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Landmarks of My Life: The Street Vendor Women Who Mark the Borders of My Existence

Edited by C. Chandrawala (based on an article by Aparajita Sharma and Dipjyoti Konwar)

Artwork by Roshan Gawand

The thing is, I pass by her every day. This woman sitting under a tree at the intersection just before my house is such a marker in my life that I sometimes refer to her as a landmark by which I can navigate friends and visitors to my house. She sells something, though if you were to press me, I’m not sure that I could really identify what. I just know her - the image of her - with the sari hiked up for ease and the low bun that mirrors the small bulb of her nose-pin. Some kind of fabric spread out over the bare broken concrete, and her wares piled in small distinct piles atop. Hair ties and stationary perhaps, or was it children’s toys?

I wonder sometimes at the world’s which are carried in those bundles, whose knots have been tied so many times that even untied, they resemble the warped and weary crispness of freshly fried pakoras left to sit in the rain. The four bangles that seem like they’ve been chiming since the beginning of time and will continue to do so into perpetuity. Part of me worries that she’s become a static part of my being - that I’ve lost sight of her as a person.

The thing is, as ridiculous as this sounds, I’m never really sure how I’m supposed to react here. Morning after morning I walk by, look over; pass a curt smile-that’s-not-quite-a-smile; continue on my way. Every day, the same thought cycles. “I wish I could help. At least she’s working. I shouldn’t presume to understand. What’s not to understand? Poverty is poverty. Should I call it poverty? Is it empowerment if she’s selling things? I don’t think this is what ‘women’s entrepreneurship’ was supposed to look like. I wish I could help.” and off we go again. The cycle repeats like a bad hook from an Anu Malik track.

And always, in the end, I’m stunned by how little I know of her life. How sadly misplaced any perception I might have of the situation would be. Wouldn’t it be nice, at the very least, to actually understand?

C. Chandrawala highlights research written by the University Of Delhi’s Aparajita Sharma and Dipjyoti Konwar who look at forms of struggle for space in cities, which woman vendors experience in their everyday life, through the narrative of Gomiben who lives in an urban resettlement colony in west Delhi.

This is Gomiben: Woman Street Vendor

This is the life of Gomiben, a widowed 36-year-old street vendor, who lives in an urban resettlement colony called Raghubir Nagar, just behind the big malls of Rajouri Garden in West Delhi.

In this area lives the Gujarati community called Baghri or Devipujok jati, whose main occupation is vending of old clothes. The Baghri community migrated from Gujarat a few decades ago and like other Baghri people in the community, Gomiben’s family has also been involved in old cloth vending for generations. She started vending at the age of 11. She was a class 6 student then, and good at her studies.

Initially, she rarely went out for vending with her relatives or parents. Gradually, the frequency of her casual vending started increasing and by class 8, she had dropped out of school. Her parents, family and relatives were of the view that their only purpose was to carry forward the tradition of vending, and so there was no point in wasting money on her further education. So, Gomiben became a full-time old cloth vendor at the age of 13 years. She got married at the age of 15 years to an old cloth vendor from the same community.

A snapshot of her daily routine

Every day, Gomiben is ready by 4 am, to go to the nearby cloth market locally known as ‘Mandi’. The Mandi is held near the Ghorewala Mandir, a temple right in the heart of Raghubir Nagar. She points out that some people get to the Mandi as early as 2 am, to get a suitable spot to sell their stock of old clothes. The struggle for this spot at the Mandi is a daily battle for all vendors and in order to ensure a place, one needs to occupy it as early as possible.

By 10 am ‘byaparis’ or buyers come to the market. Some buyers come to buy pieces for themselves, but mostly they come for wholesale buying. Gomiben says, “Actually, most of us vendors have to sell our collected old clothes by weight. For every kilogram of old clothes, the price ranges from Rs 1.5 to Rs 5. Only a few selected pieces of good quality clothes are sold separately. A good old silk saree may be sold for Rs 100–200, but generally, a normal cotton saree is worth only Rs 10–15. Most vendors do not manage to clean, repair and sell old clothes on their own because they do not have enough time. Therefore, they sell their clothes at wholesale rates. The better-off vendors in the community who do not go collecting clothes themselves usually buy these clothes; they store, clean and darn them and then sell them.” Gomiben also sells her clothes at wholesale rates as she does not have the time to invest in mending, patching and selling the pieces at a better rate. By mid-morning every day, she has sold off her old clothes.

By 11 am she goes to a shop that sells utensils, to buy goods including steel utensils, as per the demand of the customers. The number of utensils she buys depends on how much capital she can invest daily or weekly. Sometimes she gets only 2–3 buckets or a few steel plates. Gomiben says, “Ajkal mobile hone se bahut subidha ho gayi hai. Kuch grahak aise hain jeenko hum kafi dino se jante hain……woh log hummen phone kar dete hain jab bhi unke pass kapde jama ho jaate hain aur unko kaun sa bartan chahiye” (Mobile phones have come as a blessing for us. Some of our old customers phone and tell us whenever they have old clothes piled up at home and what utensils they want in exchange). Only a few vendors can afford to buy utensils in bulk. Most of them buy utensils of daily use. After buying the utensils Gomiben goes out for vending, that is, collecting old clothes. She then travels from one neighbourhood to another, shouting out loudly to attract the attention of women in middle class households. She roams around the whole day, moving from colony to colony to barter utensils for old clothes. Previous customers do not often call people like Gomiben for business. They call them once in a blue moon. So, they have no choice but to go around looking for new customers every day.

