At the new complex for pavement hawkers in Pondy Bazaar there is a guarded sense of hope. Lakshmi Krupa visits the stalls

Armed with a camera I make my way to the new complex built by Chennai Corporation for the pavement hawkers of Pondy Bazaar, wondering what the new space would mean for impulsive shoppers and most importantly, to the vendors. As I walk towards the entrance, a riot of colours warms the cockles of my heart. The flower vendors have decided to set up shop in the open. It seems like poetic justice, having these flower shops at the entrance, for they marked the beginning of Pondy Bazaar, near Thanickachalam Road. After this auspicious start I feel a bit more confident about going in. The ground floor entrance area is empty save for a smattering of stuffed toy stores and a few crates; they perhaps belong to vendors who are yet to move into the complex. As I climb up the stairs to the first floor, someone points out that there are two lifts to take shoppers to the top floor. I develop an instant liking to the new complex. It has three inter-connected blocks A, B and C with small stalls.

In the first floor, the air is thick with the smell of fresh paint and anticipation. It’s as if a wedding is in the offing; carpentry work here, electrical there… Although only five per cent of the estimated shops have opened (other shops are getting ready) there’s already a sizeable crowd looking for some small-time weekend buys. Abdul Lateef, whose father has had a shop in the bazaar for over 30 years, has settled for a large life-size bangle stand at the entrance of the floor. He says, “It will take us close to three months to see what sales here in the new complex will be like.” Even though the vendors are guarded about their enthusiasm, the flurry of activity in the build-up to setting up of shops, adds to the charm of the space and I am reminded of handloom expos with stalls selling knick-knacks in vibrant colours. Mohammed who has been selling clothes for three years says, “Some vendors have decided to use this opportunity to change their business altogether. We will need time to assess the impact of our move. Earlier, customers would remember my shop and come looking to buy from me but now I will have to start all over again,” he says. The busiest stalls are of course, the ones selling toys and those selling safety pins and handkerchiefs — the dainty square ones with pretty patterns in delicate pinks for ladies and larger ones with Madras checks meant for gentlemen…

The shop space (a 5x5 ft stall) has been allotted to all the vendors who were selling on the pavement and depending on the demands of their wares they are making provisions. While a clothes shop has opted for steel almirahs, a shoe store has just nails on the wall... Almost all of them have had to spend some money on basic amenities like shutters. “There will be a rent too. Our sangam will tell us after deciding (with the Corporation) and we have all agreed to pay that rent,” says Mohammed. For most of them it is now a waiting game. A shoe vendor, who sells colourful rubber sandals in the price range of Rs.80 - Rs.200, is happy to have opened his stall early on. “I saw that there was a good crowd and decided to open the stall and have made a few sales already,” he says.

Marimuthu and Indra have come with their young daughter all the way from Valasaravakkam to check out the new space. “We decided to see what it’s like now after the shops have been removed from the platform. But only a few of them have opened here,” says Marimuthu, and Indra chips in, “We managed to buy our daughter some shirts though!”

After a walk up the three floors through the labyrinthine corridors I arrive at the entrance to talk to the flower vendors. “We have all set up our shops outside because we cannot manage inside,” says Selvam. Anbu another flower vendor adds, “The flower bazaar has a huge history in Pondy Bazaar. This market came much before the others and asking us to move into a small space is unfair.” They have also approached the Mayor for better facilities. “The flowers need fresh air and we have to sprinkle water on them every now and then. If we do this inside the others’ wares will be affected, not to mention the puddles of water that will cause inconvenience to shoppers! Also many flowers attract insects,” says Anbu.

Selvam adds, “Each shop employs close to eight people and most of them are from villages. In a small stall we cannot keep so many people and we cannot send them away either. So we have requested for an alternate arrangement.”

“We will co-operate but we do not want to dirty the entrance. When we make garlands, a lot of waste gathers. So it is better if we are located in a spacious, open area where water can drain out and garbage can be easily disposed off,” they say.

Their lament shakes me up a bit but the flower vendors seem determined to find a solution. After they have shared their woes with me, they go back to being their chirpy selves, weaving garlands, sipping coffee and sharing laughs…