Recording the midnight pulse at Simmakal fruit market amidst the cacophony of bargaining buyers, haggling load men, honking trucks and bantering crowd

The time is 10 p.m. and the scene at Simmakal seems nowhere near night. As the entire town sleeps, this trading heart of Madurai continues to beat. With platforms conveniently turned into pazha kadais and roads becoming the parking space for trucks, not an inch of space is left.

As we enter Vakil New Street, a mix of fruity odour greets us. Time has no relevance here as the numerous street lights and a range of fluorescent bulbs lit in the shops outdo the moonlight. Day for these wholesale traders and small-time vendors dawns at night. For decades, the famous ‘Pazha commission mandis’ have been the identity of Simmakal and Yanaikal areas.

“This is completely a different world,” says Annavi Pandian, a mango trader from Natham. “I am inthe business for two decades. And the place is a hotspot for even roadside eateries and saloon shops.” He stocks over 30 varieties of mangoes from Saptur, Natham and Bodi. Business doesn’t go dry here, as fruits are available throughout the year.

We meander through the mandis and find almost every fruit that we can think of. Apart from the imported varieties, seedless grapes from Odaipatti in Kodai Road, Morris Bananas from Bangalore, Malaivazhai (banana variety from the hills), guava, watermelon, pineapple and papaya are the noteworthy fruits.

It’s amazing how the narrow lanes and the main thoroughfare where vehicles rush by in the day transforms into a market place by night. Sacks of fruits are unloaded from huge trucks right on the main road while village women with bamboo baskets nonchalantly sit by the side bantering and bargaining. Idli shops come up on the facades of branded showrooms and the doorsteps of houses turn into fruit selling counters. Colourful carton boxes line up the streets, heaps of plastic packing material, hay and garbage are strewn all over and stray cows munch on festered fruits.

Once into the North Masi Street, the fight for space begins. Trucks go on a honking war vying for parking area. We stop as we see the doors of a lorry open and tons of sathukudis rolling down. A lungi-clad man gets into the vehicle and starts pushing the fruits with his foot like a trained skier. While, we wonder how these jumbo trucks manage to get into the narrow lanes, “vazhi… vazhi…”, a load man yells for way. Swiftly we move in time for him to throw the loaded gunny bag. Thud, it falls and luscious yellow sathukudis (sweet limetta) roll over.

S. Palanikumar, a trader for 45 years, says, “We get these fruits from Nagpur and Sangli in Maharashtra and Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh. Madurai market is known for the fierce competition and price-war. We sell off the produce even at a slender margin. Since, it is a perishable commodity, the time and quantity of sale matters more than the profit.” The price of Sathukudis ranges from Rs. 10 to Rs. 40 per kg.

“There are nearly 150 mandis on this street ,” says S. Thangavel who sells oranges and apples. “We stock Malta oranges from Punjab and apples from Washington, Chile, China, New Zealand. The fruits come through Tuticorin or Chennai port.” Each container carries 1,150 cartons and every box has nearly 50 fruits depending upon the size. “We procure a carton full of fruits for Rs.180 and sell it at Rs.230. We receive 10 trucks everyday and store the fruits in cold-storage. There are three private cold storages in the market area apart from few others in the outskirts.”

V. Shanmugam Pillai, a wholesale dealer in Malaivaazhai (banana variety from the hills) for more than three decades, says, “We strike a deal with the farmers and choose the right fruits directly from the fields. Once, the fruits are ready for harvest, our men procure and transport them to the market.” This variety comes from Perumal Malai, Keezhana Vayal, Pallangi, Mannavanoor, Manjampatti and Kungoor in Kodaikanal hills and Sugamalai in Theni district.

It is past 12 and time for a ‘butter-bun’ break. Vendors and buyers throng Muthiah’s stall for a midnight munch. The flavour of butter and caramel is tempting. . The ‘butter bun’ as it is popularly known is a slit bun sandwiched and roasted with butter and sugar. Super-soft and yummy, it’s a tummy-filling item.

“Aranooru…. Ezhanooru…” we hear women haggling at a distance. It leads us to Yanaikal, dominated by wholesale mandis selling groundnuts and corn. We near an auction which is underway but scornful looks from traders and tight-lipped buyers make us feel unwelcome. After much persuasion, Shanti from Theni and Panjavarnam from Batlagundu, give us details of their routine. “The groundnuts come from Usilampatti and I have won 75 kilos at Rs. 30 a kg in the auction. I am a regular to this market for the past 20 years. I return to my town in the trucks transporting newspapers early in the morning,” says Panjavarnam.

By the time we leave behind one of the famous trading hubs of South Tamil Nadu, we see the sun’s nascent rays glimmering on the Kalpalam bridge. Another day has begun and the city’s heart continues to throb.

A friend appropriately mentions: , “night markets are no new concept to Madurai. There are literary references to ‘Allangadi’ (night market and flourishing trade) even thousands of years ago.”

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