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Class Markets in South India

Jessica Von Wendel

            Ta Nagar is the place to go if you want something cheap in Chennai, India.  I thought, well I’m in India shouldn’t that be the case just about anywhere?   What I didn’t realize was the range of contrasts that this one country possesses even on the marketplace scale.  In Sara Dickey’s book Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, she states that “of all the forms of identity in urban South India, socioeconomic class is one of the most salient.”  I found this class identity most notable in my comparison of markets used by the wealthy and those frequented by the poor. As I walked around the Ta Nagar market, street vendors called out to bring me closer to their stalls selling primarily women’s clothing. Shirts and tops of all colors swayed in the breeze and provided a stark contrast to the muddy brown of the streets.  The vibrant pinks, oranges, reds and yellow fabrics popped up out of the muck like a lotus flower appears from beneath the muddy waters.  The people at this market are local, everyday people.  There aren’t many tourists; in fact in the seven hours I spent here I only saw one.  Primarily middle aged women walk the streets.  Many walk alone or perhaps with a friend.  The clothing shops are selling saris and tunic sets that are a wash of color.  Yet, I couldn’t ever get lost in the color because I was brought back to reality as someone dressed in muddy torn clothes grabbed at my arm.  A beggar looks straight into me and gives the universal gesture of touching their fingers to their lips to ask for money.  This is the India I expected: the contrast of color and poverty.

The India I didn’t expect was at another market only fifteen minutes away.  The Spencer Plaza is an equivalent to any mall you would find in America.  A domed ceiling crowns the central space as well-dressed shoppers walk about.  In this air-conditioned interior no one is sweating from the unbearable heat like at the outdoor market.  Here I was surprised to see a larger number of young men walking in groups and fewer older women.  Still the shops were primarily selling women’s clothing and jewelry.  Yet no one was really shopping.  In fact, the only people carrying bags of purchases were the other Semester at Sea students I ran into, which was at least thirty.  As I walked around in air-conditioned bliss, I realized why so many of my fellow Americans flock to this style of market.  It is familiar.  The Indians selling from these shops seem more trustworthy than the guys trying to sell you a skirt off the back of a cart in the street.  Because it is westernized this market must be reliable.  Ironically, the same tactics used by the sales people on the streets are utilized in this enclosed market.  Just as on the streets in Ta Nagar, the men working in the shops at Spencer Plaza stand outside in the main hallway and call out for you to “just take a look.”  Only here they expect to have American visitors and made professional signs welcoming the Semester at Sea students and offering us a twenty percent discount.  I could only laugh as I saw the exact same skirt I had bought off the street of the outdoor market in Ta Nagar going for 100 rupees more than what I had paid.

While I expected to see the microscopic contrast of color vibrancy juxtaposed against the grime of poverty in the street markets, which is iconic of India, I was the most surprised by this macroscopic difference of class identity that Sara Dickey observes and that I saw in the differences between these two separate markets situated side by side.  My experiences in the two markets suggests that these broader variances are often overlooked because the markets have an exclusivity to them that restricts shopping to certain classes and thus provides no obvious distinction within the market itself.  Only by comparing the two markets against each other are the two worlds of India revealed.  The distinct environments designed for the targeted class of consumer in these two markets is yet another way that the citizens of India are divided along class and caste boundaries.  The environments encourage division, but the processes of both product exchange and human interaction remain universal.

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