Amidst loud announcements at the railway station, passengers haggling with auto drivers, piping hot tea at stalls, craters of juicy red tomatoes and bundles of emerald green curry leaves, the Mambalam market street slowly wakes up. We record the sights and sounds

“Auto?” a driver hails a couple, outside Mambalam Railway Station. “T. Nagar bus stand; how much?” they ask. “Rs. 50,” the driver says firmly, and muttering “But it’s so close-by,” the couple walk away down the deserted Ranganathan Street. Passengers spill out of the station; some head to the tea stall next to the Vilayaatu Vinayagar temple; I follow others down the market road.

It’s nearly 6 a.m., but many of the stalls are still shuttered. “Do you own this shop?” I ask Masthan, the neatly dressed young man, sitting outside a small shop. “No, no, I clean those toilets from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” he says, pointing across the road. “The bathrooms are clean,” he assures me, walking over to collect money from a man who’s just used them.

Tea, ready!

“Yove, paal pongudhu! (Hey, the milk is boiling!),” a shout goes up from the street, and tea master Subramanian’s assistant hurries to the counter. “He’s the chief master; his barottas, veg kurma, idlis and dosas are very good. But his sambhar is the best,” a fish-cart puller tells me, as I try to draw Subramanian into a conversation. He smiles at the compliment, but is clearly a man of few words. Vairavan the plantain leaves seller next door is more forthcoming. Cutting the leaves to size and discarding torn portions, he tells me business has been dull. “I don’t have general knowledge, but I think price hike is the reason,” he says. The leaves come from all over Tamil Nadu and are bought by hoteliers; nuni ilai (a type of plantain leaf) is preferred, Vairavan tells me, and fetch Rs. 3 a piece.

Two stalls away, mini-lorry driver Muthuraman unloads dozens of crates of tomato, with little fuss. “Tomatoes come from Kolar, Karnataka. They reach Mambalam early morning by lorry, and are delivered near the police station. We pick it from there, and drop it off in the stalls,” he says.

S. Muthukumar, the owner of the tomato shop arrives. Tuning the radio for devotional music, he deftly sorts the squishy tomatoes from the firm ones. “Bangalore tomatoes now sell for Rs. 10a kilo and the country ones for Rs. 5. But that’s the morning price, by evening, to get rid of stocks, I sell them for nearly half that!’ he says, spreading a blue tarpaulin on a wooden table. Big and small tomatoes quickly colour it red, as they land with soft thumps when Muthukumar empties a crate over it. I’m enveloped, briefly, by the rich smell of ripe tomatoes.

Walking down the road, I spot a shop with the rolling shutter propped up by a low stool; inside, limbs swaddled in blankets suggests the premises doubles up as a residence. A man carrying an enormous bundle of curry leaves swiftly distracts me; I follow him to the alley where P.R. Meiyappan’s curry leaf business and teashop flourishes.

The entire right side of the alley is emerald, stacked with fat, fragrant bundles of curry leaves. Meiyappan cuts the jute ropes, and weighs heaps of leafy stems on a large weighing scale. “This comes from Salem, top quality,” he assures me knotting 20 kg into a whopping roll and hoisting it on a turbaned helper’s head. “Madras full-a namba supply (I supply across the city); the other day, a woman from Delhi bought a big lot; she wanted to powder it for reducing sugar,” he says. Does it help tackle diabetes, I ask. “I don’t know,” he laughs, and goes away to make tea / coffee for his customers.

A few shops down the road, nearly a tonne of pumpkins occupies every inch of a house converted into a shop. Smooth, greenish white pumpkins are piled high in the rooms and passages; the backyard is given over to dark green and orange parangikkaais (pumpkins); and they both keep for long, the salesman tells me, as long as they aren’t bruised.

“I only sell naatu karigaai (country vegetables), no English vegetables,” Devaraj tells me, sitting behind sacks of brinjal, snake gourd and bitter gourd. “This market has fresh produce, often straight from the fields. Keerai (greens) is plucked and bought here, at 2 p.m. every day. Office-goers who get off at Mambalam station buy from us; but our peak hours are noon to 3 p.m.; you won’t be able to walk here then!” Devraj’s only daughter is in Class XI. “She wants to be an engineer; let’s see what the Plus Two marks are like,” he says.

A female voice announces that Kanyakumari Express will shortly arrive on platform no. 5. The market gets busier; mini lorries and fish carts churn up dust; kittens nestle next to their mothers, in sackings meant for vegetables. Outside the station, a young girl hails an auto to take her to T. Nagar bus stand. “Rs. 40,” the driver tells her. “Thirty?” she asks hesitantly, but the driver turns his face.