The Answer to Every Question is Chhappan

Arriving back to the States one week before school starts does not leave much time to unwind, catch up with friends and family, and tackle the long list of to-dos that must be completed before moving back to Philly. While attempting to balance all these things, I can’t help but think of memories of SPS and India. Yet that sense of nostalgia runs up against the endless boulevards of the perfectly manicured city of Charlotte, as I drive through infinite variations of shopping complexes and luxury neighborhoods on my way to, well, anywhere. So what do you do when your brain has trouble putting two and two together? Well, you write about it! For this post, I thought I’d share one of the highlights of my trip that I haven’t gotten the chance to write about yet.

It’s called “Aashna discovers she should consider professional acting.” Meet Raghav, a new 23-year-old member of SPS who just joined the Producer Company a month ago. Raghav is brilliant and a straight-faced jokester. He once told me he saw a flag hoisting ceremony on top of one of the secluded mountains behind the Center, a brilliant sight that we should all wake up at sunrise to witness. He described it in perfect detail. I found out later it never happened.

After observing how aggregating the various commodities works for several weeks, Raghav and I were both curious about how the commodity selling part of the Producer Company equation works. One morning the two of us decided to travel with the Producer Company workers to the Indore mandi, the exchange market in the city three hours away where wheat, soybean, and other commodities are traded on a large-scale from surrounding areas. We were both excited to see the bustling auction at the mandi, as buyers and sellers negotiate prices in a hectic flurry of wild gestures and Hindi. That morning, Raghav and I walked a mile to the bus stop closest to the center where we stayed, arriving at 8:58 am. Alas, the 9:00 bus was on a roll that day and had already hurled by at 8:55, the first time in Madhya Pradesh history anything happened before schedule. So we waited another hour on the wooden slab in front of the village well to catch the 10:00 bus to Bagli, a bloc-level town forty-five minutes away, where we were to meet up with the Producer Company staff. It is intimate SPS staff knowledge that you avoid the 10:00 bus at all costs, especially if you value breathing. I spent the journey standing pressed between a man who had forgotten how to blink and a woman’s feisty elbow, with a small child squatting in the narrow space between my legs.

We got off at the warehouse where the Company men were scooping hundreds of quintals of wheat into jute bags and loading them onto trucks. By the time we arrived, breathless and excited, it was already 11:00 am. The men had just begun the laborious process and were behind schedule. So, in a classic India move, it was decided that the Company was too late and could not go to the mandi today. After the hell of a journey to Bagli, Raghav and I were not to be vanquished. We asked if we could go to Indore anyways to check out the mandi’s activities as third-party observers. The on-the-hour bus had already left, so a staff member said he’d drive us to the next town over, Chapda. In the middle of the motorcycle journey the SPS staff member flagged down a groovy red van to take us the remaining twenty minutes to Chapda. We slid into the slick, unused backseat, jamming to Om Shanti Om on repeat with the two bros up front. From Chapda, we caught the bus to Indore, nodding off on the two-hour journey. We then took a rickshaw to the mandi, which had almost descended into a ghost town by the time we arrived. The auction had finished long before, and the sellers were packing up their stacks of leftover grain. After all that, we felt defeated.

We explained to one of the only remaining sellers that we had traveled all of this way to learn about the mandi, and if there was any way we could possibly get to know more about how a mandi operates we would be extremely grateful. He directed us to the mandi office, a government building guarded by a police officer. The policeman showed us to the room of the main mandi manager, a middle-aged man with quite a belly surrounded by other important-looking men in their fifties and sixties. They were comfortably leaning back in their leathery chairs, as an air of authority wafted out of the room. Before we skirted in, Raghav pulled me aside and whispered, “If anyone asks, we go to IIM (Indian Institute of Management) Indore.” I gave him a look of “why is that necessary” and he shot one back with “Aashna don’t eff this up.” Raghav didn’t want the mandi managers to know we had come from SPS, because SPS was a client. There would be no way the men would be forthright with us about the institution’s operation if they knew who we were. I guess that makes sense.

The officer welcomes us in grandiosely and asks what he could do for us. Raghav replies that we are students from IIM Indore where we working on a project about commodity selling. We are curious about how a mandi operates and are hoping to learn from the wisdom of such a high-up civil servant. The officer doesn’t seem convinced.

