A day in the life of a (proudly) independent female street vendor from Varanasi
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It’s 4.30 am. Hmm earlier than usual, Sunita thinks, as she quietly gets up so as to not wake her son who is sleeping next to her on the floor. She takes less than 15 minutes to get ready and rushes to the wholesale mandi which is only a few hundred meters away. Her brother Bablu, who is 12 years younger, accompanies her. Sunita’s 19-year-old son Aman also goes with them sometimes, but not today. He returned really late last night after a long night at the garage where he works as a part-time mechanic. My poor boy, he must be so exhausted.
She meets the usual people at the mandi, vendors like herself, and chats with a few of them. Today, she buys vegetables worth Rs. 3,500 from her customary seller. As usual, she pays him upfront.
She has known him ever since she started selling on the streets, which was 15 years ago. She began street vending when she came to live with her brother’s family. She left her abusive husband and took Aman with her when he was 4 years old. She took up this work so as to not feel like a burden. Soon after, she realized that she was excellent at negotiating with the customers. She has been trying to teach Bablu this art ever since. She sells vegetables next to her brother who sells fruits.
Their vending location is near to their home. They have been vending here for years. There is a college and a few restaurants in close proximity. By the time they return from the market, Aman has already parked the carts. She hands over the vegetables to him and returns home to help her sister-in-law, Beena with the chores. Beena and Bablu have a 4-year-old son, Mohan, who often tags along with Sunita, now that schools have been shut for summer vacations.
Around 7.30 am, Sunita leaves for work. Bablu has parked his cart near to hers, as always. Not far away from them, Rekha, a fellow street vendor, has a stall where she sells everyday items- bags of chips, cold drinks, cigarettes, etc.
Sunita stays with the cart for the rest of the day, except when she goes back home to use the washroom. Summer is currently at its peak. A small bottle of cool water is their only solace. At around 2.00 pm, Bablu runs home to bring lunch for everyone. Occasionally, they buy lunch from a nearby dhaba when Beena is not at home. Beena works as a domestic help, though Sunita disapproves of this. She feels she would rather stand in the heat all day, tolerate leg cramps, and go home without making a penny than go to someone else’s house to earn money. A woman doing paid domestic work is looked down upon in their caste.
They don’t take more than 20 minutes to finish their food. By 2.30 pm, Aman leaves to work at the garage. He found this job only a month or so ago. Last week, he bought Sunita her first phone with his wages.
By 7.00 pm, which is when the permitted hours end, they start wrapping up. Business wasn’t so good today, remarks Sunita. I earned only Rs. 300 as profit. Your bananas won’t last till tomorrow. Seems like today is a lucky day for Lakshmi’s cows. Bablu’s sale was also unsatisfactory. I’ll come back later tonight, he says. Let’s go home for now. I can already see the Policewala approaching.
As soon as they reach home, Sunita joins Beena in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Bablu stores away all the leftover fruits and vegetables. Aman is still at the garage. Looks like he is going to be late tonight as well, says Sunita. She keeps a few rotis aside for him before dinner. She finds it very upsetting that her son has to eat a cold meal every night. She helps Beena clean up after and the rest of the evening is spent listening to young Mohan chattering away. Sunita adores the child. She sees a bright future for him which, she is aware, Aman will never be able to achieve. She often wonders how his life would have turned out to be had he received a proper education. Thoughts like these more or less arrive at the same conclusion- it is what it is.
Sunita goes to bed around 11.30. A little past midnight, Aman returns home. Sunita hears him and swiftly gets up to serve him some food. They talk for a while and return to bed soon after, ready for a (same old) new day. After all, it is what it is.
- Remote interviews conducted by the team at Women’s Identity and Progress
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