Union executive WhatsApp group is buzzing. Someone has shared a YouTube link. Foreigner. Yes, a foreigner is in raptures about Shillong Street food.
It was night amidst the lock down. Rumours. Hunger. Even a story of suicide.
“There was no money to buy the mobile phone for children,” S sadly tells me.
Administration is talking to businessmen about unlocking the shops and malls. But no talk of the hawkers.
“They don’t let us live in peace.”
And cameras, loudspeakers, sticks and guns are out.
What is a city that does not erect barriers…
Last night we dream of starving city. Guns smacked their lips. Houses with mirrors smelt a freshness that was not sweat and swallowed the three women fat malls clothed in empty streets where they can drive and taste air-conditioned street
And we dream.
Some are still angry about the YouTube which now exists on government tourism tweet.
“Saala, what about us? We who cook are not hot and tasty?”
Romance of the local food. Nostalgia for the spicy street. Instagram it.
Morning #Jadoh @ Laitumkhrah | Vegetables from #Garo Hills @ Secretariat Hills | #Doh Thang @ Khyndailad
#Putharo, #Pu Khlein, Pu doh @ Rynjah | #Pork momo @ Lumpyngngad | #Snails from Garo Hills @ Polo Market
Soh Ïong @ GS Road | Kharang/Smoked Fish @ Iewduh | Doh Snam/Blood #Sausage @ Smit
We nostalgise our occupation.
Meghalaya government is out in full force.
And cameras, loudspeakers, sticks and guns are out.
They bring on even the SOT, the SPECIAL (I call it secrets) OPERATIONS TEAM.
What is Northeast if not some SOT?
Why is Shillong dirty?
How many hawkers are there?
Is their food safe?
And the streets are empty.
Police Act they call it when they arrest Kong Pdiangsuk Wahlang from Jail Road. They even seize her momo steamer and a rickety table.
I remember the notes I took that day amidst photomaking and looking for police and bulldozer
“She is from West Khasi Hills, who started as a daily wage labourer/carpenter. But irregularity of work and low wages meant that he chose to become self employed. He sells vegetables near Petrol Pump, Jail Road. Work which gives him freedom as well as dignity. SHE comes from Lumparing everyday at around 2 pm to sell vegetables. Before she used to work as a domestic help. It was her previous employer who helped her with some capital to start her vegetable vending business when she expressed that she needed to stand on her own two feet and try to earn more as her family’s needs grew. She says this business gives her more freedom as she begins work at 2pm allowing her to care for her children and also gives her dignity because earlier as a domestic help even when she is ill she feels worried that she can’t go to her place of work. But this being her own enterprise she can make alternate arrangements. HE is from Mawlai – young father – he tried hard not to break down, how could he in front of his child. SHE sells local fruits and nuts. She has been troubled by Shillong Municipal Board/Police for years, but more intensely so in the past few years. After the recent evictions, the Non Tribal dairy owner near by provided her with a small ledge so that she can continue to sell her fruits to support her family. She is grateful to the shop owner even though what she can sell now from there is far less than what she would in her spot near the footpath. SHE had to drop out from BA in her third year because of financial situation. Now in the shadows of an incomplete five-star hotel, she sells vegetables. As she told us I am doing what our Chief Minister said that be self employed, don’t wait for a government job. SHE comes from Mawphu. If you would read your food history, you would know that they say oranges went around the world from the slopes of Khasi Hills. Mawphu (before it gets submerged by an ill thought dam) produces one of the best oranges. What angers me is that elites of Shillong have a made a business out of selling this indigenous/organic/farm to table and all the rest NGO speak to the highest bidder. This old lady does all that without getting her trip to international conferences. She is no face on a poster or a tourist brochure. This is a face of class warfare the local elite is waging on the tribal poor of the state. HIS drop out son wrote out the chart paper. “Thirty year ago I open my shop in Footpath. I sell Pakora etc.” Municipal took away his table and utensils thrice, they burnt it , they told him. Thirty years ago, a FAMILY of fishmongers started in fish vending at Polo Bridge after gaining skills as labourers in the fish market in Iewduh. Their goods were recently stolen from the place where they store them in the name of eviction by authorities, who took away not only many thousand rupees worth of fish but also their capital investment of weighing scales and measure and chopping knives. HE brought out his empty cooking table and stuck his menu and his name to it. A friend asks HER where is she from – she replies – POOR HAVE NO COUNTRY. And then this Bihari puri seller shares her concern about her Khasi comrades. ‘Forget about me, government has been treating even Khasi hawkers as criminals’.”
I ask S, how many photos did we take. He has no idea. “I was full of fear and excitement,” he says.
“But we survived didn’t we?”
All the images were made with Meghalaya and Greater Shillong Progressive Hawkers and Street Vendors Association between 2016–’21. I am an invitee member in the Association.
Tarun Bhartiya is a picturemaker, poet and political activist based in Shillong. This article first appeared on his blog. A version of this will appear in the forthcoming book edited by Dolly Kikon and Joel Rodrigues From the Heart: Food Stories and Recipes from Northeast India, Zubaan, 2022.