“Where is IIM Indore located?”

Shoot. A little background research would have helped before launching head first into our new roles. Now the only thing about Indore that Raghav and I remotely know about is a row of fifty-six fast food stalls a coworker had told us we had to go to. It is called Chhappan, which means fifty-six in Hindi.

“Uhh… close to Chhappan.” Already off on the wrong foot. One of the men furrows his brow and says that he thought the campus is a little outside the city. I hurriedly explain in my clearly non-native Hindi that my colleague Raghav misunderstood and thought the good sir had meant where did we stay. “So your dorm is located near Chhappan. That’s off MG Road right?”

“Uh-huh. So could you tell us more about how the day-to-day operations of a mandi work?” Raghav tries to deflect the man’s inquiries, but as luck would have it we have met our match in the most inquisitive mandi officer. Ever.

“What’s the rush? Are your dorms co-ed?”

“No they are not.”

“Are the dining halls co-ed?” The mandi manager is on a roll.

I reply no and Raghav replies yes at the same time. We look at each other wide-eyed for a second and then Raghav explains, “Well, breakfast and lunch are co-ed but dinner is separate.”

“How do you pay for your meals?”

“They use this innovation called meal cards where you swipe a card and it deducts a balance,” Raghav answers. This innovation has actually not come to Raghav’s old university yet… Raghav saw this idea in an American movie and thought he’d give it a go.

“What percentage of IIM Indore are women?”

I lament, “Only about 30%. It is a real shame.”

After squeezing in a few questions about the mandi, I bring up producer companies and ask the mandi manager his opinion of their viability. The manager says an NGO near Bagli has tried to bring the producer company model to the mandi but he himself does not think they can succeed, though he wishes them the best of luck.

“Oh right, Aashna what is that NGO called again? Samaj something…”

“Hmm… Samaj Pragati… Samaj Pragati Sahayog?”

The mandi manager exclaims, “Yes! That’s it!”

He tells us the steps the NGO should take if it truly wants to succeed at such a large market, and I write his suggestions down furiously, you know… taking research notes.

One of the other men ask me where I am from. The room hushes for a hot second. I tell the men I am from Gujarat, explaining why my Hindi is not perfect. They ask me what town. I tell them Baroda. They inquire how I get there on school breaks. I respond that there is a train from Indore to Baroda. “Oh right! Does it stop in ___?” Man, this guy would not let it go.

“Uhh I mostly sleep on the way.”

As the mandi officer is handing us a few books he thinks we should pick up at a local bookstore, he asks us where we are going to eat. Raghav and I look at each other and say “Chhappan” at the same time. At this point, we are sweating it. These men must think our answer to every question is invariably Chhappan. An older man who has not spoken much thus far gives us a list of better places to go to, all close to areas we pretend to know about.

“Actually sir,” I interject. “School just started one month ago, so we are very new to Indore and have not had the opportunity to explore it enough.”

Raghav slips me a “Well done—wish I had thought of that” look and we both breathe a sigh of relief as the men nod in understanding.

As we ask our last few questions about the mandi, the manager tells us he would be more than happy to give a lecture to our class about the mandi if we note down his information.

Raghav cries that the professor overseeing our project, Professor Mohanty, would be more than happy to invite the kind officer.

After downing the chai they serve us, we run out of the office, finally allowing ourselves to break into the laughter we had been holding in for almost an hour. Then we decide to go to Chhappan for lunch.

I have plenty more amazing memories of hiking in monsoon, watching the sunrise with goatherders from the nearby village, traveling to Anandwan with Jyotsna and Prasant, etc. But… I’d love to share those in person with you!

Aashna

ImageThat is one quintal of wheat.

Image

ImageThe front porch of my lovely home for ten weeks.

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About Aashna

Hi! I'm Aashna from the Class of 2016. I'm in the Huntsman Program for International Studies and Business at Penn, for which my Wharton concentration is Finance and my area of focus is South Asia. I had a fabulous experience interning at Samaj Pragati Sahayog in Madhya Pradesh during the Summer of 2013. Currently, I am interning at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where I am working on Housing Policy.