Kalyani’s fingers move fast as she twists the thread and adds fresh malli poo (jasmine) to the long flower string she is knitting together. Seated beside her on plastic sheets two other women — Rani and Vimala — are working on their flower strings too. For 35 years now the trio have met every day at 5 am in front of a pawn shop at the Perambur market in Chennai to string flowers for a vendor. “Except for the lockdown, we were busy all through the years,” says the 62-year-old Kalyani, adding, “those were the worst months of our lives. For three days I survived on biscuits and water because I wasn’t prepared and everything happened so suddenly and quickly.”
In the pre-corona days, “oru muzham (a cubit measured from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger) ku oru ruba kadaikum (we used to get ₹1 per measure),” Rani says. But now that has been reduced to 25 paise. “The more we string the more we make now. But unfortunately, the vendor herself isn’t selling enough. So, our work has been reduced,” she sighs. Stringers, she says, could easily make ₹100–150 a day earlier. “But now we make ₹10–25. How will that be enough? Do you know we have eaten nothing in the last seven months other than rice kanji (porridge)?”
Stringers could easily make ₹100–150 a day earlier. But now we make ₹10–25. Do you know we have eaten nothing in the last seven months other than rice porridge?
– Rani, a flower vendor.
Not much is different for the flower vendors either. Rolls of scented malli strings, bright and colourful samanthi and sampangi (chrysanthemum, marigold), vibrant December poo (Philippine violet) and pink jasmine, adorn the roadside stall owned by Sumathi, at the Kilpauk Gardens. She waits to catch the eye of the few passersby and calls out “aaiya poo vangi konga (Sir, please buy flowers).” Disappointed after three failed attempts of hawking, she says “nobody’s buying! Last November the road was abuzz with walkers, joggers, and temple goers and by 7.30am I would have sold most of my flowers.” Pointing at the few rupee coins and a couple of ₹10 notes on her rugged stall, she says “this is all I have made so far today. You can check under the covers too. This is all I have got and am returning home with this poor income.”
Has anything changed for better for these vendors after the puja and Diwali season arrived? In response, Kamala Amma, a 75-year-old flower vendor, says, “what Diwali? It doesn’t feel like a festive time at all as we are still bearing the aftermath of the lockdown.” After her husband’s death, she began selling flowers for a living. “It was a flourishing business earlier and I got both my daughters married with the money I made from selling flowers and had to take a very small loan.” Her daily income has plunged rapidly from ₹500–₹850 to ₹150 and during the lockdown her total borrowings piled up to ₹30,000. “I can only hope to pay back interest now and will have to visit my granddaughters empty-handed for Diwali,” she rues, almost bursting into tears, but manages to control her emotions.
Let’s not forget that most of these vulnerable sections borrow money at abominable interest rates that range between 120 to 500 per cent an annum, and even more. In some cases, especially among vegetable vendors, a loan of ₹50 in the morning has to be paid off at the end of the day with ₹100. Work the math.
It was a flourishing business earlier and I got both my daughters married with the money I made from selling flowers and had to take a very small loan.
Kanamma, a roadside vendor, is lost in thought and snaps at me in response to my question. “There is nothing to say. I don’t know if I will be able to sell even one garland today. If you aren’t here to buy flowers, please leave.” A few yards away a mother and son sit at their roadside stall awaiting customers. “I did not send my son to school. All he knows to do is to sell flowers! I’m not scared for myself but his future. This is not just a job, it’s our life,” says the mother who blames Covid for “destroying our traditional trade of selling flowers to devotees and housewives. How can anyone worship without flowers?”
Some feisty women
And yet, they show resilience. Susheela, another vendor, says “at least we have got work to do now that the lockdown has been lifted. There is some hope that our situation will change. Everyone has suffered from the lockdown and the situation could have been worse. We could have got infected and died because of corona.” Navratri and Diwali are the best seasons for flower vendors. “We make good money during this season. But this Navratri, as the rates were down, we made very little money, but that is a hundred times better than no money at all.” She offers me a free muzham of malli and says “take it amma, no one else is going to buy it anyway.”
“Like Swiggy, that tells you the body temperature of the delivery boy, I wish there was a way to tell that the flowers we sell are not infected. This way we could sell flowers without being looked at like people who will infect you,” says Soundar, who has a flower shop at the Perambur bazaar.
Both Malathi and Rekha worked as office attenders, but lost their jobs during the lockdown. “My office closed in April and I received a salary for three months after which I was told that I will be contacted if the office opens again,” says Rekha. No call came for another two months and “I couldn’t depend on my drunk husband to support my son and me.” She asked her aunt who sold flowers by the railway station for help. Now Rekha sells flowers in the morning and evening and during the day works as domestic help in three homes.
Those must be about 100 tonnes of different flowers that were battered in the rain last month. That isn’t garbage, it’s our hard earned money turned into waste now.
– Thirumal, a wholesale flower merchant.
Wholesale market scene
Flowers, along with fruits and vegetables, are traded at the Koyambedu wholesale market since 1996 and the complex once housed close to 4,000 wholesale and retail shops with over 20,000 people earning their livelihoods there. The market complex was shut after it emerged as a Covid hotspot in April. Senthil, a wholesale flower vendor from Koyambedu, who had no choice but to move to Vanagaram, says, “only 50 per cent of flowers arrived at the market compared to last year and to add to our problems it rained exactly before Ayudha puja. Most of our flowers were spoiled as there is no facility to store them. Whatever arrived in the market could not be sold because everyone is too scared to buy. We had no choice but to dump the beautiful flowers. Some of us borrowed money to buy the flowers hoping to make money. But everything seems to be going against us now.”
Everyone has suffered from the lockdown and the situation could have been worse. We could have got infected and died because of corona.
– Susheela, another vendor.
The ride to the Madhavaram wholesale flower market, which was set up as a temporary measure to move vendors out of the Koyambedu market complex, is bumpy as the approach road badly needs repair. But no pucca roads, makeshift tents of plastic sheets and bamboo to store and sell flowers isn’t that bad a deal for the vendors who have moved there. “Everything is alright. Even if there was a problem what can we do about it?” asks Vijay, a commission agent there. He says the wholesale flower prices in the city crashed ahead of Ayudha Puja because of the rains. Samandhi, he says, was sold at ₹150–200 a kg while malli was sold at ₹300 and sampangi was sold at ₹260 to 300 but the local vendors bought it wholesale at a much lesser rate and sold at higher prices. “Our customers, the wholesale vendors, did not benefit as local vendors could not lift the newly arrived stocks (at the wholesale end) because the retailers continued to sell their flowers at inflated rates which puts off regular buyers”. Many people across the city were unwilling to buy flowers due to exorbitant prices. “We can’t blame the local vendors either because no one has made money for a long time,” he adds.
Thirumal, a wholesaler at Madhavaram, points out “we continue to struggle to make a living without a proper marketplace to do business. The Koyambedu market has pucca buildings, proper transportation and storage systems, and enough workers to load and unload the flower baskets.”
As it starts drizzling, he runs to his shop to tie up the plastic sheets on the bamboo frame to protect his flowers from the rain. “We did not have to worry about the monsoon rain affecting our business at Koyambedu.” he says and points to a huge pile of flowers dumped in the corner of the market and adds, “those must be about 100 tonnes of different flowers that were battered in the rain last month. That isn’t garbage, it’s our hard-earned money turned into waste now.”
Pictures by Kiran Zehra