June 23, 2005

Under the bananas

Name's Sanjay. No more than 16 or 17, he used to sell bananas nearby. Whether or not we bought from him, he always had a cheery wave for us as we passed, particularly if our little chatterbox was along.

One afternoon, I heard a commotion. Looked down in time to see a man run up -- yes, he actually trotted up as if on a mission -- and deliberately overturn Sanjay's cart, spilling bananas all over the driveway opposite. Ever watch dozens of bunches of bananas cascade onto the road? Believe me, there's something unsettling about it. Anyway, the man then trundled Sanjay's cart off to a municipal truck at the corner, where a small crowd had gathered. I could see several local vendors -- sandwich man, key maker, old fruit man -- in the crowd. All arguing with the municipal officials, who were taking away their carts and stands.

Just another Municipal crackdown on street hawkers. Just another round of harassing people who work hard for a living, work hard to run tiny businesses. Just another step on that glorious path that will turn Bombay into Shanghai: demolish slums here, overturn bananas there.

Sanjay's cart vanishes into the maw of the truck. But he's not with the arguing crowd. He stands there in freeze-frame, staring down at bananas that carpet a driveway.

Eventually, Sanjay picks up his fruit. Within an hour, he has found a way to display them again for his customers. Now they lie on a large sheet of cardboard that itself sits on two supports. One is a frail-looking plywood crate. The other, a familiar artifact that someone on one of our buildings had no more use for, so simply dumped on the side of the road. Sanjay has retrieved it from there.

A commode.

Life carries on. Sanjay's banana business hardly suffered. His cheery wave returned. All his customers continued buying from him. I don't know how many noticed that the bananas sat on an old crapper.

I don't know too what saddens me most: the vanished cart? The callousness of dumping the fruit on the side of the road? Municipal willingness to crack down on people like Sanjay? Municipal unwillingness to fully crack down on him, so he can and will be tormented again? Or a white ceramic pot under bananas?


Anonymous said...

Temme, friend D, have you also not curse the slum dwellers and the lot yourself? AND, BTW, having been to Shanghai, lemme tell ya.. Mumbai could NEVER catch up ... and more importantly, it shouldna want to. The damn place is actually OUT OF BOUNDS for Chinese without a permit. Imagine the same thing in Mumbai.

Amrit said...

What saddens me is our inertia against such callousness. These municipality guys cannot bully the big builders who encroach the public land and flout every law of the land. Their writ runs large on only poor people who are trying to earn a living without resorting to looting and cheating. I think whenever this happens, the locality people should take a stand and support these small, courageous vendors.


Sriram said...

I am sure this is someone's idea of "city planning". Planning doesn't sound like such a good idea now, does it Dilip?

May be you can try explaining the concepts of "common good" and "individual sacrifices" to Sanjay.

What you wanted to do to car owners, someone else wants to do to slum dwellers and banana vendors!

I remember, at that time, you had argued that city plannings has worked well in other countries. Well, looks like someone else is using the same argument - Shanghai is in another country, right?

Force is always wrong, not just when it suits you.

This incident is quite tragic and so is what is happening with the slum dwellers. The only realistic solution is to strengthen private property ownership and rights.

Neela said...


What would you have done?

Here is what I would have done.

If I had been on the road, I would probably have helped Sanjay pick up the bananas. If I were watching from my flat, I would've heaved a sigh and then gone about my business. If I were in a rickshaw passing by, the rickshaw driver and I would have exchanged some cynical thoughts (his mostly) on the municipality and making mumbai like shanghai. Of course if the rickshawwala was a flashy young fellow who played loud hindi music and wore sunglasses, I would be careful to not be too chatty. That evening as I went to buy bananas, I would've struck up a conversation with Sanjay. Instead of the usual Kaise Hai? I would've probably asked Kya Hua? Kya karen, memsaab (my kelawala is an oldish guy so he probably would use baby on me) yeh municipality log ka kya pata.. haan, I would've sympathized, kya karen. He would probably tell me about it while i bought the bananas. Maybe other customers would also sympathize. I would buy a couple of extra bananas to take home. And then say goodbye, accha see you tomorrow.

What would you have done?


Anonymous said...

Dilip, you have your sanjay, and I have my Bangladeshi bai... people who get kicked about for no reason other than as vent for the kickers' frustration... with sanjay, what would I have done? expressed sympathy? bought a couple more bananas? how would that help...?

