Those of us who are used to the city’s way of life are perhaps most accustomed to the neat aisles of packaged glory that are on display in the supermarket chains that have become integral parts of our modern existence. But in the rural parts of the south Indian state of Telangana, there exists an age-old sphere of human activity quite distinct from the strictly commercial enterprise of the modern-day supermarkets – the weekly village bazaar, known locally as the village santa, mandi, bazaar.
A village haat is a far more exciting place for your weekly grocery shopping than an average supermarket. It is not just a hub of economic exchange, but also a node of social interactions. One can find almost everything in a village haat, from organically grown turnips to fresh river fish to a copy of the most recent Adidas flip-flops. It is quite truly a feast for the senses!
Each week on the special market day, people living in remote villages venture out to the haat to sell their produce mounting on the most trusted mode of transportation of rural India: the bicycle. Clay pots filled to the brim with thick rich curd covered with banana leaves to protect it from the dusty commute, combs of local varieties of bananas, squashes of pumpkins secured with ropes made of bamboo strips are all delicately balanced on this crafty vehicle. It gives an onlooker a sense of immense gratification to witness these bounty-laden bicycles on their way to the bazaar serially, one after another.
Once in the haat, one enters a completely different universe. A flurry of activity is interspersed with spontaneous conversations overs sips of tea from the local tea stall. The vendors and their buyers engage in more than just selling and buying; relationships are built in the haat. A buyer knows of that one special vendor who sells the creamiest sweet potatoes, or the lady selling fish notices that your mother has not come with you to the market today.
Another vendor guarantees that the pumpkin that you have bought from her will give you the sweetest of curries and in your heart, you begin to look forward to tasting that sweet pumpkin curry you will cook later in the day. A familiarity is fostered that transforms the mundane activity of buying groceries for the week into an experience in collective living.
The virtues of wholesome living
Something about the quality of life rooted in the sustenance derived from these local networks is different from that derived from the mass-produced chemical laced sustenance on sale in large supermarkets in the numerous cities of India. This quality transcends the rationality of merely eating well to understanding the virtues of wholesome living.
But the village haat is not only a space for gastro-economic exchange. It is also a site for contemplation. Important conversations take place in the village haat, some concerning the impacts of climate change on food crops, and others about the recent local elections. It is not uncommon to walk into a debate between a vendor and her customer about local politics and its impact on agriculture while attempting to buy a kilogram of onions.
The interaction here is not between two individuals, but between two distinct standpoints in societies, with the vendor representing completely different socio-political concerns than her customer. The village haat then represents a place where one can understand how the other half lives. It is quite distinct from the individualised and siloed experience of a weekly trip to the local supermarket.
A site of cultural diversity
The village bazaar represents a site of cultural diversity rooted in our bucolic origins. However, today we have come to view it as something of an unsophisticated antiquity, relegating it to the rural domain. It is fast disappearing with the rapid ingress of industrially produced food into our kitchens. Farmed, packaged and processed foods are coming to be increasingly viewed as unhealthy, unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly.
This alone has prompted us to revisit our opinions of the local village bazaars. But something else is at stake here that has to do with a more sustainable, holistic and an empathetic way of life that was very recently ours, but that which we have begun to lose. The current crisis of climate change mandates that we revise our consumption patterns and review our relationship with nature. The west must work harder on this than societies like ours that are culturally closer to nature.
In this sense, the village bazaar can be viewed as a way of reinforcing local networks and cultural wisdom surrounding sustainable living. We must consider the benefits of reinvigorating such spaces in our cities to open-up avenues into an alternative, less carbon intensive way of life. Only when we appreciate the worth of what we already have can we design a future that is worth having. #KhabarLive