I’m a pheriwalla.
bright–drab and colourful memories,
tears for the lips,
smiles for the eyes,
I’m a pheriwalla.
Colourful balloons of memories,
play on the shoulders
of colourful threads.
They scream when upset
and cling to the neck of the thread.
I’ll once again tie to these colourful threads
some new balloons and wander
in the streets and bazaars,
passing by doors,
sturdy and rickety,
bright–drab and colourful memories.
Tears for the lips,
smiles for the eyes,
come get them’
—Rahi Masoom Raza1
Among my memories of growing up in the 1980s in Bhubaneswar is a ritual engaged by my sister and me during the afternoons of our summer vacations. As kids we were strictly forbidden to eat street food. Chaat and sugarcane juice were absolute no-nos. The villain of the piece, however, was gupchup, the Odia equivalent of the much-loved Indian snack known in many avatars in different regions—panipuri, golgappa, phuchka, and so on. Our mother would periodically try to scare us by saying that the flavoured water of the gupchup is made with dirty water from the drain and that the mashed potato filling is generously mixed with the gupchupwala’s sweat! Notwithstanding these warnings or perhaps enchanted all the more by them, we plotted our way to the forbidden gupchup. On days that we had at least a rupee to spare—which meant a full plate comprising ten gupchups then—we would wait in anticipation for the tinkling sound of the gupchupwala doing the rounds of the neighbourhood in the afternoon. My sister would run out as the sound came closer to our house and ask the gupchupwala to wait for us two lanes away from the house. And then the two of us would sneak out to meet him at the agreed upon spot, quickly devour one gupchup after another, all the while wiping tears and leaking noses caused by the fiery flavoured water. We never skipped the convention of ending the snack with a slurp of just the flavoured water, followed by a sukha, a dry puri with just the potato filling. What made this ritual so exciting was not only a desire for the forbidden and the adventure of secretly planning for it but also the allure of a taste we believed had no parallel and could in no way be replicated at home—it was other-worldly, the stuff of dreams.
In conversations with residents of Delhi, a recurring theme in the nostalgia about the city’s past or one’s own life in the city is the figure of the pedlar—an itinerant seller of small wares or services. A college student talks about the chuskiwala she would frequent every day on the way back from school with her best friend and the arguments they would have on whose turn it was to pay for the chuski (ice-candy). An elderly woman tells me of the annual ritual of getting kalai (re-tinning) done on brass and copper utensils before Diwali by the kalaiwala who did the rounds of the neighbourhood, a practice on the wane with the shift to aluminium and stainless-steel utensils. A friend tells me of his childhood in the 1970s in Rajinder Nagar, a colony in central Delhi for Punjabi refugees that came up post-Partition, of how everyday life in the neighbourhood would be punctuated by the sounds of a steady stream of itinerant traders announcing their wares or services as they would do the rounds of the street on foot—the dhunaiwala (cotton fluffer) announcing his arrival by the twanging of his tool, the phalsewala crying out in a nasal tune ‘phalse lelo phalse … khatte meethe phalse’ (come get phalse [a berry] … sour and sweet phalse), the croaky long call of the scrap dealer simply repeating the name of his trade ’kabadiwala … kabadiwala’.
So, does the figure of the pedlar belong only in nostalgia? And are the pedlar’s wares only memories, as perhaps suggested in Rahi Masoom Raza’s (1927–1992) poem ‘Main ek pheriwala’ (I am a pedlar)? Why is the pedlar such a memorable figure in the city, yet a marginal and invisible one?
While pedlars have often formed the background of cinematic and literary depictions of the South Asian city, as also pre-colonial and colonial travelogues and memoirs, they are rarely the protagonists of any storytelling. There are some rare and iconic exceptions. There’s Tagore’s short story ‘Kabuliwala’ (1892), also adapted into various films, about the unusual relationship between a girl and Rahmat, a Pathan pedlar from Kabul who roams the streets of Calcutta selling dry fruits and shawls.
