It’s a muggy Monday evening, and Pookadai (Flower Bazaar in George Town) is relatively quiet. Seated on a low stool, P.V. Perumal tells me that’s because not many buyers come between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. Here, it’s mornings that throng with buyers and vehicles; mini-lorries and fish-carts bring produce from Koyambedu; and after a few hours of hectic bargaining, much of the stock gets shifted. 'The price, however, varies,' says Perumal. 'The same flower can sell for Rs.10 one day, and Rs. 25 during festivals and the marriage season'.
Perumal deals with roses; in front of him, there are about a dozen bunches — all red, except for two multicoloured ones — lit by domed bulbs. 'Every morning, I get two bags of flowers from Koyambedu. Although the demand is seasonal — in Aadi, I operate on a loss — the stock comes in everyday. Otherwise, the flowers will perish'.
Perumal understands, because he has seen both ends of the flower trade; earlier, he was a farmer, in his village Veerasikkampatti, about 20km from Dindigul. 'I came to Chennai 33 years ago. Until then, we farmed the land. In that belt, we typically grow flowers — saamandhi and maruvu, besides chillies, onion and tomatoes'.
But when dividends from farming fell, and water became a problem — especially since flowers need to be watered twice or thrice a week, by irrigating channels around the plants — Perumal decided, like many others in his village, to seek his fortunes elsewhere. So he left behind his parents’ hometown, and moved to Chennai, after a short stint at Bellary, where he worked as a salesman in a radio company.
In Chennai, Perumal — who had passed SSLC — started selling flowers. 'The market was initially across the road, by the Parry’s corner bus-stop. Eleven years ago, we moved here. But business is not as good as it used to be.' The wholesalers now go to Koyambedu; it’s only retailers who come here. But the location is a boon for the small-time and often old vendors, Perumal says. 'Travelling to Koyambedu by bus eats into the day. Also, there’s the stiff bus fare.' At Flower Bazaar (the term that covers Badrian Street), early mornings and late evenings are the peak hours. 'I remember when kanagambaram sold for 20 paise for 100 gm. Now, it costs Rs. 12 or Rs.15, depending on the season,' he says.
Living in Choolai with his family (wife and daughter, who’s married, but now back in town for the delivery of her first child), Perumal is very accepting of the ups and downs of the flower business. As we speak, a customer comes along; he examines both bunches of coloured roses and picks one; and then Perumal lops off its stems in one clean cut, and gives it to him. 'He’s a regular, he sells cool-drinks here. The roses are for his framed pictures of gods,' Perumal says, adding the twenty-rupee note from the sale to the day’s collection in a plastic flower vase. Just then, a passerby walks upto Perumal and demands two fifties in place of a hundred-rupee-note, refusing to leave till he gets it. 'There, see, this is all I have, take the fifties if it’s there,' Perumal says, holding up the plastic vase. And right at the bottom, there are some scattered ten and twenty rupee notes...
(At the end of the interview, I requested Perumal to sit for a picture, but he refused. With a lot of coaxing from other sellers, he put on a crisp white shirt, and sat behind the flowers — but only on the condition that everybody will appear in the picture too! )
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)