Four wobbling wheels, a rickety platform and something on it to sell. In this side of the country it is called Tela. Those wonders who sell vegetables, fruits, peanuts, golgappas, ice creams and so on together and alone make a moving market. With the corner shops closing and paving way to the organized supermarkets and international markets with franchise showrooms, these telas come to be seen as alternative market place. In the text books of cultural studies we see how the alternatives slowly turning into mainstream forces but in real life the mainstream of yesteryears turns into alternative these days. Telawalas were erstwhile mainstream market vendors. They used to come to a locality confidently, sell their wares and go back. Often they made friends with the local people and housewives waited for their favourite vendor to sell vegetables and fruits.
I do not say that today the telawalas are completely gone but I am sure they are a vanishing lot; a species at the verge of extinction. Telawalas still have that beautiful theory of makeshift markets. They could change a road into a temporary market place; a play ground or a parking lot could turn into a weekly market when the telawalas gather there with their wares. Somehow the municipalities, corporations and the policemen seem to be not so keen to have them in the streets as before. They are periodically chased away, brutalized and at times manhandled as if they were petty criminals. These policemen take bribe from them and when there is pressure from the higher officers either to keep the streets in order or to fetch more bribe, the telawalas are terrorized. The people who gather around these hapless men and women are mute witnesses of these police atrocities. Men and women with loving and waiting families back in some far off places, at the distant site of the Khakhi uniform push their carts and run away to the side alleys as the frightened animals hide behind bushes and rocks to save themselves from the preying beasts.
These telawalas used to live somewhere around. They used to live inside the towns and cities, in small holes devoid of basic living conditions, still hoping to make it big one day in the city. With the arrival of flyovers and metros and also with the general beautification of the cities, these itinerant vendors are now pushed out of the cities. They are literally taken away from the cities and dumped in the outskirts of the cities from where they have to push their carts for kilometres to reach the places where people inhabit. Vegetables and fruits are bought by people, not by trees and bushes or the vast expanses of dumping yards that these people have to cross in order to enter the cities. Those people who have cars and other vehicles go to the organized markets to buy things without looking at the price tags. But the poor people still depend on these telawalas who would sell things in a decent price because they know those who come to buy are also like them. You may have a different opinion about it. Telawalas too over charge; they too bully the buyers. They do this when they know that the buyer is from middle class and the haggling is just their second nature.
In one of the very good novels of the 21st century so far is ‘A Strangeness in My Mind’. Written by the Nobel Prize winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk, this novel has its protagonist, Mevlut who is a Boza seller. Boza is a Turkish traditional low alcoholic drink which the vendors like Mevlut say contains no alcohol at all. Before the ‘thirst market’ was monopolised by the multinational corporations with their aerated drinks, there were drinks like Boza that used to cool off many a citizen in many a country. Mevlut tries different businesses including chicken-rice selling and ice cream vending. Each time he does it some sort of calamity affects him and he finally has to go back to his Boza selling. He calls out Bozaaa along the darkening alleys of Istambul (Boza is an evening drink mostly) while carrying the jars of Boza hanging from a bamboo staff kept across his shoulders. The old timers call Mevlut to their homes only because they want to taste the nostalgic drink and listen to the Boza teller talking about the streets of Istambul. Some people ask him to call ‘Bozaaa’ just to transport themselves back to the good old days. Mevlut knows that one day he has to end this business too.
In between Mevlut tries his hand at selling chicken rice. And one day he parks his ‘tela’ near a shade and goes away for some work. When he comes back the cart is missing. The municipality has confiscated it. Now, using his friend’s influence he goes to the dumping garage of such confiscated carts where he finds hundreds of such carts. He is unable to find his one. There is a very touching scene when he comes back to his home. His daughters wait for him to come and when they see that their beloved cart is not with him, they break down. I am sure in several homes in cities and towns children must be breaking down when they see their fathers and mothers coming back home without their telas. Many of the vendors must be finding it difficult to get their carts back from the municipalities. Who knows about them? We do not have time to think about them. We do not have time to think about the farmers who grow vegetables, rice and wheat for us. We do not know those small scale poultry owners. We know only about the soldiers fighting at the borders. We are so proud of them while we don’t give a damn about our farmers and telawalas.
Each time I see a telawala I remember Mevlut. After reading the novel last year, I forgot what I used to think about the telawalas before. Now a days I think only of Mevlut and his father and many other father who come to the city of Istambul from rural Turkey in search of a job in the city and most of them end of up in selling Boza. We wonder whether these people have a story or not. We are taught to give ear to the story of people with some consequences. But there are inconsequential people whose lives are richer and complex than those of those rich and powerful people. If life is an intrigue for the rich and the powerful, for the poor it is a riddle that they want to find an answer. But for us, the middle class it always a straight line story with an end that we have already thought of (even if the ending is always contrary to our belief). The happy ending and happy hours lead the middle class. But for the telawalas it is a story that looks alike day after day but so complex, varied and dark. Dostoevsky, Dickens, Okri, Pamuk, Roy and so on are such writers who go under and see the underbelly of cities and recount stories from there. Giving voice to the voiceless is one of the prime duties of art. Unfortunately, our artists and novelists fail in this even if they see the telavals being chased each time out of the alleys that lead to the respectable colonies where they live.
(photographs by Sushma Sabnis)