There’s the catchy song ‘Sar jo tera chakraye’ in the film Pyaasa (1957), sung by Abdul Sattar, a champiwala (masseur) and a faithful friend to the hero, played by the delightful Johnny Walker. The song follows the champiwala on the move, sometimes walking but mostly jumping and skipping in a park, with his bottles of oil in one hand and a folding chair tucked under the other arm, persuading people to try out a head massage. The champiwala presents a sales pitch in which his head massage is a cure for everything under the sun, from dandruff and baldness, a sinking heart and a spinning head, to misfortune and sorrow. My favourite lines from the song are: ‘naukar ho ya maalik, leader ho ya public, apne aage sabhi jhuke hain, kya raja kya sainik’ (servant or lord, leader or public, everyone bows before me, whether he’s a king or a soldier). The lines underline that the champiwala’s customers cut across class lines but more significantly emphasize his self-presentation as an equal rather than an inferior eking a living by wandering the streets.
And there’s Habib Tanvir’s play Agra Bazaar (1954), set in a marketplace in AD 1810 Agra, with no single protagonist but peopled by a vast cast of characters including itinerant vendors such as the chana-seller, the kakri-seller, the melon-seller, the laddoo-seller, the ice-seller and the ear-cleaner. The play is marked by the invisible presence of the poet Nazir Akbarabadi (c. 1735–1830), through his poems and rhymes recited by the characters in the play. The narrative of the play moves forward through the kakri-seller seeking out Nazir to write a rhyme for him to increase his sales.
Nazir’s work is itself a part of the rare exceptions that constitute the archive of peddling and various forms of street trade. Unheeded as a poet by his contemporaries, possibly because of his choice of ordinary subjects and the ordinary language of the people, Nazir was believed to effortlessly produce poems at the request of pedlars, street traders and beggars.2 While his body of work deals with various themes from social inequalities, humanism and the ephemerality of life, what makes his work distinct is his love for the bustling life of the marketplace, its (‘unpoetic’) everyday objects such as grains, spices, vegetables and fruits, and ordinary people, especially itinerant traders, working in the streets and bazaars of the city. No other poet could have transformed the humble kakri into such an alluring object: ‘Farhaad ki nigahein, Shirin ki hasliyan hain/Majnu ki sard aahein, Laila ki ungliyan hain’ (Like Farhaad’s liquid eyes or Shirin’s slender mould/Like Laila’s shapely fingers, or Majnu’s tears cold).3 At the same time, he also humanizes peddling, not by making it into something special but presenting it simply as one form of trade among others: ‘baithe hain admi hi dukaane laga-laga/aur admi hi phirte hain rakh sar pe khomcha’ (the one who sets up a shop and sits in it is only human/the one who roams with wares on the head is also human).
Modern urban planning has for long viewed peddling and various other forms of street trade as a disorderly, unproductive and even parasitical activity, which, with planned urban development, would die out and be replaced by the organized distribution networks of advanced capitalism. Within this modernist framing, the existence of the peddling—an ‘elementary’ mode of exchange conducted on foot—in the streets of cities is seen as an anachronism.
Gopal’s photographs of what he refers to as ‘walk economy’ documents the ubiquitous presence of the pedlar across varied streetscapes in contemporary Mumbai. His photographs do not exoticize the pedlar as a relic of the past but rather draw quiet attention to the diversity of ambulatory street characters who inhabit and form a part of Mumbai’s public places. Far from disappearing, pedlars have a pervasive presence in cities—around busy intersections such as traffic signals, metro stations, tourist spots, bus terminals, railway stations, religious places, public parks and monuments; within residential localities, neighbourhood markets and industrial areas; outside office complexes, educational institutions, hospitals, shopping centres and even malls and supermarkets. They ply an entire gamut of trades from knife-sharpening, shoe polishing, miracle cures and ear-cleaning to providing chai and snacks, as also a wide range of commodities. This essay is a response to the images captured by Gopal in his city Mumbai, from the location of my interest as an anthropologist in forms of walking in the city as well as the associational life of streets around the locus of economic activities.
