Note: The result of interesting conversations with our flower-sellers.
To many, Chennai might seem a city of glass and chrome (or huts and slush if you look at it another way). Of multistoried apartments, software pottis, cut-outs, corporate structures, sweeping financial tides and sky-scrapers. Old-timers might mourn the loss of many traditions now long lost … but there are still a few left, which bring up a tsunami of memories. Not to mention the fact that a huge industry exists, based on centuries old tradition, right under our very noses. It’s composed of a set of rules, properly followed, a large turnover, and teeming hordes of industrious workers who make sure its wheels turn smoothly.
They’re the flower-sellers of Chennai.
They’re usually part of a blink-and-you-miss act in the usual routine of the average Chennaiite; they’re around in the mornings or evenings, dressed in well-worn saris, toting a huge basket filled with every kind of native flowers that the landscape has to offer. The women of the house are the ones who generally look out for these flower-ladies, checking their wares of jasmine, kadhambam, roses, saamandhi and every other colourful, fragrant blossom in the bloom-spectrum. And that’s just the first part of the process. The other consists of haggling over the prices, groaning over the steadily increased rates, sighing over the days when flowers were practically free, or grown in one’s gardens … and then coming to certain conclusions about what to buy, what not to, sharing some good-natured gossip about the worldly happenings, and then going each other’s way.
And that’s just the simple part.
What’s much more complicated is the intricate web of commerce that connects all of them together. Meenatchi, a 50ish flower-seller who frequents the streets of Alapakkam, is one of the important cogs that help the system run efficiently. She’s aware of the fact too – right down to the finesse of speech that categorizes down-to-earth people such as her.
“Selling flowers makes me independent,” she says nonchalantly, measuring a length of jasmine against her arm for Rs 10. “My children are all grown up now and settled – and I need a source of income to see me through. What I earn here is more than enough.”
Her days start early enough, and at Koyambedu, the perennial flower-market that’s the parent body for these smaller sellers. “I go around the streets surrounding the Meenakshi dental College, and right up to Valasaravakkam,” she divulges. “People are always fond of flowers – so I’ve no trouble selling mine.”
For Vasanthi, part of a sister-duo that takes the Nungambakkam beat, things aren’t so easy. “Where have I got the time to stop and chat?” she asks breathlessly, as I try to get her to into a conversation. “I’m up from 4 in the morning, and I have to get my business done by 7 AM,” she rattles, handing out bunches of roses and lotuses to a long queue of customers. Incredibly, her prices are even higher than Meenatchi’s. “Well, it’s a muhurtha day,” she explains, though her eyes drop. “And I’m already sold out – must get more from my sister.” She hurries away before I can question the atrocity of getting two lotuses for twenty rupees. “What can I do?” she calls out. “The prices at the market are so high.”
Deciding that this mysterious market of theirs warranted investigation, I made plans for an expedition to the famed Koyambedu flower-market, the common supplying-point for many of the flower-sellers that swept over the cityscape. Earlier based in Parrys, this focal point had shifted sometime ago to Koyambedu, a sprawling cement structure where I discovered, much to my amazement, that one entire building, the size of a good-sized southern Tamil temple, was wholly occupied by the Koyambedu Malar Angadi – the Flower Market.