Aparna Karthikeyan begins the day on a fragrant note at the famed ‘Pookadai'

The sweet sound of silence surprises me. At 4.15 a.m., Flower Bazaar is as quiet as Poes Garden. A few street lamps strain to light up the narrow, dark lane that is officially named Badrian Street; everybody else calls it Pookadai. ‘Jasmine, do you want jasmine?' Muniyamma asks me; she sits beside a basket of closely strung pearly-white buds. “No, but may I take pictures?” I ask. She smiles and gives me a little jasmine anyway, and I awkwardly slip it into my ponytail.

On both sides of the street, shops are just coming to life; big, aluminium dome-lights are lowered, the awning is set up, poles are pushed up, and the tarpaulin is stretched. The gods are brought out — a large Ganesha idol here, a Saibaba photo there. A generous length of jasmine is cut and draped over them. The garland shops get busy. Rose, marigold and tuberose are fashioned into works of art and neatly hung from hooks. Water is hand-sprinkled on the flowers, and sack-bundles, the size of boulders, are rolled into position.

A few auto-rickshaws pull up on NSC Bose Road decanting sleepy, yawning passengers. The womenfolk raise their saris, tuck one length into their waist, and quickly vanish into the street. The buildings — often two-stories high — seem to press together, blotting out natural light.

Chaos replaces silence

Two mini-lorries arrive from Koyambedu, their backs little hillocks of flower-filled sacks. Orange, yellow and green poke through the rough sacking, while wicker baskets, tied together with hemp, bulge with produce. When the lorries try to cross each other, the road churns to a frenzy. Everybody becomes a traffic constable, tapping the metal sides and shouting ‘right, right'. Chaos has replaced silence for the day.

Tea begins to do the rounds, served in two-inch cups, with a biscuit balanced on top. “Amma, tea saapitiya?” Murugesan, the young tea-boy asks the old rose-seller. “Have a cup,” a garland seller tells me. “It's very good here”. Murugesan acknowledges the compliment with a bright smile. “Five of us live in a house here, we sell 500 cups of tea a day” he says with a touch of pride.

The activity increases with every passing minute and with it the noise levels. Flowers are sorted quickly, with nimble fingers. Lotus, marigold and jasmine are piled into colourful plastic tubs, the iron balance and weights readied. A small sheet of rubber matting acts as the ‘shop'. Unloaders chase the vehicles; some go around with wicker trays on their heads; the younger lot makes short work of huge sacks of flowers, hoisting them on their backs in one smooth arc and dropping them with a soft thump in the right shop.

Beehive of buyers

The market is now a beehive of buyers. Women conduct a survey of flowers. Their experience is evident in their swiftness; they pick a handful and press it into brown, calloused palms before making up their minds. Nearby, an young urban-looking man buys a packet of pink oleander for Rs. 20. He proffers a 500-rupee note, causing much amusement at 5.30 in the morning.

The eastern horizon lightens, tingeing the sky an opalescent white. The market gets busier. The fragrance of thulasi and paneer-rose struggles against the stench of the rotting leaves and flowers underfoot. Betel leaves are displayed; rose is poured out like fiery-orange lava from a sack, and the heaps of orange-yellow marigold shine like a gilded mountain under the bright lights. The hawking gets louder, more urgent; the haggling is desultory. Cries of ‘not 40, only Rs. 30, first quality' fill the air. The highly perishable flowers are not carried forward to the next-day; on good days, the shops are emptied in the morning; on dull ones, the sale drags well into the evening.

Roses paint the sides of the street pink and red in the middle of the market. Some are tied into bunches, others gathered into mini-bouquets. “Here, take these,” says Savithri, and thrusts a couple of pink roses in my hand. “Put them in your hair.” They're pretty, but lack the heady scent of paneer-roses.

By 6 a.m., I have been bumped into a hundred times, by sacks, elbows and packets of flowers. I move to the sidelines, pausing to admire an old house with carved pillars and a beautiful front door. Another ancient one, rotting and overgrown with shrubs, functions as a storeroom. Ledgers are pulled out of wooden drawers, accounts are tallied, and money trades hands. A squirrel poses above a street lamp as sunlight whitewashes the market. Incense drifts up in a thin column. The Vishnu sahasranamam and old Sivaji songs compete to entertain, and at the end of the lane, share autos are carefully piled with big sacks of flowers. A half-dozen people squish in afterwards. On the main road, lime, cucumber and jaggery sellers squat before their baskets. The brick-red High Court stands out against a coral sky; a husband and wife pile baskets of flowers on a bubble-gum-pink scooter; and I make my way home, feeling like a flower vase, a string of jasmine, two pink roses and some kanakambaram in my hair.

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Aparna KarthikeyanJune 28, 2012