Peddling is among the oldest forms of work across the world, even as it has undergone transformations through the ages in different regions. The category ‘walk economy’ coined by Gopal is an interesting choice in lieu of bringing together the terms ‘walk’ and ‘economy’. The dominant (Western) discourses on walking tend to conceptualize walking as a form of leisure, an intentionally unproductive and unplanned activity, and/or as something set apart from the drudgery of everyday life. These forms of walking are also deemed to be political, being expressively aimed at subverting the shackles of capitalist time or modulating the alienation4 of the modern (White) man. South Asians, particularly women writing on walking,5 more often than not, start with the disclaimer that walking is a luxury and not something that can be taken for granted. This disclaimer is significant in understanding the cultural and social constraints around who gets to, or not, aimlessly loiter. But this perspective too conflates walking with leisure, rather than viewing it as a body technique of movement, which becomes part of various practices—exercise, trekking, pilgrimage, protest marches, shopping, sociality, work or something else. The implication of conflating walking with leisure or non-work is that any walking that does not fit into the ideal type of ‘aimless loitering’ is not deemed political or worthy of attention or does not even qualify as walking. This is what makes Gopal’s coinage ‘walk economy’ a critical lens—it brings into focus a mode of walking that is invisible and taken for granted due to its ordinariness. Yet, it is significant, being inextricably connected with the carrying on of a trade and the making of everyday life and the economy of the city.
The terms ‘peddling’ and ‘pedlar’ are derived from the medieval Latin ‘pedarius’, meaning ‘one who goes on foot’ and the Latin ‘pes’, meaning ‘foot’. Their Proto-Indo-European root is ‘ped’, again meaning ‘foot’, the hypothetical source of which is believed to be the Sanskrit root ‘pad’, from which the word ‘padam’ or foot is derived.6 In the Indian context, pedlars and street traders are referred to by various colloquial terms derived from the commodity being traded: sabziwala (for vegetable sellers), kapdewala (for cloth sellers) or chakkuwala (for knife-grinders). But the most common and generic term used in Delhi and other parts of north India for the pedlar is pheriwala, derived from pheri, meaning circumambulation, and hence referring to someone who does the rounds.
Another word using the root ‘pheri’ is hera-pheri—the act of moving objects from here to there, usually through dubious means, sleight of hand or tricking—a trait, skill or vice that has historically been associated with the character of the pedlar across cultures and time periods.7 What is significant, however, is that ‘pheri’ highlights itinerancy, distinguishing peddling as mode of doing trade from trade conducted through a permanent shop as well as from street trade carried through semi-permanent structures at fixed spots.8
This itinerancy is both a constraint and a resource for the pedlar. On one hand, it means that the pedlar can only deal in small quantities, so as to remain mobile, thus limiting the expansion of his/her ‘shop’. The pedlar’s ‘shop’ is an extension of his/her body, as a basket or bundle on the head, a box or bag or board hanging from the shoulders or neck, a cycle or thela (cart) that is pushed, a bamboo stick or frame to which balloons, flutes, brooms or other objects for sale are attached. In some cases, the body is literally the ‘shop’ without the mediation of any accessories, with the arms, hands, shoulders or the neck serving as holders of diverse objects such as bags, belts, books, flowers and even bulky items like carpets and cane bookracks.