R. said...

Very touching portrayal of an everyday event. A reminder that I should at the very least care about this.

Dilip D'Souza said...

?!, all I can say is, I plan never to visit Shanghai. Permit or not. The first sentence of your comment, I could not follow.

Sriram, "what I wanted to do to car owners"? Even given our differences, I would love to hear from you where I expressed a desire to overturn cars and demolish them. And even if you meant this metaphorically, I would love to hear where I've expressed any desire to get rid of cars.

Sanjay's case is the fallout of the pernicious license-raj we struggle under: it serves only to harass the most vulnerable among us and institutionalize corruption. I have no idea what "planning" has to do with this. But you do.

Charu and Neela, there are ways to protest this, if you want to. Here's one thing that I tried, a couple of years ago. People from the buildings along my street formed an "ALM" group to fight, among other things, the "hawker menace" here. I attended the early meetings, and when they raised this subject, I contested it. How many of you buy from the vegetable seller who you are complaining about, I asked. Most did. But they still wanted him tossed out! Then they objected to the tea seller on the pavement outside. Nobody there patronized him, but he is popular, especially with the residents of the small slum pocket immediately behind him, with the fishermen's colony nearby. None of those residents, needless to say, were at our meeting. Unlikely, it seemed to me, that they would want the tea seller gone.

The upshot of this was, the vegetable and tea sellers are still around. The other upshot was, I no longer am asked to attend the meetings. But there you are.

Sriram said...

Of course, I mean metaphorically. You may not want to get rid of cars, you certainly want to make it harder for people to own and drive around in cars (by financial penalties and so on).

Bottomline: if someone wants to own a car and can afford it, rather than leave them alone, you would like to restrict them (force) in some way.

Tanuj said...

dilip, the law might be an ass but it is still the law. there are some rules that i must abide by, and so must sanjay. so sanjay starts selling bananas from this public space and you say it is fine, even if you know he is breaking some silly law. next he might set up a tea stall in your building, you might still it is fine. after all, he is poor and he waves cheerily. but at what point do you draw the line and say, hey this is not right? and who is to decide how much we should stretch that line?

Amrit, let's talk about callousness. a couple of years ago, a friend got hit by a speeding police qualis. (he was in a car, thankfully). the damage to his car was significant. after days of getting harrassed, he had to pay a packet for "repairs" to the cops for their govt vehicle! does that make him small and courageous? especially, if he were to cheerily wave at people? callousness happens to everyone, cheery or grumpy, small or large, and yes, to the inert, apathetic middle class too.

Also, question for you: suppose you were the municipal officer doing your job, entrusted with a sickening task of “clearing” up a pavement. you find cheery old sanjay selling bananas from his cart. what would you do? I know municipal officers can be mean bastards, but assume you were a nice officer, but you still had to do your job - what would you do?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sriram, you talk about "financial penalties", and you say, if someone owns a car and can afford it...

Tell me, what do you think makes up the (approx) Rs 46/litre price of petrol?

Answer: taxes. Another word for "financial penalties". Yet car owners are paying that price willingly, and keep paying it even though it rises steadily, every now and then. They can afford it, and pay it, even if the penalties increase. Why? Why not make petrol free, since "financial penalties" are a bad thing?

What am I saying? Road space is limited. Parking space is limited. Many people must use this space. What's the most efficient way to use it, given that the majority of the users of the space do NOT own cars?

How you are able to equate this to demolishing homes and leaving people to sleep on their rubble is beyond me.

The last on this subject, too.

Tanuj, what gets me is not that Sanjay is a poor man. It's the unnecessary and perverse laws whose only use is as a tool for corruption. In these kinds of operations, I would be happy if the Municipality cracked down completely and firmly on the Sanjays. Take away their stuff and never allow them back. But as you and I know, they don't do that. Whether Sanjay or other hawkers or the local paanwalla, they are back in business in hours, and the Municipality comes around in another couple of weeks to do the same merry-go-round. In my book, this is harrassment.

If this is how the Municipality applies the law, then pending repeal of these idiotic laws, I'd like to see the Municipality NOT apply them at all.

Anonymous said...

Actually Dilip, I think one should take a more proactive approach to this issue rather than just protesting.

Does your apartment have a compound/enclosure ? Why not get this boy to put his stall inside the building - no muncipal corporation authorities will touch him inside the building !!

On the other hand if there is no such facility then you can convince the ground floor residents to partition one room in their house (which has a window) and have this boy put up a stall over there :)