As the city gears up for the colourful Navaratri golu, we take a walk around Mylapore’s North Mada Street that’s brimming with bommais and stories

“That’s not Narasimhar, it’s Lakshmi,” Ammulu patiently explains to a customer. In the shade of a neem tree near the entrance of North Mada Street, Ammulu’s pavement golu shop showcases an interesting mix of dolls. There are the gods and goddesses, their crowns ablaze in the fading evening light; a foolish lion peeps into a well, in a fable from Panchatantra; and a monkey rides the back of a crocodile swimming in a river of blue plaster. The customer makes feeble promises to come back. “Navaratri sales are yet to pick up,” Ammulu tells me, when a tube of mosquito repellent comes flying in the air. “Indha, Ammulu (take it),” Gunaseelan says, and walks to his shop around the corner. He shows me an impressive Viswaroopam Darshan idol as well as Chennai’s own Kalikaambal. “This one is from my village Mayavaram,” he says, pointing to an Aiswarya Eswaran, from whose benevolent hands, round, gold sequins chumkis flow down to Kubera.

Three women are sitting around a square wooden crate, joking and stringing yellow marigolds and tulasi leaves. Ten feet away, there is competition from Viji, a flower seller. She tempts me with four fragrant yellow shenbagam flowers for Rs. 10. I tuck them in my untidy ponytail. Behind her, by the brightly lit Vijaya Stores, two women buy several dozen plastic baskets.

A young boy rotates a hand drum; on his shoulder, a wooden pole bristles with Spiderman masks, pin-wheel fans and party whistles. He walks briskly, making little eye contact. At a vegetable cart, the seller quickly snaps a five-ft snake gourd into small pieces and stuffs them into a plastic bag. From the next push-cart, a heap of boiled groundnuts sends up a thread of aroma; across the road, outside the tiny Singapore bag mart, a group of women admires bags. “Ninety rupees thareengala (will you give me Rs. 90?)”, a shop-keeper chases a customer, shaking a toy in the air.

Dolls from Kolkata

“We have dolls from other States,” Vani tells me. Her doll store, flooded with white light, is in the narrow passageway of Vellore Lakshmiammal Chathram. “The dolls from Kolkata are made of sutta mannu, it’s a speciality,” she tells me, pointing to a beautiful Kali, with wide kohl-rimmed eyes. “Isn’t it just like bronze?” she asks, showing me a stunning Mylapore Karpagambal. I nod, admiring the Rs. 9,500, three-ft tall sculpture, a checked-sari cinched at the idol’s waist.

It’s 8 p.m., and an old pavement seller pleads with a tough customer. At Saroja’s shop, three school sets have been bought since morning. Her dolls, like the others’, come from Panruti, Kanchipuram and Cuddalore.

The Kapaleeshwarar Temple gopuram thrusts into a cloudless sky. The temple pond is still; my camera registers shaky bands of pink and blue, reflections from the walls and towers. A few mt away, two women flag an auto to go to Luz bus stand. The driver asks for Rs. 40. They laugh an aiyayo and walk away.

A north Indian family watches, fascinated, as a kolam pattern seller places a sieve with pricked-out design on a sheet. A neat, white ‘Om’ appears; they buy it for Rs. 20 and say “thank you”. A foreigner takes pictures of a hand-cart seller. Near Srividya Nilayam, Kanniamma and Raj sit near a big, tiered doll-shop. “Prices have increased tremendously,” Raj tells me. “These dolls are made of white cement, mica powder and paper. Raw materials, diesel, transport… everything is so expensive.” “Our shop has been in the same spot for 60 Navaratris,” Kanniamma tells me. “We come from Cuddalore for this one month. We eat and sleep here,” she points to the ground in front of the shop. “Sales should pick up after amavaasai (new moon); but if it rains, it will be a wash out,” Raj says.

Near the end of the street, Visalam sits near a huge Amman. “This is Singathamman,” she tells me. “It’s so annoying when people come and ask for ridiculous prices,” a woman near the last doll-stall tells me. “People bargain, fight... But when it’s a proper shop with prices labelled, they will pay anything,” she grumbles, and goes away to find dinner from a thallttu vandi (push cart) stall.

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