If you cut out a piece of history and fit it between granite staircases and terrazzo tiles, you may understand what I saw. The powder on the earth is less dust and more spice, and the air is coloured. I put a hand out into the air and watch a swirl of yellow settle on my skin. There are three hammered iron plates on crumbly white walls, signifying the different trading houses. Orange rust blooms over them. They look sandpapered and sand-powdered, and the names are missing letters- Amreeca traders becomes Amrca traders with a double gap between the r and the c.
When I finally find the crevice that I am looking for, an old man with several wraps of cloth around his head is sitting there. He is a fourth generation spice trader, whose great-grandfather had started the company well before the Partition. There are steel bowls of mustard seeds, rye, methi seeds, toasted sesame seeds and zeera on his table. Behind his chair, white sacks brimming with green cardamom which are bursting at the seams. His name is Harshad Shah, and he runs Banashankari Traders with his younger brother. As his name suggests, he was from Gujarat at one point of time, but his family has been in Bangalore for more than fifty years now. As he introduces himself, he picks up a handful of black cardamom and pours it back into a bowl.
“These we get from Kerala and the north-east.” He says. “Guwahati, Siliguri. Those areas have good rain.” He sells all kinds of spice from all over India – he does not limit himself; especially not now, when their businesses are in serious eopardy. The entry of the multi-national corporations has created in his trade an uncertainty that he never knew before. His own business has dropped sharply over the past few years, and he is only able to keep his head above water because of his company’s age. As if age is the only reason that we deserve respect, he exclaims. He tells me that MNC’s are built to survive losses for seven years, and that much time is enough for small businesses to get eliminated. He narrates an incident a couple of days ago, where a Big Bazaar spokesperson wanted to sell at 103 rupees instead of 102.
“He asked me ek rupay se kya jayega; what difference will a rupee make. Because he is from an MNC, he does not understand what increasing the price with a single rupee can do. Especially something like spice, in a place like Yeshwanthpur market.”
I did not know this then, but Yeshwanthpur market is one of the beating hearts of Bangalore. It is a market that claims to be several centuries old, and it is built in layers, like an onion. There are the layers, which like brown onionskin, were once living and purple, but now have been blown away with the wind. Then there are the veneers of the most recent-ancient remnants, like the deep purple layers that form the exterior and the inner chiffon haunted by customers who have dwindled over the years. I did not understand his ire until I imagined what would happen if someone wandered into Chandni Chowk Market and tried to establish a dominion there. There is a reason that it has remained this way; has been allowed to remain this way for more than four centuries. It is more than just a place of buying and selling; it is a reminder of something that needs to be preserved.
Behind us, sacks shift. Two brands of zeera are carried in on heavy bronze shoulders. One sack belonging to each of the brands is cut and a handful is poured into two bowls. For a few minutes, Mr Shah busies himself in cutting up pieces of paper and writing the brand names, propping them against the steel like sails on a ship. What is the difference between these brands, I ask. “Nothing whatsoever”, he replies. “But don’t underestimate the power of a brand. A brand name can be the most powerful thing that a company can possess. India, as a country, was known to run on faith and trust; we didn’t give collaterals as a rule. But the entry of the multi-national corporations has changed that, and we merchants are struggling to keep up with the change.”
“But you can’t stop the entry of FDI if the economy is to thrive.” I interject. He slams a clenched fist onto the table.
“No one said anything about stopping them!” He says vehemently. He unclenches his fist and splays it. “I mean that we don’t mind competing against the MNC’s, but it has to be on level playing ground. If there could be a quota system, if the original market was allowed to function, rather than the price being artificially jacked, then perhaps we could have a fighting chance!”
According to him, a compromise has to be struck; there has to be a way for both systems to accommodate each other. According to him, India is in the middle of one of the biggest transitions; from bazaars to barcodes, and because of this, certain words have become strangers to our vocabulary. They still exist, but from an era that that has been tucked out of sight; in footnotes and margins. He calls himself a merchant, but as a word, it seems so obsolete; especially now, and in the twenty first century, it is remembered only as inheritance and surnames. This is what Mr. Shah bemoans. This is what has changed. But according to him, this is what needs to be brought back, not just because of the jobs that are in jeopardy, but also to preserve India’s brand image.
“These new start-ups think that we are the big players in the market, only because we have been here for such a long time.” He strokes the rings on his fingers. “I am a fourth generation spice trader. But time does not mean anything; and in terms of power,hume bahut aage jaana hai (there is a long way to go).
This article was first published on offprint magazine: