'Woh dekho, sakbo loot raha hai (See that fellow, he’s fleecing everyone),' giggles a cocky young lad, nudging his friend. Both were busy polishing off their bowls of steaming chicken broth, their bodies pressed against the cart – given the crowd around, everyone wide awake at 11:00 pm, snug in their woollens and leather. The guilty party in question was a jhandawala (flag-seller) – a middle-aged man with tiny tricolour flags painted on his face, tricolour broaches on his shirt, accessorised by a long tricolour scarf.
A glaring mascot for his wares – paper tricolour flags – spread on a chaadar (bedsheet). “Flag toh paanch rupaiye mein milta hai, yeh toh dus mein bech raha hai (You get these at Rs 5, he’s selling at Rs 10),” the lad tells me, before prodding the vendor, who just sold his stock of boiled eggs, for another helping.
The broth is nourishing, thick, topped with powered spices, coriander and a dollop of butter, the right succor in the cold at just Rs 15.
Hoping to be coddled in warmth and high-fashion are a few men trying out voguish winter coats, sweaters, jackets, waistcoats at the stall in front. At price points Rs 600, Rs 700 and Rs 1,300, these appear extremely reasonable.
While turning around, I almost collide into a handcart selling chubby guavas (Rs 40 for a kg). Nearby, carts laden with pineapples, berries, chikkus, groundnuts, are priced similarly. From the multiple handis attached to his cycle, another vendor rustles up tangy, bhel at Rs 20 and Rs 30.
Catch a frothy coffee (Rs 20), first passed under a steam machine with sci-fi valves before a liberal sprinkling of choco powder. Lurking in the shadows, are the cigarette and gutka sellers.
Welcome to Shaheen Bagh’s Kalindi Kunj road. Visuals streaming from this ‘anti-CAA-NPR- NRC protest zone’ usually show these ‘Jhansi ki Ranis’ (with their kids) seated here, unwavered by the biting cold.
Their men and the volunteers stand around the tented venue, and oversee security and the distribution of free food by well-wishers, and have set up the ‘secular chai stall’ and medical camp. Now, this venue has prompted ‘Shaheen Baghs’ at Prayagraj (Allahabad), Gaya (Bihar), Park Circus (Kolkata) and Konark Indrayu Mall (Pune).
It has also prompted a slew of vendors who potter at the peripheries of this dharna, extending all the way down the road beyond the crossover bridge.
They’ve figured that those protesting will find it difficult to meet daily needs, the protests consuming all their time.
Especially since the overlooking malls have been shut since the protests here picked up momentum, the shuttered branded stores are only used for their corridors to babysit children of the protestors and indulge them in art activities.
These vendors, who have slipped onto the main road from the adjacent local market and surrounding areas, are also aware that people who have shown up here in support are bound to feel their stomachs rumble at some point and opt for their cheaper eats, as it is not easy to always find free biryani here.
Spurring this mela of sorts, are announcements of children getting lost in the crowd with anxious parents waiting at the stage area to sightings of urchins pickpocketing.
Not to mention that there are ample opportunities for selfie-takers – either waving a huge tricolour, posing at replicas of the India Gate, map of India or better, inside an installation of a mock ‘detention centre’ under the bridge… While the vendors refuse to give their identity, given they don’t have the permit to hawk here, they staunchly claim their allegiance to the anti- CAA movement.
At the beginning of the bylane that turns into the protest, an attar seller Amaan has set up a table with his eponymous tiny perfume bottles, priced Rs 100 onwards. He had stopped doing business for a month to attend the protests, “par rent kaun bharega [but who will pay my rent]?”
He then whips out a printout, claiming it is the Assam NRC document that lists his family members’ – “Matlab, hum safe hai (Means we are safe)” – except that of his fufaji (uncle). So, he’ll continue to protest here (with his wares in tow) as he strongly feels NRC was not just an Assam-experiment.
Also, with these stalls throughout the road, the public has explored more areas on this stretch to form own mini-groups and protest. Like a group encircles a young man on whose shoulders sits a boy, screaming, “Jor se bolo!” “Azaadi!” “Arre zor se bolo!” “Azaadi!” Strolling further, four people are sitting on the footpath, balancing lit candles on their open palms, with posters, “Hum Bhi Dekhenge”, “Kisi Ke Baap Ka Hindustan Thodi Hai” at their feet.
Close by, a young man performs spoken word poetry, reading from his phone.
Volunteers flit in-between at regular intervals, picking up the trash. Groups of three, each with one acrylic paint bottle in orange, white and green, engage in a body painting exercise drawing the tiranga on you.
Even better is the makeshift Fatima Sheikh- Savitri Bai Library started by a History grad from Aligarh University, Mohammad Asif, as an ode to the Indian social reformers.
Asif has pooled in over a 100 Hindi, Urdu and English books; from Mein Kampf, Ghalib to Dalit literature.
You’re invited to read a book in this tent that holds a mini-shrine for Rohith Vemula, in a bid to educate yourself and protest.
“Women can issue books for 24 hours, and if all goes well, I will make the library permanent.” While this atmosphere of protest profiteers and seemingly gallivanters can disappoint, that’s not entirely the case.