Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Weights & Measures

At the Indian market, it is common to see a heap of onions or a heap of potatoes that adorn the vendor’s sales platform. Somewhere further into the bazaar, you see a heap of red tomatoes and piles of green leafy vegetables. In summer, there’s heaps AND heaps of mangoes all over the bazaar! How do we take away from these heaps, the fruits or the vegetables we buy? At every stall, there is the metal weighing scale, the clatter of which is such a familiar sound in the market. Onions, potatoes and tomatoes are measured on this balance and sold by the kilo. But, the kilo was not always the measure of mass. 

Pan balances for sale in the market streets of Tiruvannamalai
Dr.Vasant Natarajan, Indian Institute of Science, in his research paper on ‘Standards Weights and Measures’ explains that in olden societies, mass standards were based on artifacts such as the weight of shells or of kernels of grain. The first scientific definition of mass adopted in the 18th century was the ‘gram’ defined as the mass of one cubic centimeter of pure water at 4 degree centigrade. It was important to standardise the weights and measures as trade between communities grew and therefore the efforts to create a system that was based on physical constants. 
The street bazaar at Triplicane in Chennai
The history of weights and measures sourced from the Wikipedia tells us that there have been the Pre-akbar, the Akbar and the British systems in India. During pre-Akbar period, weights and measure system varied from region to region, commodity to commodity, and rural to urban areas.     

The flower market in Georgetown in Chennai - Jasmines and Marigolds being sold in the early hours of the morning
The weights were based on the weight of various seeds (specially the wheat berry and Ratti) and lengths were based on the length of arms and width of fingers. Akbar realized a need for a uniform system. He elected the barley corn. Unfortunately, this did not replace the existing system. Instead, it just added another system. In the Akbar system 1 Ser = 637.74 grams and 40 Sers = 1 Maund (37.32 kilograms). Traditionally one maund represented the weight unit for goods which could be carried over some distance by porters or pack animals.
The counter balance with the vendor's cash desk at the main fruit and vegetable bazaar in Tiruvannamalai
At the Bazaar, there is the Baker’s scale or the Counter scale that uses the standard measure of weight - the kilogram.  In some places, you still find the pan-balance in use. There are several non-standard measures that the vendors create locally. There are vegetables and sprouted beans sometimes – each with its own standard for measure. 

Steel glass for measure along market at J.C.Bose road in Georgetown in Chennai
The drumsticks are sold by numbers. If they are grouped together for sale, its never more than two, because that’s what you need for a dish of sambhar for a family of four or six. Bananas are usually sold by the dozen. Green leafy vegetables are by the bunch. Everywhere, a bunch of spinach is Rs.5 or the coriander leaves Rs.3, but it’s someplaces a thicker bunch and that’s where you like buying the most. Its simply more value for money.
Ginger and chillis at the K.R.Market in Bangalore
At some markets, ginger is sold by weight and at some you see small heaps of ginger, which are of course created as an equivalent to a given weight for the price. Sometimes, small green chilli heaps are laid out by a vendor onto a wooden crate for sale. You can buy one heap or two and pay in multiples of the unit price for a heap. 
In the markets in Chennai, at Georgetown, I noticed that the steel glass was used as a measure for beans or lentils or gooseberries.
At the vegetable markets, you find that the vendor will always add a tomato or two extra after he has weighed the one kilo that you have asked for. Only because you are a regular, trusted customer. It makes you go back to him time and again. This is termed as clientization – establishing a relationship with a vendor whom you like. In the Indian Bazaar, the non-standardisation of measures contributes to enabling the clientization. You go back to the same vendor the next day or the next week because he handpicks the best for you from his heap and gives you a good price!

