enjoy having around me; if they can stave off the evil- eye, so much the better.

 

 

 

 

 

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Mattress Makers Come to Town

Al Fresco Production

Al Fresco Production

India is known to enchant visitors with unexpected sights and on this afternoon, this sight had me grabbing for my camera yet again. In front of a small guest house in rural South India, I saw a makeshift assembly line producing mattresses. With limited language skills, I think that I understood that the guest house had bed bugs, a pest, not so uncommon in my own city of New York and they were now required (by the police?) to make new ones. There are no mattress stores in this town. Mattress makers come right to the premises.

Part of their equipment includes an unusual machine that recycles the mattress stuffing. The stuffing from the old mattresses is fed through this machine. The old stuffing comes out fluffy and fresh looking.

Recycled Stuffing with Blue Machine

Recycled Stuffing with Blue Machine

They also come with a sewing machine and striped cotton mattress ticking. By the time I passed, all the mattress covers were sewn.

New Mattress Covers

New Mattress Covers

Stuffing the Mattress

Stuffing the Mattress

Tufting the Mattress

Tufting the Mattress

I was talking to a friend recently who was complaining about his credit card debt. He mentioned that he was almost finished paying off his new mattress and box spring which cost him $1,900.00. I’m sure he has a very fine mattress but he paid a very fine price for it too. What is the conclusion? The cost of progress is very dear, in so many ways. India helps me put so many things in perspective, sometimes with a ping of pain but mostly with a smile. I think I’ll sleep on that.

 

 

 

 

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Village Commerce at Work

Miscellaneous Goods

Miscellaneous Goods for Sale

In the villages of rural Rajasthan, commerce is at its most appealing and human level.  Gentrification with its ever spiraling rents and desire to please the wealthy hasn’t arrived here. The pace of both life and business is slow. People take the time to catch up with each others news and to gossip in the warmth of the afternoon sun.

Cloth Merchants

Cloth Merchants

I imagine that these businesses have been in the family for many generations. They get passed on from one generation to the next. They, no doubt, ensure a reliable but predictable future. Most of the subjects in these photographs are not young men. Maybe the younger men are studying or have gone to the city to enter a more challenging field like technology. Women do not work. In the villages, it is customary to get married and to remain at home with their husband’s family.

 

Jewelry Shop

Jewelry Shop

Within a few short blocks all the needs of a small village are visible.

Laundry Man

Laundry Man

Curd Shop

Curd Shop

Not every one is fortunate enough to have a shop.  Artisans set up their workshops directly on the street.

Ornament Beader

Ornament Beader

When afternoon arrives and the sun begins to lower and the body tires from a full day of toil, no one hesitates to take a snooze.

Afternoon Nap

Afternoon Nap

What I see is what I photograph: an orderly, functioning village whose system of commerce provides for them. Perhaps my words paint an idyllic view but the pictures tell the real story.

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Idlis Under Attack

Idlis with Sambar and Chutney

Idlis with Sambar and Chutney

Idlis in South India are practically worshiped like dosas, vadas and cows. They are the perfect way to start the day and are a typical South Indian breakfast. Idlis are a savory steamed cake made from a batter of  unhusked fermented black lentils and rice. From what I read, the fermentation process breaks down the starches and speeds up the metabolic process of absorption. This makes them healthy and light. They are often served with a tangy, soup like sauce called sambar. I consider myself a sambar expert. I love sambar. In many ways, sambar reminds me of potato salad because there are so many variations, each one reflecting the preference of the locale and the ingredients indigenous to that place. The further south one travels, the hotter the sambar. The idlis are also accompanied with a savory grated coconut chutney.

While spending time in South India, I often frequent a tiny idli shop that is across the street from my small hotel. It caters to the locals, has a small menu and is inexpensive. It has 2 blue plastic tables on the street where I sit and a few tables inside. The waiter has been there for years and knows me well. I don’t have to tell him what I want. The sambar is the best I’ve tasted anywhere but it is fiery hot with chiles. Every morning at 4AM the owner prepares the sambar. At 6AM they open.

I eat slowly watching the street life that is transpiring all around. This is a small town and cows roam freely. The Hindus venerate cows and treat them kindly but they are shooed away from vegetable stalls and outdoor restaurants like this one but the cows are persistent and determined, well aware that they need not fear for their safety so they keep returning. One such cow kept coming back, determined to have breakfast too.

Coy Cow

Coy Cow Watching the Restaurant

With aplomb and nonchalance this cow strolled over to my table, placed her head on the table and looked at me with those doe eyes, giving me plenty of time to capture the moment.

Cow At My Table

Cow At My Table

The waiter cleared my plate, picked up a switch that was waiting for just this purpose and clucked loud and menacing noises at the cow, waving the switch in mock anger but the cow knew she had nothing much to fear and ambled off unruffled. The waiter brought my filter coffee and I sat back with pleasure, relishing its rich aroma and creamy taste, very amused to have witnessed idlis under attack.

 

 

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