Taste of Life: Street vendors double as ‘messengers’ of freedom movement - Hindustan Times
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Taste of Life: Street vendors double as ‘messengers’ of freedom movement

ByChinmay Damle
Feb 01, 2024 07:54 AM IST

In January 1932, the police in Pune were alerted that hawkers who conducted business outside certain schools were allegedly using papers with inflammatory speeches printed on them to wrap roasted peanuts and sliced fruits

Pune: The history of food has often focused on the serving and eating of edibles indoors, while the history of consumption often focuses on the buying and selling of eatables from shops. The social history of hawking is usually ignored because the mobility of street food sellers makes them particularly difficult to track. There is also a lack of material evidence which makes their activities obscure.

In January 1932, the police in Pune were alerted that hawkers who conducted business outside certain schools were allegedly using papers with inflammatory speeches printed on them to wrap roasted peanuts and sliced fruits. ((PIC FOR REPRESENTATION))
In January 1932, the police in Pune were alerted that hawkers who conducted business outside certain schools were allegedly using papers with inflammatory speeches printed on them to wrap roasted peanuts and sliced fruits. ((PIC FOR REPRESENTATION))

In January 1932, the police in Pune were alerted that hawkers who conducted their business outside certain schools were indulging in some “anti-national” activities. It was alleged that the papers they were using to wrap roasted peanuts and sliced fruits had inflammatory speeches printed on them.

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The police soon found that members of the Congress Party were supplying these pamphlets to grocers and hawkers in various cities and towns in the Bombay Presidency. The pamphlets contained anti–colonial messages and speeches delivered by political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Vallabhbhai Patel. The hawkers and grocers used them to wrap eatables and were read by hundreds and thousands of their customers.

This was an ingenious way of communication and hence the police acted swiftly. They got in touch with the principals of schools and asked them to make sure that no hawker stood near their schools. In February 1932, several such pamphlets were confiscated from a hawker in the Malad suburb of Bombay. Searches were conducted in Pune too and eight hawkers were arrested for carrying and distributing “material that would disturb the peace of the country”. The police raided the bungalow of one Mr Potdar in Bombay and impounded a cyclostyle and several documents. The bungalow was vacant when the police reached there, but they suspected that it was being used by the Congress Party to print pamphlets. This incident once again brought into focus the issue of hawking, especially outside schools.

Itinerant hawking outside or near schools was considered a menace and had been in discussion since the early 1880s in Pune. Social and political leaders like GG Agarkar and Mahadev Moreshwar Kunte had spoken against students buying food from street vendors.

Most hawkers came to Pune from the nearby rural hinterland or Konkan. While people often complained that there was a “disorderly sprawl of hawkers, blocking up entire streets with a jumble of goods”, hawking was considered a respectable profession fit to be taken up by the youth of the country. Several leaders believed that native industrialisation was of utmost importance to gain independence. At the same time, consumers were required to buy native goods. However, colonial India did not boast of a strong consumer base. A hawker was thought to be important since he reached out to people and in the process “created” consumers necessary for industrialisation. Magazines like “Kirloskar” routinely published articles about the “art of selling goods”, including hawking. Hawkers were employed by several enterprises to sell their goods and advertisements invoking national pride routinely appeared in vernacular newspapers appealing to the youth to take up these jobs.

In Geeta Sane’s Marathi novel “Pheriwala” (The Hawker), published in 1938, the protagonist Ananta takes up hawking to serve the country.

However, hawkers selling food did not enjoy the same dignity as those selling bangles, clothes, crockery, horses, carriages, lamps, and furniture. Buying and eating food on the streets was considered anti-religion, and even “anti-national”. The Brahmanical cosmological understandings of cleanliness and “purity” and European notions of hygiene combined to form a nationalist narrative of health and well-being. Food conducted the continuous fragile balance between the public and the private. Foodstuffs purchased from the “outside” had to be “purified”. They were considered inferior to ingredients processed at home.

Despite this, several itinerant hawkers started plying their trade outside the school premises in the late nineteenth century. They mostly sold soda water. A variegated repertoire of foods outside schools in the 1920s included a thick, spicy curry of whole black peas, puffed rice mixed with chopped green chillies and red onions, roasted peanuts, gooseberries, Indian jujube, tamarind, guavas, sugarcane juice, and kulfi. Protests against hawkers intensified in the 1930s when children turned to the “sweet, colourful drinks” sold outside their schools to satisfy their thirst and sweet cravings. For a few paise, one could get sherbets of various colours and flavours.

On January 30, 1932, Kashinath Trimbak Dange complained to the Marathi newspaper “Jnanaprakash” about the menace of vendors near schools – “(The) sweets (sold) are stale and flies crawl over them. Sherbets are sold perennially to children. The colours used in them are poisonous and ice is harmful to children’s health. I have witnessed children buying these items in the presence of their teachers”. Dange met the principal of a school to discuss this matter. He was advised to complain to the Municipal School Board. The Board in turn asked him to file a complaint with the local police. Dange appealed to the readers to find ways to stop hawking near schools. They should at least be not allowed to conduct business without checking the food they sold, he wrote.

The hawkers outside schools were seen to spread diseases, especially cholera and typhoid. Colonial officials often warned people to not purchase food from hawkers. The very nature of itinerancy intensified the potential for spreading disease. While there were two participants in the hawker trade – the hawkers and the consumers, it was often believed that the hawkers were at fault. The hawker’s cleanliness of utensils, the quality of the foods, his bodily hygiene, and his mode of dress were on display and hence under constant scrutiny.

Leaders like TR Devgirikar believed that children should be taught about hygiene and civics as a way of shaping “national health”. Teachers were supposed to stress the positive and nutritive value of the meals served at home as against the negative value of food purchased from hawkers outside the school. Students who patronised the hawkers were considered to need education and coercion. The themes of order and education coalesced around schools, with citizens identifying the tendency of itinerant hawkers to congregate near schools as both a threat to social order and an example of how students needed to have their desires readjusted.

Socio-cultural taboos about consuming food outside of home often meant that those patronising the hawkers came to Pune from other villages and towns. Seetaram Ramchandra Gaekwad, in his book “Pune Shaharache Varnan”, published in 1884, wrote how children and young men studying in Pune and hailing from other cities would often flock to the “Aryabhushan” and “Anandodbhav” theatres to drink soda-water from the hawkers outside. These students did not have to worry much about being caught doing the “illicit” activity.

Buying food on the street was most often the last resort for the poorest of students living in Pune. The city, despite boasting of well-known education institutions, often made students, especially those belonging to the so-called “lower castes”, go hungry. They had no option but to buy food from the street vendors.

After the Second World War, some hawkers settled into permanent food centres outside schools, and others peddled their goods on the street. The taboo around food hawking lessened a bit and children began to wait for the familiar sounds that would alert them to their favourite vendor in the vicinity.

Periodic “cleansing drives” and changing forms of regulations to manage the “hawker problem” continued over the years.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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