The Madras District Gazetteer for the Godavari region in Andhra Pradesh written in 1878 has a chapter on ‘Occupations and Trade’ which documents the Weights and Measures in the various talukas of Andhra at that time. For instance, for Bhadrachalam, it says : “Ghee and oil are sold wholesale by measure. The largest measure used for oil is the kuncham, and for ghee the seer."
Flower seller at Gandhi Bazaar in Bangalore measures a garland by the length of an arm, in Telugu referred to as 'One Mora'
"Butter-milk and curd are measured in small pots called miDithas. It is the practice in this district to set milk for curd in a number of these small pots, instead of in one large pot as is done in some southern districts, and the pots are sold separately. There are four usual sizes of them ; namely, the quarter anna, half anna, three-quarter anna and anna munthas, so called according to the price (and so the capacity) of each. Popular phrases to denote capacity are the closed handful, called guppedu or pidikedu and the open handful or chdredu. Fruits (mangoes, plantains and guavas), palmyra leaves, and dung cakes are sold by 'hands' - one hand or cheyyi being equivalent to five. Twenty cheyyis make one salaga, and for every salaga one cheyyi extra is thrown in as kosani or ' for luck."

Friday, June 18, 2010

an astrologer in a bazaar

How does a vendor market his goods? Sometimes, it is the changing displays that he creates, one for each day; sometimes its the unending sentences that flow out - strings of words that are so random, making little sense and yet, people listen. In his story, 'An Astrologer's Day' R.K.Narayan offers a detailed study of  strategies that are employed by people of simple means, in the competitive settings of a street bazaar. I reproduce a part of the astrologer story here.

"Punctually at midday, he opened his bag and spread out his professional equipment, which consisted of a dozen cowrie shells, a square piece of cloth with obscure mystic charts on it, a notebook and a bundle of palmyra writing. His forehead was resplendent with sacred ash and vermilion, and his eyes sparkled with a sharp abnormal gleam which was really an outcome of a continual searching look for customers, but which his simple clients took to be a prophetic light and felt comforted. The power of his eyes was considerably enhanced by their position - placed as they were between the painted forehead and the dark whiskers which streamed down his cheeks: even a half-wit's eyes would sparkle in such a setting.

To crown the effect, he wound a saffron-coloured turban around his head. This colour scheme never failed. People were attracted to him as bees are attracted to cosmos or dahlia stalks. He sat under the boughs of a spreading tamarind tree which flanked a path running through the Town Hall park. It was a remarkable place in many ways : a surging crowd was always moving up and down this narrow road morning till night. A variety of trades and occupations was represented all along its way : medicine-sellers, sellers of stolen hardware and junk, magicians and, above all, an auctioneer of cheap cloth, who created enough din all day to attract the whole town.

Next to him in vociferousness came a vendor of fried groundnuts, who gave his ware a fancy name each day, calling it 'Bombay IceCream' one day, and on the next, 'Delhi Almonds' and on the third 'Raja's Delicacy', and so on and so forth, and people flocked to him. A considerable portion of this crowd dallied before the astrologer too. The astrologer transacted his business by the light of a flare which crackled and smoked up above the groundnut heap nearby. Half the enchantment of the place was that it didnot have the benefit of municipal lighting. The place was lit up by shoplights. One or two had hissing gaslights, some had naked flares stuck on poles, some were lit up by old cycle lamps, and one or two, like the astrologer's managed without lights of their own. It was a bewildering criss-cross of light rays and moving shadows. This suited the astrologer very well, for the simple reason that he had not intended to be an astrologer when he began life, and he knew no more about what was going to happen to others than he knew what was going to happen to himself the next minute."

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Mangoes for sale

There are mangoes for sale just about everywhere! On this sunday morning, I begin to reminisce about the mangoes that needed no introduction and the ones that did. It was the summer of 1996. It was my first summer in Andhra and I was to spend many summers here. From now on, South India was to be my home. I had been born and brought up in Bombay. My parents had lived there since the 1947 partition when they had moved to India from Sind. I was now married and my husband’s family were Telugu Brahmins.

