Read about this seller of false hair who purchases nylon-hair from Keezh Tirupati, in the weekly column by Aparna Karthikeyan on men and women who make Chennai what it is

Name: M. Bhavani

Occupation – Sowri (false hair) seller

‘Nightie madam?’

‘Come-in, come-in, churidhar.’

At Ranganathan Street, every two feet, a hawker tries to get my attention. “Let’s go there, we won’t be disturbed,” Bhavani points to a corner; she gathers her wares — braided and unbraided false-hair, spread over discarded cloth bundles — and quickly follows me. ‘Today it’s crowded, because of Ayudha Pooja; but sales were miserable the last few days, because of the heavy rains’, says the 35-year-old, who’s sold sowris the past three years.

Bhavani’s association with Ranganathan Street, though, goes back several years. “I’m an orphan, from Shollingapuram. I got married at 19. My husband seemed like a nice man, but soon he began drinking, and after our third child was born, we separated.” Admitting her children — two sons and a daughter — in different residential schools, Bhavani came to Chennai, and eked out a living with great difficulty. “I did house work, and sometimes, even asked for alms in this very street. But one day, I thought, why not sell sowris and earn money? The initial investment for nylon-hair is not much – only Rs.200 to Rs. 300. For real hair, you need lakhs,” she smiles.

And so began Bhavani’s sowri business. “I buy the nylon-hair from Keezh Tirupati. Then I comb it well, braid it tightly, and steam it in an idli cooker.” Steaming, Bhavani tells me, makes the false hair soft, while the braiding makes it curly. “But it’s the brushing that keeps it from getting frizzy and tangled,” she says, running a rectangular brush with stiff bristles through the sowris hanging from her fingers. The sowris comes in two lengths; the shorter version is bought by women who like to add volume to their hair; while the longer one — kalyana sowri — is preferred by brides. “Luckily, this street sees a lot of foot-falls; on average, I make Rs.100 to Rs.150 a day. And that’s enough for me, as the people I work for now (as domestic help) give me room to stay and food to eat.”

But life is about to take a turn for the better, says Bhavani. “My husband recently found me, and wants me back. He says he will reform his ways, and stop drinking. I’m thinking of going back to him after Diwali; it’s more for the sake of the children. You know, I haven’t seen my daughter in so many years… she’s in a hostel, I’m told she’s in 10th Standard.”

It begins to drizzle, and Bhavani quickly bundles up the sowris and packs them away in her shoulder-bag. “Rain ruins sowris; unless it looks nice, who will buy it?” she asks. I ask if the street will get busier in the run-up to Diwali. “Yes, but it’s Pongal that’s the busiest season here. In thai-maasam – wedding season – there’s a lot of demand for sowris; after-all this costs only Rs.50, not like real hair. They say half-a-kilo of 30cms long real hair fetches Rs.15,000! It’s so expensive! That lady’s hair,” she points to a lady eavesdropping on our conversation, “will get Rs. 500. But yours, nobody will buy,” she tells me frankly. “Who will want henna-coloured hair?”

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)

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