The drive to Market Yard was peaceful - the kind of peaceful Pune gets, first thing in the morning, with minimal people on the streets, and the constant honk-honking of vehicles replaced by the pre-dawn hooting of cuckoos. Unlike Mumbai, Pune as a city likes its sleep. Traders and ordinary folk alike have afternoon siestas, and apart from those pockets of the city that play host to clubs, most people like an early night. So, at that time of morning, Pune feels like a town untouched by chaos, simply waiting for daily life to re-start, fully accepting that soon this peace will be shattered.
As we approach the labyrinth that is Market Yard – a wholesale market for vegetables, fruits, and flowers, stretching across 10 square kilometres - traffic gets heavier. Lorries have been arriving here since 2 am, and at 5 am, we're seeing the late arrivals, still stacked to the roof with fresh produce from farms across the state and country. They carry every conceivable Indian vegetable and fruit on their metallic backs, that will feed this bustling city of 3.4 million people over the course of the next few days.
The market stretches as far as the eye can see. It is designed so that the stalls form concentric circles, creating an illusion of a never-ending maze. I have to admit, I had never been here before. I am a Punekar, born and bred. I had never seen Market Yard. I was expecting the tell-tale stench of too many hard labourers packed together in an environment that requires a lot of heavy lifting, their sweat mixed in with fumes from little and large vans; not to mention the inevitable waste created from tonnes of fresh vegetables and fruits stacked, literally, everywhere.
But, the smells that greeted us were astounding. We turned right at the main gate, wanting to look around the vegetable stalls first, and the sweet scent of fresh herbs filled the air. It smelt like a heady mix of mint, coriander, lemon, and curry leaves, wafting through the organised chaos of tens of thousands of people buying, selling, unloading, bargaining, to get their share of this gorgeous produce. Heaps and heaps of carrots, lemons, limes, cauliflower, marrows twice the size of rugby balls, fresh peas in the pod, stacks – voluminous stacks! – of curry leaves! I have never seen as many curry leaves in my life!
The atmosphere can only be described as business at full throttle. The market is home to over 1000 vendors, some who have been trading there for decades, others who have only recently jumped into this shark tank of trade. Multiple voices shout out, coaxing you to buy the best produce at the best price; a price that changes within seconds, as soon as they hear a counter offer. And all of it at unbelievable value.
One of my most favourite things about India, that I took for granted whilst living here, is the local fruit and vegetable vendors you find in every area. Each little part of the city will have its own market, with vendors who have sold their wares there for decades. These are the people, only a short a walk away, with whom we built relationships, as we only ever went to them for our fresh supplies. We got to know them and they, us. They knew what we used most of, what to suggest if our chosen produce wasn’t available on the day, threw in a few extra green chillies if they didn’t have the right change, and invariably had a smile on their faces through it all. It’s these vendors who get their daily stock from Market Yard. It’s a genius system of filtering produce across the city, whilst also feeding the people who make it convenient for everyone else to get their five-a-day!
Enterprise in action...
Click the images to enlarge.
Fruit being more seasonal than vegetables,
there was limited variety for us to see. The fruit stalls were a lot calmer, and less crammed than their neighbours across the main path. I felt as though someone has switched the scent in the air-freshner; everywhere smelt of fresh apples, pomegranate, and pineapple. Crates full of shiny red apples and pomegranates were truly irresistible, and as we stepped in for a closer look, we got chatting to “Aba”, an elderly gentleman who has been selling pomegranates there for about 35 years. He listed at least six varieties of the fruit, in the order that it is harvested throughout the season, and I wish I had videoed him. His smile shone with pride for his fruit, and he couldn’t wait to slice one open for us.
Have you ever smelled pomegranate as it is sliced open? The hint of juice that squirts out, as the fruit is split open, works in harmony with the anticipation on your tongue, as it waits patiently to taste those blood-red nibs. Aba watched in delight as we tried a couple of buds and grinned when he saw the acknowledgment in our faces. The man knew his produce, and it seemed only natural to buy some from him. He spoke to us about the difference between chemically enhanced fruits – the stall next to his had rows of identical, blood-red and blemish-free fruits in comparison to his paler, uneven, and rather homely looking poms – and the more organically grown crop, which he implied was his.
When you have lived in India, you learn to take things with a pinch of salt. When I related this little chat to my father, he smiled a small cynical smile, as if to say ‘you’d listen to any old tale!’ and I suppose there is some truth in that. All I have to say in my defence, is that after we had finished speaking to Aba, and taken his picture for this blog, a young man from a couple of stalls over came to us, curious to know why we were walking around taking photos. Market Yard is hardly a tourist spot! As we chatted, he mentioned Aba, and how he has been at the market for over three decades, how everyone knows him and respects him, and that was enough for me.
We bought 1kg of pomegranate for 50 INR. That’s 6 delicious pomegranates for less than £1, not counting the one he sliced open for us to try. They retail for 300 INR per kilo. That should give you an idea of tremendous revenue generated as a result of this sprawling market.
The other thing that stood out across the market was the lack of plastic waste. The state of Maharashtra has banned single-use plastic. Across the state, people are using recyclable, biodegradable alternatives for everything – packaging, take-away food, restaurants, shopping, and even ice-cream. Some ice-cream comes in reusable glass jars!
Agricultural life has traditionally been nature-centric. They use natural materials like hessian, hemp, and straw, for packaging. Most of these materials are reusable, and those that aren’t, are bio-degradable, which results in very low waste. In keeping with that, there was practically no plastic at Market Yard. The only thing that we came across was a huge stack of heavy-duty plastic crates, which seemed to be the carrier of choice for small vendors who needed to maximise the space in their little tuk-tuk trucks, with the use of these stackable crates.
By 7 am, most of the hard work was done, and traders were stopping at tea stalls, which make up the very centre of this market, for a break before heading off in different directions. As we made our way back home, completely bowled over by the sheer abundance of stimuli we’d experienced in two hours, we followed a little tuk-tuk truck – or tempo, as Indians would call it – which was heading in the same direction as us, all the way back to its destination. It stopped outside Indutai Sathe’s stall, bringing our journey to and from Market Yard to a perfectly poetic end.