The Enchanted Bylanes

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It is not Enid Blyton’s English woods, it is an Indian wholesale market for toys. A glimpse of how Chinese efficiency works wonders with Indian enterprise

Only the worthy can find their way to this enchanted land tucked away in the bylanes of Old Delhi. That is, if you can convince the cattle to move their conference from the middle of the road, navigate your way round the agitated horses at the tonga stand, and keep your feet from being flattened by one of the hundreds of speeding rickshaws. At every turn, you are given differing directions to the ‘Indo-Chinese’ toy market. But after jostling your way through it all, when you finally reach Vidyanand Market, Teliwara, in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar, you will thank yourself for not giving up.

This happens to be one of India’s largest wholesale markets for Chinese toys. Items from here make their way to Mumbai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Lucknow and many other cities—to be sold at traffic signals and toy stores. This is also where thousands of toys vie with each other to be declared the rage of the season. Dolls preen in their pretty dresses, superheroes flash their guns, and trick toys try their utmost to tickle you pink. But typically, only one toy gets to reign over the market every season. Earlier this year, that honour was won by a cute set of solar powered plants that shimmied their way into millions of Indian hearts.

Now, it is time again for a new toy to enter the spotlight as the year’s in thing. It’s an exercise in creativity that can be traced thousands of kilometres away to the bustling Shantou district of China. “It is also known as the toy district of China. Chenghai town, where most of the toy-making facilities are located, is very similar to Delhi’s Okhla Industrial Area,” says Vipul Gupta of Darling Toys, who regularly spends a third or fourth of his year in Shantou.

Importers like him work closely with Chinese toy makers to design toys specifically for the Indian market. This Holi saw many novel creations. Water cannons that not only soak you but do it musically too, gulal bombs that burst open with a pop like a Christmas cracker, dinosaur guns that glow and growl to the delight of kids, and pichkaris with Winnie the Pooh shields at the nozzle to save yourself a retaliatory drenching.

“I first went to Shantou in 1996 and started importing toys in 1998,” says Vipul, who designs toys along with his father, Vijay, “Anyone can go to China, but you need to have an idea of the market. What items will be impulse purchases? What special features should be added to appeal to the Indian customer?” From idea to finished product, a toy takes three to four weeks. But importing it to India takes an additional three weeks.

What’s lost to Indian bureaucracy is made up by Chinese enthusiasm. Such is the popularity of people like Gupta, that news of his arrival spreads like wildfire. “At least six people are always there to pick us up from the airport, hoping that they will get business from us. There is a lot of goodwill for us,” says Vipul.

It’s not easily done. Staunch vegetarians, particularly those who don’t even eat garlic and onions, need to take their own food along (even teabags, in Vipul’s case: “I’ve been told that they mix garlic even in their tea”), but that inconvenience pales in comparison with the business opportunity. Communication can be troublesome too, but toy marketers and toy makers have a way of understanding each other. This time round, Vipul is hoping to get hold of something novel like the petrol bike he got last year. “It was ideally meant for children who stayed in farm houses. The bike had a lot of power and was a big hit.”

Safely sourced, the toys make their way to Vidyanand Market, where sundry distributors and small-time traders buy them in bulk. Within days, the toys will be on display at cornershops across the country. Right now, though, it’s time for some active bargaining; bundles of money exchange hands, even as wagonloads of toys are ferried around. Enterprising one-man toysellers—the kind you see at traffic signals—are also jostling each other for the latest low-cost wares straight from China. They have little time to talk, and give clipped responses to your questions. Salim Khan, who sells these toys at a Seemapuri traffic signal in Delhi, has been coming here for the past one-and-a-half years. He has just bought 10 pieces of Ben Ten guns and 15 of Happy Girl mobile phones. “There are interesting toys such as ice cream cones that pop in your face, BlackBerry replicas  that come for as little as Rs 11–15,” he says, “The idea is to sell something compact and novel, something that would have the customer make up his mind in less than two minutes.”

Ramesh Kumar, in contrast, is a veteran. He has been coming here for the past 11 years now. In the morning, he sells his wares at Teliwara, and in the afternoon moves on to one of the traffic signals in Old Delhi. “Yeh poochcho ki kya nahin bikta (ask what doesn’t sell),” he says, adding that shopkeepers come from as far as Faizabad to pick up toys here.

Street vendors like Salim and Ramesh buy 30 to 50 pieces at a time, and sell out within two days, returning to recycle their cash for more inventory. “When we see a particular toy doing very well, like the solar-powered plant, then we start selling it more aggressively. Or if we notice other vendors buying more of some toy, we also start buying more pieces. And that’s how a toy becomes a phenomenon,” says Salim.

The wholesale market comes to life as early as seven in the morning. And fresh imports are not all that is hawked. You see people squatting along the pavement with old products as well. “People from in and around the neighbourhood come with toys that have been leftover from previous seasons. They sell them at very nominal rates. Earlier, that was a thriving market, but nowadays the cops have become very strict. They don’t allow anyone to sit like this,” says Mahesh Agarwal, who has been a toy vendor for the past 13 years. Once upon a time, he too was part of that lineup, squatting with old toys. Now he has his own shop, Single Toys. “By 11 am, some 500 people come to the market,” he says.

On most days, shop owners such as Mahesh can sell up to Rs 26,000 worth of stuff, while on leaner days, sales slide to about Rs 10,000. Traffic-signal vendors like Salim and Ramesh, in contrast, manage sales of some Rs 500 every day. “All said and done, this is a fascinating job,” says Mahesh, “Where else can you spend all your time being surrounded by toys of all shapes and sizes? It makes you feel like a kid again.”