Walking with or as a ‘shop’ is a constraint that has to be continuously negotiated through specific body techniques. For instance, there is an economy of effort applied in walking with a thela. It involves applying not too much force or too little but just enough to make the thela move and not make the wares on it topple over as well not cause exertion. Continuous adjustments have to be made to the force applied to the thela, the pace of walking, the pressure on and position of the feet, the back posture, the angle of the shoulders in the course of maneuvering the thela through the uneven surfaces of the street—humps, broken patches, slopes—as well as between moving vehicles and bodies. While anyone walking in the street has to negotiate the materiality of the street and cannot walk in any way they please—the idea of aimlessly loitering with unbridled freedom is a myth—but walking with a shop extending from or attached to your body has its specific challenges. If the movement of a pedlar appears effortless and elegant, it is because it is a skill honed with practice rather than an easy and mechanical act of just expending energy. In addition to the skills of movement, the pedlar has dexterity across various other activities that he has to simultaneously engage in—being on the lookout for prospective customers, drawing their attention or accosting them, sales talk and bargaining tactics.
On the other hand, being on the move is what makes for the pedlar’s flexibility in seeking customers and potential markets, ranging from a pavement and a beach to a railway platform and the compartment of a train. But more significantly, being on the move, pedlars are better suited to dodge regulation and the payment of bribes to the police and municipal authorities, which is something that stationary street vendors can rarely escape in contemporary Indian cities. Tracing the history of peddling and its adaptability over different time periods, Braudel writes, ‘Peddling is and always has been a way of getting round the sacrosanct market, a way of cocking a snook at established authority.’9 Whether it was eighteenth-century Venice or nineteenth-century Paris, he points out that authorities were unable to control the proliferation of peddling—they would keep removing pedlars and the pedlars would just keep coming back. And it was impossible to arrest everyone given the large numbers of people engaged in peddling.
One sees similar challenges faced by the colonial government in Delhi. With the setting up of the Delhi Municipal Committee in 1863, the new municipal bye-laws brought in stringent regulations proscribing selling on the streets and occupying pedestrian pathways. However, this was impossible to implement. A report10 of the Delhi municipality states: ‘It has been a daily experience that a hawker11 would leave a place when asked to but would invariably return to it a few minutes after. He gives a false name and address and cannot be traced when prosecuted.’ In addition to flouting municipal regulations and absconding, street traders also engaged in other forms of resistance such as attacking municipal officials, refusing to pay fines and even challenging the new rules in courts. The formation of the municipality and the enforcement of street regulation by the colonial state marks a rupture—the transformation of the street as a site of social and economic life to a space of transit. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that this rupture was neither complete nor unchallenged.
Processes of gentrification and ‘beautification’ of public places in contemporary Indian cities are very much a continuation of the colonial legacy of attempting to order and discipline the street. Architectural devices such as gates and walls in thoroughfares, arbitrary placement of police barricades, signboards put up by RWAs prohibiting the entry of pheriwalas in certain residential areas or specifying timings when they can operate, deployment of guards in gated colonies, and arbitrary municipal and police crackdowns are among various measures aimed at restricting or prohibiting the movement of pedlars in present-day Delhi. However, except for some posh or aspiring-to-be-posh localities, pedlars continue to operate across neighbourhoods and other public places, negotiating varying degrees of precarity, harassment and prejudices. Most gated ‘colonies’ that otherwise restrict or prohibit the operation of pheriwalas make an exception for a limited number of vegetable and fruit sellers to either roam its lanes or operate just outside their gates. The desire for fresh produce, the convenience of getting it at your doorstep, the pleasure of haggling, and the obsession with free dhania and mirchi make these exceptions possible. Even the poshest islands of affluence in the city, which allow for no exception, have various itinerant and other street traders supplying food, tea, paan and tobacco, cycle repair and cobbling services on the periphery of their boundaries. These traders cater to the wide cast of working people who ‘serve’ the residents. It is in fact the ‘bourgeois city’ that needs street trade the most so as to maintain a ‘service population with lower wages’.12
The shrinking of formal-sector employment and the inadequacy of formal retail to be accessible to the ever-expanding city and its poor are oft-cited explanations for the continuation of peddling in big cities, even as these cities increasingly have more choices for ‘hygienic’ and aspirational shopping. These reasons in themselves are, however, inadequate in explaining the popularity of this mode of trade among a customer-base that cuts across classes. By their presence, along with their objects and services, competitive prices, persuasive sales pitches, pedlars also create a demand rather than just fill a demand–supply gap.