I had entered the kitchen on my first morning in my new home and had gone about exploring how it was going to be in a south indian household. Amongst the many things that surprised me, one of the first had been the really huge, high container filled with whole red chillis. “Are we going to be able to use all of this?!” I had asked. My mother-in-law had explained that those were for the pickles. After all, there were going to be hundreds of mangoes from our own trees and we would need the chillis. It was the season of pickles. The kitchen was filled with red chillis and the markets in the city were filled with sacks and sacks of red chilli. In our home in Bombay, we had always bought only a few hundred grams of red chilli powder at a time. These were whole red chillis and so many of them for one kitchen!

Over the years I have grown to like Andhra pickles. But, I do still miss the Alphonso mango very much. For all the mangoes that I had access to in our home in Andhra, summers were never the same again. It was the season of pickles and it was the Bangannapalli that was the ‘king of mangoes’. After 14 years of marriage, I have yet to win an argument with my husband that it is the Alphonso that is the sweeter mango or that it is the Alphonso that is ‘king of mangoes’.

Today, as I walked along the stalls that sold mangoes at Lalbaug gardens in Bangalore, I saw both the Alphonso and the Bangannapalli being sold. As we headed back home, we were taking back with us, a dozen of Alphonso and a few kilos of Bangannapalli. That is something I wondered about today. Some vendors prefer to give you the price of a dozen and some give you the price of a kilo. Anyways, it was important that we had picked up our mangoes. I now prefer not to discuss at the table which mango is sweeter. I like mango and if its summer, we must eat mango. That is all that matters!

This is the hottest time of the year. It is also the time of the year when every bazaar in every village, town or city has plentiful of mangoes. There are the ripe, sweet mangoes which you eat sometimes one mango per person at every meal. At least that is how it was at my in-laws place. There are the raw mangoes which come earlier, in end April, for making the several varieties of mango pickle for the entire family for the entire year. Its mostly women vendors who cut them for you at the marketplace itself. You carry back bagfuls of the cut mango and thereon starts the ritual of pickle-making.

At the Lalbaug gardens, as in the wholesale and retail markets of Bangalore, there are several varieties of mangoes for sale. At some stalls, the vendor was busily cutting slices off a mango for customers to taste. No one said ‘no’ to the tasting. After all, it was always nice to eat a piece of mango while you were still at the bazaar. I noticed that this generous vendor was selling only Alphonso mangoes. This is where we bought a box of the Ratnagiri fruit. As most of you would know, the best Alphonso comes from the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra.

In the cities today, you get mangoes from all over the country. Through this season, you can find the Badam, the Alphonso, the Daseri, the Rumali, the Langda and so on or if you are a south indian, you will notice none of the above and then it’s the Bangannapalli, the Badami, the Mallika and the Raspuri. But, you do get mangoes of many kinds in marketplaces everywhere.

Just a week ago I was in Bombay and had strolled into the Crawford market near the Victoria Terminus station. This is the best place to buy any fruit. Its expensive though, but “export quality” as any vendor will tell you. The big players at Crawford market are really busy in summer time.

If you go further into the market a bit, beyond the main building, where the market extends to the areas shaded by the sheds, you see the back-end operations. There are groups of young men who are speedily packing mangoes in corrugated cardboard boxes and the litchis and apricots in clean plastic trays and wrapping it up with plastic cling film. These will be taken to the supermarkets all over the city.

At the front of the market, closer to the entrance are the lanes within this historic market building that almost become its elegant shopfront with the baskets of mangoes and dryfruits, often covered in red and yellow cellophane, the age-old packaging of Crawford market vendors that I find as alluring today as I found so many years ago! Memories of the summer bazaar come back to me from my childhood. It is the red and yellow cellophane that I remember. For us, in Bombay, summer was the season of aam-ras and it still is! In my mind, I still believe that the Alphonso is the King of Mangoes!

I wrote this blogpost after a fascinating 'Green Heritage walk' that we took at Lalbaug gardens. Here is a link to : Design Inspiration at Lalbaug gardens where I write more about the Nature walk.