Footloose inside the commercial lanes where life takes on a different hue, despite the same clamour everywhere

Our two-wheeler protests as we try to catch up an old couple walking barely 200 metres ahead. They are distinctly visible in a stream of people and vehicles because of the huge steel vessel they are holding high above their heads. They are within sight and yet out of reach, as we can neither speed up nor turn back to park our scooter.

This winding Cross Street cuts through a set of nine lanes on East Veli Street called Lakshmipuram. There are four dozen shops on this street selling only aluminium, copper, brass, bronze and steel vessels and containers. They teem with activity no matter what time of the day or night it is. The ‘clink-clank' fills the air as vessels are loaded on or off cycle carts and tempos. Man walks faster than machine here. Small or big, slow or fast, vehicles have no choice but to inch along, bumper to bumper.

We spot a gap in a tightly packed row of bicycles and bikes and jump off our scooter to step closer to the couple. Pandi looks at us in disbelief when asked point blank, why and where is he carrying such a big vessel so early in the day? Seeing the camera, his frown melts into a smile, “We are shopping for our daughter's wedding.”

“These utensils are very popular in our villages. They are handy for storing grains. I bought this for Rs.1,275. It weighs four kilos,” he tells us with swelling pride. “It's like gold for the poor like us and worth investing in.”

Pandi and his wife, Thangalakshmi, took the early morning bus from their little-known hamlet, Karisangulam, in adjacent Virudhunagar District. Says she, “We wanted to be the first customers, when the shop opens at 9.” Pandi adds, “Whenever there was a marriage in the family or any other festive occasion during these last 50 years, I have come to this shop in Madurai.”

We met many more like them during the next two hours in Lakshmipuram, each on a similar mission. What is important for them all is the aura of good fortune the shops hold for them.

As the sun rises, it glares on the innumerable brass pots stacked neatly in front of the shops and the entire lane shines yellow. We keep moving, struggling to find our feet, and leave behind Pandi and his wife. They take a break, squatting on a plinth outside a shop to get names etched on their new paanai.

Invariably, a small temple -- with fresh flowers, burning incense sticks and lit lamps -- sits every 200 metres. People passing by, whether in a rush or not, turn for a fraction of a second and bow in humility. Within earshot you hear village women bargaining in rural dialect. Some have come with their burnt or damaged vessels and are haggling for the best price at the junk shop. Some shops exchange old vessels for new.

As tricycles carrying glistening vessels and uninterruptedly ringing their bells make their way through the crowd, we see more men and women carrying large items on their heads. From kaasi paanais to kuthuvilakkus in varying heights and weights, everything that forms part of the elaborate seer varisai or dowry of the Madurai region is apparently bought in Lakshmipuram. Villagers from the outskirts and several neighbouring districts throng the lane through the year and more so during Pongal, Diwali and marriage seasons. The intense traffic in these lanes makes driving and walking challenging and stressful. ‘No entry' boards greet us every ten yards as we retrace our path through a number of ‘one ways' and make six rounds of the same four lanes. After all the ditches and glitches, we find ourselves sweaty and stranded in Big Valayalkara Street, always choked with people. Brightly coloured toys, plastic wares, fancy knick-knacks and gaudy jewellery adorn this lane on the West Avani Moola Street.

A loaded tempo barges in from behind and pressure swells in the already full street. Horns blare and vehicles roar together and it sounds like a band being played. Suddenly a fight breaks out between an autowallah and a biker. Voices rise in unison, faces frown, fists go up, and the Madurai slang flows. A policeman emerges out of nowhere yelling. The matter gets resolved at its own pace.

Our ears ache. But nothing seems to affect the people around us. Unperturbed, men pack and unpack goods, women check out bangles and bands, ruminating stray cows plonk themselves in the middle, shopkeepers bustle at cash counters, the corner juice shop brims with people and a matching number of flies.

We get into a shop with actor Trisha smiling from its signboard. This is Srimathi Stores, one of 25 shops selling mostly bangles, along with shimmering gotas and glittering artificial jewellery, cheap plastic toys, fancy rexin bags and plastic flowers and garlands. Most of their owners are Rajasthani youths who have taken over from their fathers.

“Ours is a wholesale market and the items move out in big sacks to all towns and cities in southern Tamil Nadu,” says Gopal. “Individual women customers drop in occasionally. When schools have their annual day functions, teachers come and buy in bulk,” he adds.

In those few minutes with Gopal, we are amazed to find how two totally different worlds co-exist within the lane – the shops inside are silent and just outside there is cacophony. What is common, though, is that there is no place to hide or pause. Like the lane packed with people, the shops are stacked with goods and just one person can sit at the counter in the front. It can be nerve-wracking for a first timer. You return from these lanes sapped of energy, assaulted by the beeping of horns and the shouting of sellers and buyers. Still, the experience is unforgettable. When we leave the commercial lanes and return to the everyday roar at the city's main intersections, they appear quite calm!

(City 3Sixty is a monthly column that captures the different moods of the city. It appears last Thursday of every month).