On Saturday the streets of downtown Mumbai were deserted. With the number of cases rising again, people were safeguarding themselves. Optional travel was clearly down, and most people were more safely masked than before. It was an even Saturday, so few businesses were open. The first wave was a learning experience for everyone. Now we know that measured and graded response is better than a long shutdown. I finished my work and then tried to take photos of the food carts. The mid-day sun is harsh. Sometimes I persist even with this awful lighting because of the human stories I see. Today, the lack of crowds killed interest as effectively as the harsh light.
The featured photo has a story. A pregnant woman tries to sell a good-luck charm (the string of chilis and a lime) to the food vendor, as she turns to look at her two young children at their “home” on the pavement. I wish I had looked more carefully first, and positioned myself to get the whole story in one shot: the cart, the woman, her children at “home”. Street photography involves more than just the camera. The lockdown across the world has been harsher on the poor. Pavement dwellers have no masks. I would like to help buy some. If you know of organizations or citizens’ initiatives which are distributing masks to homeless people, or otherwise trying to help them against COVID-19, could you please let me know in the comments?
I woke up to a gloomy day. it started raining as I made my morning’s tea. Cyclone Burevi had passed well south of us a week ago. I pulled up the satellite images and saw that this was a big cloud mass which had moved in from the south west. There go my plans of spending a night watching the Geminid meteor showers. Depression has multiple meanings! I opened a folder of photos from the middle of a monsoon more than a decade past, and came across a set of street photos I’d taken on an Independence Day. In the featured photo a group of labourers spends their day off chatting. I liked the closed wooden door behind them, and the way they had arranged themselves.
It was a holiday. Most shops were closed. Some had the old style wooden shutters, others had the metal rolling shutters which double as space for advertisements. This was clearly an amateur effort, a little cluttered, but in keeping with the surroundings. I think I like the wooden doors more.
Not all businesses have to close even on a holiday. This pair with a fruits and juices cart was getting some punters. The man with the push cart was also going off to work. He seemed to be a regular customer, greeting the juicewallah in passing. I’d found an open space two floors above the street for these photos. It allowed me to look around without intruding on the life of the street.
When I came down to the street I found this cat sitting in a corner where it thought it was not under surveillance. Friends! had wound up a few years back, but Phoebe’s song Smelly Cat came to mind.
It is possible to generalize. There are distinct flavours of everyday life which announce "Europe" or "Asia". Off the main roads in an European city you will still find a slow neighbourhood life. People will greet each other in a leisurely way, and be curious about the tourist clicking photos, but be too polite to ask. It takes a couple of weeks before you are included into the life of the neighbourhood: at the corner cafe they know what you want, the baker has a smile for you, and the grocer exchanges a few words in some shared language.
I walked away from the tourist’s Bangkok into crowded little roads. These are exemplars of busy Asian street life, the anonymity of crowds but also friendliness to total strangers. These streets are the last bastion of the truly free market, for example, the lady at the corner in the photo above, selling clothes. The jumble of wires is a sign of a population far too busy to be weighed down by fear. There is a lot more of brisk walking, and substantially less window shopping. The weight of people is larger than what you find in Europe, as a result personal space is very small. Space always seems to be at a premium, except in centres of power like Tienanmen Square. Businesses are stacked above each other in vertical growth. I always like to look into a barber shop, with its deceptive air of leisure while business is actually being transacted as fast as possible. Bangkok’s barber shops are no exception.
Generalizations structure travel, but its pleasure comes from the particulars of the people you meet. My experience of Bangkok was made more pleasant by the sing-song greeting of the corner shop which sold us large plastic bottles of water, the waitress who pressed a glass of fresh orange juice for me when my tongue caught fire from the green curry she served, and the lady with her many shopping bags who guided us through a maze of streets to where we could get a tuktuk.
In China we keep seeing artisans selling their own work. This lady was sitting near the Bell Tower of Xi’an making these lovely pieces with rope. The work looks very similar to the corresponding Indian work. I suppose she must be making a reasonable living. What strikes me most about this is the difference with India, where the artisans usually work in the village and there is a long chain of middlemen between us and them. The market for handicrafts in India has started changing in recent years with cooperatives and direct sales, although I think the volumes involved in this newer market is still much smaller than in the older system. I guess a worker’s cooperative could work somewhat differently in China.