The Major-League Market

They use a cloth to cover their hands and wiggle their fingers to negotiate prices and execute secret trades.

DELHI, India—They use a cloth to cover their hands and wiggle their fingers to negotiate prices and execute secret trades. It’s like calling plays in high-stakes college football, but with the ultimate end of affordable fresh produce rather than national championships. These agricultural middlemen mean serious business.

For the men who trade at Azadpur Mandi, Asia’s largest fruit and vegetable hub market just north of Delhi, fresh produce is the big leagues and a path to huge profits. Aggregators collect food from farmers throughout North India and bring the crops to the mandi to sell them off to agents, who will later distribute the food to retail outlets throughout the country. The good agents get rich doing it, too. One agent drives a Mercedes, while others own property valued at over $1 million.

Azadpur Mandi spans for over 80 acres, with merchants weighing fruits and vegetables on shoestring scales in every direction. Carnival-colored trucks circle the area and back up to loading docks so that boys can unload the bulky and disheveled fruits. I think about how much manual labor goes into my salad as men struggle with ripped bags slung over their shoulders, balance pyramids of cabbage on their heads, and push rickety handcarts stacked high with ginger and sugar cane stalks. Every item has a transportation secret: cucumbers are packed into giant whirlpool configurations to avoid damage, and tomatoes get their own hard-shelled crates to prevent squishing.

On one platform round and green citrus fruits spill out of unlatched truck beds. Boys rest wide-legged atop the resulting citrus mountain, eager and alive as if they’ve just conquered Everest. Other men sit cross-legged on the floor and sift through the green mousambi fruit. They taste each sphere with their fingertips to determine if it will be sour, sweet, bitter, rotten and then sort it into appropriate bins.

As the monsoon rains roll into the mandi, eggplants, pumpkins, and potatoes topple off of the handcarts into toxic puddles forming on the ground. The fruit is now spoiled and destroyed. The same rains pool at the ankles of the sandal-footed transport boys, poisoning their skin along with the goods they carry. Even my borrowed rain boots are flooding over. Yet somehow the chaos and creeping threat of acidic rainwater can’t hold the mandi back. India needs to eat, and the mandi will churn and hustle to feed her.