Unlike a shop or a market that you go to or seek out, the pedlar comes to you or is in your proximity while you are on the move in the city. He reminds you of something you might need (fresh produce, a broom, a cover for your mobile phone, handkerchiefs or a new zip for your bag) or creates a desire for something that cannot be categorized as ‘essential’ (mouth-watering gupchups, piping hot momos, fluorescent plastic animals, potted plants). Pedlars offer ‘both the stuff of everyday life and the stuff of dreams’,13 both of which are bound with the continuity of ordinary life in the city.
Perhaps, there’s another way to read Masum’s poem—the wares of the pheriwala, as also the figure of the pheriwala, become a part of the memories continuously acquired in the course of living in the city. What the pheriwala has to offer is not only a tangible object, cheap or expensive, but also feelings and desires, with the potential to affect you, bring that ‘tear to the lip’ or ‘smile to the eyes’, something to hold on to in the form of memory and continuously seek because desires are ‘evergreen’. If the balloons in Masum’s poem are a metaphor for pedlars’ wares and the threads attached to the balloons, the practice of peddling, then the history of peddling is as much about the pressures on the thread as about continuously tying new balloons to the thread.
All images © Mumbai Paused, aka Gopal MS.
Complement this essay by Samprati with her piece ‘There’s something about the street’ on the characters that inhabit and make a street in an east Delhi neighbourhood.
1. For the original Hindi poem, see https://poshampa.org/main-ek-pheriwala-nazm-rahi-masoom-raza/, accessed on 20 September 2020. Translation mine.
2. Habib Tanvir, ‘Preface to the First Edition’, Agra Bazaar, trans. by Javed Malick, Seagull: Calcutta, 2006.
3. Habib Tanvir, ‘Preface to the Revised Edition’, Agra Bazaar, trans. by Javed Malick, Seagull: Calcutta, 2006, p. 23.
4. Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, USA: Penguin, 2014, p. 26.
5. See, for instance, Taran K. Khan, Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul, India: Penguin Random House India Private Limited, 2019; Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2011. Also see Manan Ahmed’s essay in Chiragh Dilli, ‘A step in New York/A footfall in Lahore’, 2022.
6. https://www.etymonline.com/word/peddler, accessed on 10 October 2022.
7. See Laurence Fontaine, The History of Pedlars in Europe, trans. by Vicki Whittaker, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1996, on representations of the pedlar as a rogue or trickster, a half-merchant and half-thief, in the context of Europe.
8. I prefer the term ‘pedlar’ rather than ‘street vendor’ as this essay focuses on a sub-set of street traders who are on the move by walking. The latter is a generic term for all kinds of street traders, including stationary ones. It became popular from the 1970s in discourses of the informal economy, and in the Indian context with the lobbying for a national policy on street vendors and the subsequent promulgation of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014.
9. Braudel, Fernand, Civilization and Capitalism: 15th–18th. Volume II: The Wheels of Commerce. London: Book Club Associates, 1983 , p. 80.
10. Report on the Administration of the Delhi Municipality for the Year 1930–31, vol. I, p. 50, quoted in Jyoti Hosagrahar, Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism, London and New York: Taylor & Francis, 2009, p. 156.
11. The term ‘hawker’ comes into usage in India with British colonialism. It has a pejorative connotation, attributing the spying and thievish habits of the bird (hawk) to the figure of the pedlar. See Fontaine, The History of Pedlars, 1996.
12. Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay, ‘Negotiating Informality: Changing Faces of Kolkata’s Footpaths, 1975–2005’, PhD dissertation, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, 2010, p. 95.
13. Fontaine, The History of Pedlars, 1996, p. 2.