Her work does not allow her to think much about food. She does not eat regular meals. Whatever and whenever she gets something, she eats it. Sometimes, a lady is kind enough to offer them food. Otherwise they have to buy it. Gomiben buys meals from street stalls, meals like chole bhature or chowmien or roti-sabji. She does not get time to cook. Children in such homes are generally given money to eat some food from food stalls during the day. After roaming for the entire day collecting old clothes, Gomiben gets back home around 8–8.30 pm.

She has a cup of tea and then cooks rotis for dinner or asks somebody else at home to cook instead. By 9.30–10 pm she is back at work sorting out the collected clothes. She sorts out clothes according to the quality, and how old it is. This takes time depending on what she has managed to collect during the day. She has to finish all these tasks before she sleeps, to be ready to sell these clothes the next morning. She then makes separate bundles of clothes and keeps them ready to sell the next day. She finally goes to sleep by midnight, only to wake up at 4 am for another day’s work.

An Unyielding Cycle of Hazards

This is how Gomiben’s daily life has been for many years now. Every Monday, she takes the day off from work to clean the house and cook for her family, things she does not have time for on other days. She believes that due to their irregular and very tedious daily work, women of the vending community grow old sooner. She remarks,“hummari vendor behnen rozz itna jee tod mehnat karti hain ki unko din ki rest bhi naseeb nahi hoti………….isliye hum log jaldi burhi ho jate hain….kothiyon mein jo log rehte hain unko accha rest milti hai.” (The women in this occupation do such tedious work on a daily basis and yet never get an opportunity to rest. This is why we grow old sooner. People who live in big houses, they get enough rest to enjoy life).

Gomiben also remarks that due to the habit of eating easily accessible junk food, women in her community (and she herself) gain weight and become obese. Once, Gomiben attended a short-term health awareness camp organized by a local NGO in a by-lane near her home. That camp was an eye-opener for her and after that she started observing many things in her community. She noticed that by the age of 35–40 years, women have menopause. All day long they roam around working hard and sometimes they cannot find a public toilet, so many of them develop urinary tract infections. Vendors also have the habit of wearing old second-hand clothes. They never buy new clothes unless for an occasion like a wedding or a big festival like Diwali. Vendor women wear old clothes without washing them. Gomiben knows that this also causes infections and she tries to be cautious but many of her counterparts are not aware of this fact. She feels that her fellow women vendors lack awareness about health and hygiene. Another health concern among women vendors is sleep deprivation. They hardly get four hours of sleep every day. This sleep deprivation has a detrimental impact on their moods, behaviour, daily activities and overall health. Women vendors are often very loud and harsh. They get irritated very fast and often pick fights. She says, “hum mahilayne itni tension main rehti hain hummesha ki koi doctor agar pariksha kare toh hum sabmen mansik beemari jarur milega.” (we vendor women lead such chronically high stress lives that if we were to get tested, doctors would definitely find signs of mental illness in us).

Apart from health hazards, women vendors also face sexual harassment while at work. As they roam alone or in small groups for their daily livelihood, they are stalked by unknown men in the evenings. Gomiben herself has had such an experience. A man had been stalking her for days when she ended up at his home to collect old clothes, after which he felt awkward and nervous in front of his family and stopped stalking her. She says, “humme sab ki kahani lag bhag ek jaise he hai, fir bhi hum umeed nahi chodte” (In our community, most of us go through similar struggles every day but still we do not lose hope). Gomiben is not an exception. There are many like her on the street. Her life experiences are similar to those of many other women making their livelihood on the streets. The everyday life of a street vendor is full of uncertainty and challenges. She not only has to find a way of earning a viable livelihood but the presence of various adverse factors makes it a further challenge for her. Being a woman street vendor in a city like Delhi is not a secure environment, adding to their daily anxiety and marginalization.

Besides sexual overtures, women like Gomiben also have to deal with other forms of harassment like having to pay illegal ‘taxes,’ facing social discrimination and isolation, while her trade and community are looked down upon, merely in order to survive. Such women suffer from severe premature health problems as a result of social, economic and cultural marginalization and are forced to retire from work early. As a consequence, their children too are forced to leave their education early and pushed into the same trade and cycle of poverty and discrimination.


About the Research:

The contents of this article have been taken directly (with minor edits for grammar and style) from the University Of Delhi’s Aparajita Sharma and Dipjyoti Konwar’s article “Struggles for Spaces: Everyday Life of a Woman Street Vendor in Delhi” available in this article. The article was authored to “deal with the variety of forms of struggle for space in a city which a woman vendor experiences in her everyday life through the narrative of Gomiben who lives in an urban resettlement colony in west Delhi. She lives with multiple identities which are often marginalized and oppressed. Violence, both visible and structural, creates barriers in her trade and ultimately in her life. There are no social security measures and due to the nature of her job, she is also deprived of education and other benefits in life. However, she works tirelessly day after day and deconstructs the social constructs of gender, poverty, migrancy and so on to advocate for herself and her fellow vendors their rightful space in the capital city. Urban planning fails to take stock of her demands and she is often invisible and found in informal pockets of modern cityscapes. Delhi, in particular, refuses to give her much deserved space and she is often positioned where she cannot continue her trade for long due to a lack of buyers. However, despite the challenges, she continues to struggle with hope in ‘limited situations’ and is still very positive towards life.”

About the featured artwork.

The featured Illustration by Roshan Gawand is part of his series on village life in India. Roshan is a graduate from L.S. Raheja school of art and currently lives in Navi Mumbai.



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