This piece is one of the 10 winners of our Profile competition 2022. You can find more here. Gauri Guptathe author, is 14 years old and goes to The Cathedral and the John Connon School in Bombay, India.
Street market sweets
By Gauri Gupta
In March 2020, India experienced the first wave of Covid-19 and went into full nationwide lockdown. It made headlines around the world, due to the particular challenges faced by the poorest Indians, many of whom had to travel hundreds of miles to return to their villages from the cities. It was a highly controversial policy, partly because it actually facilitated the spread of the virus in rural India, and partly because it exposed the vulnerable working and living conditions of much of the Indian population. These images of chaos and human suffering have gone around the world. What has not been reported is the suffering of those left behind in the cities.
Vasudev Govind sells imartis at Chandni Chowk, a bustling street market in India’s capital, New Delhi. An imarti is a Rajasthani dessert of Persian origin that is enjoyed as a popular and ubiquitous street food.
In March 2020, he saw his customers drop to zero. A street once known for its constant buzz and chaos was now silent and empty. Mr. Govind has a family of five dependent children. For five months, he had no income.
On a recent visit I went to Chandni Chowk an unhealthy number of times with my camera in hand. Luckily, I had the chance to speak to the manufacturer of my favorite imartis. The following are excerpts of conversations with Mr. Govind, translated from Hindi and edited for clarity.
Your imartis are delicious. Have you always been an imarti maker? How did you learn?
Thanks. Well, as you know, most of the shops in Chandni Chowk are ancestral, which means my great-grandfather was an imarti seller, my father and now me! We’ve been following the same recipe for hundreds of years. That’s what makes it so special. So, we live right above the store, and every day since I was a kid, I spent all my time at the store. I was doing my homework in the kitchen, between washing the pots and stoking the fire on the stove. All my childhood memories are in this imarti stall.
When did you first hear about Covid? How did you feel when the lockdown was announced?
Oh, my God, I remember the exact moment! Here in Chandni Chowk, people were mingling and talking to each other, but suddenly everything stopped. In one morning, most of my neighbors simply disappeared. They didn’t even have time to say goodbye. It was like the feeling before a war.
Perplexed by the sudden change, I asked the chai wallah [tea seller] what was happening. He told me about a virus and, well, the rest is history I guess. How did I feel? I was afraid, but not so much of the virus. I am an old man and I have faith in God. But I saw my business disappear. It was really scary. I have dependent children and I don’t know how to do anything but make imartis. Losing everything is scary because that’s life (he spread his hands), and we don’t know anything outside of it.
How was it in your household during confinement?
The reality of confinement was overwhelming at first, we were all stuck together in one room. I have a family of seven (laughs). A week into the lockdown, life as we knew it came to a halt and we couldn’t cope. Everyone was stressed. We all kept racking our brains. We all had our personal worries. There have been times when I had to open my shop just to be able to feed my family.
A good thing happened, however. Throughout history, only the men in my family have made imartis and run the shop. I had the idea of teaching my daughters the family trade. They loved it, and it gave us all a sense of purpose.
What are your hopes for the future?
Business-wise, things are slowly returning to normal. It’s funny because it took less than a day for everything to be destroyed, but it takes more than five or six months for everything to be back to normal. The buzz in Chandni Chowk is slowly coming back, and it’s nice to see that! Once the tourists return, it will be even better, I suppose!