An early morning in City Market is not anything like the city that we meet everyday. If you ever feel like tracing back where that pretty flower in your vase came from, you may end up here, a place inundated with amazing energy. DEEPA GANESH floats in the scents and smells of this wonderland that vanishes by daylight

When I set out at 4.45 in the morning, it is pitch dark. Otherwise buzzing with noises and endless streams of people, the streets look like they have been put to sleep by the angel of silence. What normally takes a good hour in Bangalore’s daunting traffic, is reduced to a magical 12-minute drive to City Market, a place that in many ways, continues to remain the nerve centre of Bangalore.

If you somehow imagined that the city survives on a uniform heartbeat, there’s much to learn. At City Market, the scene is completely different. The place is buzzing with activity and apart from vendors, there are people pursuing all kinds of interests inhabiting the streets. Buyers, businessmen, walkers, sociologists, and researchers… a whole range of them. On either sides of the main circle there is literally a flower shower, swarmed with thousands of baskets of flowers and in colours most charming. The flowers bravely hold on to their ethereal fragrances despite the slushy mess and stench emanating from waste rotting in every corner. So sweet is the sight of these heavenly blossoms that you forget you are wading through civilization’s unholy mess.

I pass through colourful streams of tuberoses, carnations, daisies, gladiola, chrysanthemums, and palms before I stop before Sunil’s heap of gerberas that stretch on the entire pavement. The 21-year-old lad in bright blue jacket is not a pushy salesman, but proclaims his love for flowers in no unclear terms. “My uncle has been in this business for many decades. I learnt this trade from him,” says the boy from Mandya.

The day begins rather early for these flower sellers. Most of these vendors reach City Market by 2 a.m., well in time to receive farmers who land there with their produce. Some, like Sulochana, who come from the faraway Varthur, hop on to the jeep along with the farmers. “By the time we buy flowers and set up our shops it’s close to 4,” explains the articulate Guruprasad, who has been there for about 15 years. For the longest time, only desi flowers like jasmines, kanakambara, sampige, mallige, jaaji, tulsi, and patre were sold (see box) in City Market. “The business of ornamental flowers is only recent, perhaps 20 years… and over the last ten years the demand has spiralled,” says Guruprasad, capturing the changing face of Bangalore through his personal experience. The new market reality has triggered a flood of opportunities for these flower-sellers. Yet, paradoxically, Patil a flower-seller from Gulbarga, says how the ups and downs in their business is closely linked to the panchanga (almanac). “People these days get married like the royalty. So, during the wedding season and other auspicious occasions our business is fantastic.”

Most ornamental flowers come from Ooty, Chikballapur, Attibele and Nelamangala. “Earlier we used to get flowers only from Ooty and Chikballapur. With the business becoming extremely profitable, we now have farms in Nelamangala and Attibele,” says Guruprasad. The life of most of the flowers is a mere two days, unlike orchids, liliums and anthuriums, which last a week. Many of the flower sellers have hired rooms at a lodge by the side of the mosque in City Market. They store flowers in huge buckets of water here and some are even refrigerated. Muthu, from a village near Hubli, works for a florist who sells only imported flowers. “We get all our flowers from Thailand and Bangkok. Our consignments come once in two days,” he says. They store their flowers in an AC environment. Decoration items for flower arrangements are imported from China and it’s all available on those overcrowded footpaths.

By now it’s 6 a.m. — the crowd is denser. Retail sellers from various localities are carting huge loads into autos and business is brisk. “She wants to know our sukha dukha, come, come Mariyappa,” Sulochana calls out loudly to her neighbour. “It’s no good madam… business has been very dull…,” Sulochana says, as she makes a fresh fix of paan for herself. “If it’s not good, then why are you here?” says an irritated Guruprasad, who has quietly followed me. “We make up to Rs. 1,000 during the peak season. If there’s a high there has to be a low, isn’t it?” he asks.

As I follow the fragrance of jasmines from the other corner of the market, I bump into Nagaraj. Strings of kanigele, sphatika, kanakambara are a feast for the eyes. “I make more money in this,” says Nagaraj, who quit his job with a travel agency in Gandhibazar a year ago. “That’s precisely the problem,” says Rama, who sits amidst bright yellow and orange marigolds. “We are badly hit by the ever enlarging group of flower vendors. I come here at 3 a.m. and if I don’t even make enough to feed my family, what’s the point of all this hard work?” Rama, and several like her, who sell home-grown flowers make a minimum of two to three trips to the market every day. “We buy flowers in the morning and hand them over to people who string them. They will keep it ready by 7 p.m. in the evening, and we come back to collect it,” she explains.

I walk back. It’s lively, vibrant and chaotic. Yet, there is an order. They are chatting, attending to business, downing hot cups of coffee that’s brought in huge flasks. They are already making plans for the next morning, well, our night. I wonder where their enthusiasm comes from… Guruprasad calls out, “Madam, have a cup of coffee!” Holding a bunch of gerberas, he says, “During our good business days, this will cost Rs. 200. Today, we are selling at Rs. 10! Come up to the lodge – what you will see is a consignment that’s worth Rs. 3.5 lakhs, today it is worth only Rs. 1,600. If you invest in shares, there’s at least the chance of a comeback, here, you are doomed if you don’t plan!”

Their life is like that of the flowers itself — they bloom and wilt. What is steady is their zest for life.

Pages of past

Much has changed in the flower market, as the vendors themselves acknowledge it. The Karnataka State Gazetteer of Bangalore District, 1990 (edited by Suryanath U. Kamath) is in fact a testimony to this. There is a note that is dedicated to the flower market in the chapter Miscellaneous Occupations, which, when you read now, seems like such a naïve account. It not only reveals that ornamental flowers were unheard off, but also the idea of a market and its dynamics was still simple.

Here is an excerpt: “Huge quantities of flowers pour into the city daily from a radius of about 40 kms. K.R. Market is the principal place for flower trade and the agriculturists bring their flowers to the commission agent’s stalls, who in turn sell them to the retail string flower sellers. Women workers in hundreds are preparing flower strings in their habitats and sell them in different localities and eke out a living. On the whole, flower selling as an occupation has provided constant work to hundreds of women.”