He is well known for the immersive heritage walks he conducts across various parts of Delhi, and his narratives about the city’s history and architecture. He has worked on many historical and cultural aspects of Delhi, including weekly markets.
Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted by Ashish Kumar Yadav on January 9, 2019 at the office of Sahmat (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), New Delhi.
Ashish Kumar Yadav (AKY): What is a weekly market and why it is important to study weekly markets in the context of Delhi?
Sohail Hashmi (SH): Weekly markets are traditionally connected to villages. So, wherever you have villages in the country, you would have the tradition of shopkeepers who set temporary shops in villages once a week on a specific day at a particular place. Weekly markets are also called hafta bazaars [weekly markets] and peths [which translate to localities in Marathi], like Pune has its mangalwar [Tuesday] peth. Weekly bazaars cater to the village population, who are mostly self-sufficient in grain and pulses.
When these markets were set up, the villagers sold what they produced and bought what they did not have. For example, say, some villagers wove clothes while others did not but they needed fabric, and there were those who needed other articles to sustain themselves. It was through this barter that these markets came into existence.
If we discuss Delhi in the context of weekly markets, the city was not how it has spread out now. The first urban setup was Mehrauli, where Lal Kot [which was the first fort in Delhi] came up, then one by one there were six capitals set up in different parts. But throughout the large spaces of Delhi, there were hundreds of small villages and these weekly markets catered to them.
After the capital shifted from Calcutta to Delhi in 1912, many villages were relocated or acquired, leaving behind small villages scattered across the landscape. But the weekly markets continued to operate as per tradition. Even in places where villages have disappeared and marketplaces have shifted, shopkeepers have continued their centuries-old tradition of setting up temporary markets.
AKY: Please describe the evolution of these markets in Delhi from ancient to modern times?
SH: In ancient times, as I have mentioned, weekly markets existed to cater to the demands of the villages. With time, these markets grew due to the increase in population.
Earlier, the weekly markets used to mostly sell utility goods but in the last 50 to 60 years people’s needs have also changed. The markets have had to expand to accommodate those needs. In the older times, farmers in villages cultivated vegetables for their own consumption so the demand for fresh vegetables was low but they needed more readymade things such as papad and bari [dried lentil dumplings] that were sold at the weekly markets.
Other things that have become popular over time in these markets are readymade garments and plastics. This entire business of garments is very new; it is not a traditional merchandise. The whole lot of plastics was not available earlier either. But now, with the increasing demand, these things are also sold at the weekly markets.
AKY: What is the sociocultural and economic importance of these markets?
SH: There is a phenomenal increase in the number of traders and merchants selling their products in weekly markets. Now these markets are becoming so large that there could be hundreds of shops in one bazaar. So, there are regulations to allocate specific places for these hafta bazaars.
People buy products such as rejected garments, shoes and a whole lot of factory produce, so they also serve as distribution centres for these types of products. These products cannot be found in regular markets as they are rejects and, at times, defective but some people use them.
A phenomenal range of ready-made food is available in hafta bazaars, from the traditional jalebi—which has been sold for centuries after it arrived in India from Turkey—to hamburgers with potato tikkis [cutlets], chowmein and momo sold on pushcarts. A whole new set of people have entered this market. I do not think there were originally so many varieties of readymade food available. This is because traditionally people did not go out to eat. Fast foods like chhole kulche [chickpeas and flatbread] and chhole bhature [chickpeas and fluffy bread from wheat flour] have now become an essential part of the weekly markets. There were fewer people selling these about 30 years ago.
There are actually two classes of people who buy from these markets. First, we have the daily-wage labourers, rickshaw pullers, pushcart pullers and head-load workers, who earn on a daily basis and therefore do not have enough money to buy and store groceries in advance. They buy enough supply for a week and return every week.
The other class is the middle-class population that lives around the old villages. These markets cater to them as well. The Mahipal market gets a lot of people coming from Vasant Kunj. The Rajapur market gets a lot of people from residential and cooperative societies around the area. People living in these places go to the markets to buy fresh vegetables. They also buy items other than vegetables as they find cheaper products in these markets.
AKY: What really determines the variety of goods found in these markets?
SH: As I mentioned earlier, markets are set up around the old villages of Delhi. As the villages have changed, there are whole new sets of people—such as students preparing for the competitive exams, people in jobs, nurses working in hospitals—who stay in the areas nearby. Hafta bazaars are catering to the demands of these people. So, if people from Kerala live near the market, commodities in the market will include readymade dosa, sambar and spices used in South India.
Patparganj, in the trans-Yamuna area, has a sizeable population of Kashmiris, so the hafta bazaar there specialises in the green vegetables that Kashmiris use. So, the type of product available in these markets changes according to consumer needs.
AKY: How do factors like class, caste, gender and region affect these markets?
SH: These factors affect the markets in the same way as caste operates in India—specific castes have specific work to do. Traditionally, it might have made a difference but caste does not operate in the city in a very pronounced way. For example, you cannot ask the caste of a person who is selling something in the market. Although it is true that in most cases those selling vegetables now are likely to belong to the same caste as those who did that historically, it is not a given anymore. But still, there are some castes who stick to specific work.
As far as gender is concerned, hafta bazaar is somehow similar to the regular market. You can see the number of women behind cash counters in Connaught Place market. However, these weekly markets have a larger proportion of women participation than regular markets. Women selling vegetables and other items is quite usual.
