Gnanasekeran recalls buying four big mangoes for one anna when he came to Chennai 50 years ago. “You got so much fruit. You could barely eat all of them. Now, look at the prices!” he says, pointing to the pile of golden Banganapalli mangoes in front of him. “Rs. 40 a kilo. But the season has not been very good — not enough fruit, so the prices are high. At least if it tasted exceptionally good, customers wouldn’t mind paying a few rupees extra,” he says.
Standing outside his shop in the Mambalam market, Gnanasekaran tells me his family grew cotton and corn in Virudhunagar. But lack of money and opportunities bought him to Chennai, where he initially ran a grocery store, and now sells fruits. “I buy the fruits from Koyambedu market wholesale, and retail them here. I go there at 6 a.m.”
Gnanasekaran sells two varieties of mangoes — Banganapalli and Sendhura. “People who want expensive varieties, go to the A/C shops. There they will pay Rs. 100 or Rs. 200 a kg for fruits. Here, it is value for money.”
But given how quickly fruit perish in the searing heat, he rues that, often, he has to sell them for a pittance. “They become wrinkly and the juice dries up. I just want to get rid of them, even if it’s at a loss.”
A woman with a red towel wrapped around her head, haggles with him until he gives her three fruits for Rs. 8. Then the 70-year-old tells me about his family. “I have two sons and two daughters. One son sells cool drinks; the other is an electrician; both daughters are married. All of them live near my house in West Mambalam. I’ve always lived there; what has changed is the rent. From Rs. 10 and Rs. 15, it has leapt to Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 6,000 now!” Even at the market, the private stalls are rented for several thousands. But since it’s just outside the railway station, and close to T. Nagar bus stand and Ranganathan Street, there is no dearth of customers.
Besides the retail customers, some women buy mangoes from him and resell it elsewhere. “Recently, I upgraded to digital scales,” Gnanasekaran smiles. But the woman with the red towel quickly wipes the smile off his face. “What mango is this? No taste! Here, take these back, give me my money!” she shouts at him, with two mangoes in her hand. “Oh, you ate one and now you want to return the rest? Go away, take your money,” he tells her, as she walks away muttering something about sour fruits. And Gnanasekaran looks at me sadly, and says, “Such people come only here. Can they do this in a big shop?”
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)