AKY: Explain the sustenance of these markets in the increasing mall culture? Why do we need to save these markets?
SH: These markets exist not only in India but all over the world. In Europe, they are called gypsy markets. When gypsies came to sell things, people came to these markets from long distances to hear their songs and music. They bought specific artefacts made by them.
Some people consider weekly markets a nuisance but these markets have a history, and most of the markets were there even before many of us came to the city. They need to be preserved as they are embodiments of our living traditions and mark their continuity.
If you observe any mall, you will see a large number of people just walking around there because they cannot afford the cost of the mall’s products. There are only a few who can buy from the malls. An overwhelming number of people go to weekly markets because they cater to their daily needs. Weekly markets provide goods and services to the majority of the population and thus they should be preserved for them.
AKY: In what ways do you think urbanisation, globalisation and modernisation have affected the hafta bazaars?
SH: Because of globalisation, we are now manufacturing for export, but the products that do not go for export are dumped in the weekly markets. The weekly markets have more plastic than ever before.
One can easily find imitations of branded clothes, shoes and food in weekly markets. For example, if you go to McDonald’s to buy burgers, you will pay a couple of hundred rupees, but you can buy a burger in the hafta bazaar at a fraction of the price. The weekly markets regularly imitate the West and make available the cheapest versions of popular brands. How healthy are these products? That is the subject for another discussion.
With the coming of big retail stores, which are buying directly from the farmers and selling to the customers, weekly markets are suffering. When these markets become fewer or cease to exist, the majority from the lower middle class, workers and labourers, who rely on weekly market to get vegetables, pulses and spices at lower prices, will be affected.
AKY: All weekly markets sell commodities of daily use but some markets such as the books market and Chor Bazaar have specific characteristics. Please comment on these specialised weekly markets.
SH: The book bazaar is in Daryaganj [it was ordered to be shut by the Delhi High Court in August, 2019]. It started from Delhi Gate and continued to the ‘iron bridge’ [Old Yamuna Bridge]. You could get very good second-hand books in this area. I have picked some of the rarest books in my collection from this market. But the number of people who specialise in buying and selling these books is falling. Now the market primarily caters to those who are appearing for competitive exams. So, all kinds of business books, journals, magazines, and books like the ones that teach students how to master computer language are available here. It has become more utilitarian.
The other extreme of this market, where Jama Masjid ends, sold second-hand goods such as chargers, radios and old gramophones. It was initially moved behind the Red Fort and is now at the Indira Gandhi stadium.
When senior bureaucrats are transferred, they dispose of a lot of stuff in the weekly markets. Embassy staff also discard many things in these markets when they move. The items are in good condition but cannot be taken along. People go to weekly markets to buy these things at very cheap rates.
There are a lot of shops where you can buy different clothes and get them fitted. When I was in college we would go to these markets to buy perfectly woven trousers for Rs 25–30—one could get them fitted as per the requirement for Rs 30–40. So, for Rs 70–80 one could get very good trousers. Students use these markets to buy clothes, jeans and jackets. This business began near Subhash Park. Now if you go to Subhash Park on Sunday, you can see thousands of people buying second-hand clothes and getting them altered according to their needs.
Over the years, weekly markets have also been relocated and closed in the name of cleaning the city space.
AKY: What is the history of pheri in Delhi? Do you see pheriwalas [travelling sellers] as upholders of culture and traditions? How are they related to weekly markets?
SH: [Though they started with a market at Red Fort] Pheriwalas are not confined to Delhi any longer. They are now present in villages as well, especially in the bigger villages.
I remember the people who had cows and buffaloes would sell milk, ghee and buttermilk through the pheri system. Buttermilk is used to make kadhi [a gravy made with chickpea flour and curd]. Pheriwalas would regularly visit residential areas to sell buttermilk. Fruit sellers used to visit in the summer months with bel [wood apple] and other fruits. So, pheri is a very old tradition. The famous halwai [sweet seller] Ghantewala, who closed shop after being in Chandni Chowk for 225 years, began as a pheriwala. The sweet shop owner would prepare sweets and carry them on his head in large metal plates, ringing a bell to announce his arrival as he walked from one residential area to another.
This culture of announcing the product has been there for a long time in Delhi but it is not unique to Delhi or India. It has been a tradition all over the east. This could be true for Europe as well. This system of marketing was particularly followed by hawkers who specialised in certain items, for example the kulfiwala [a vendor who sells a type of Indian ice cream] or the person who sells daulat ki chaat [a dessert made from milk]. This tradition grew as eating out was not considered good and women were not encouraged to go outside their houses. If women wanted to buy something they would walk till the threshold of their house and buy what they needed from the pheriwalas who travelled from home to home selling their products.
These pheriwalas, who were largely mobile vendors, also sold through weekly markets. [They were especially important for their unique link in the supply chain as they also often followed the barter economy. For example, they would go to houses and exchange utensils for second-hand clothes, which they would later refurbish and sell at the weekly markets.]
AKY: To sum up, please elaborate on the importance of weekly markets and their cultural and socioeconomic necessity. How do you envisage their future?
SH: Weekly markets cater to a very large population with the variety of products they provide. The old villages are now highly populated with young executives, students and workers who get little time to go out, so once a week they go to these markets to buy everything they need. Thus, these markets fill a major gap. Personally, I do not think that the kind of service they provide can be replaced; weekly markets will continue to thrive.