Kovalam means business for many small-time hawkers and vendors

“Take the photograph fast...I have to give this...”, says 67-year-old Sarojam, holding a plateful of pineapple pieces for a couple reclining on a sun bed. After giving them the plate, she hurries off to her little stall on the promenade on Kovalam beach. Mangoes, pineapples, bananas, papayas... are arranged neatly on a white plastic sheet under a big umbrella.

Next to her is Bharati. She sells bangles, jewellery, anklets, bracelets, necklaces, purses with mirror work, chains, lockets, earrings.... Lalu weaves in out through the crowds, trying to get customers for his speed boat. Another vendor wants to know if I wanted a sun bed while a dholak-seller tries to make a sale by drumming up some excitement on the dholak. Handicrafts, clothes, paintings, curios, hats, shawls, dupatta... the stuff on sale is mindboggling!

Vendors in Kovalam are busy making a living while the sun is shining. It is during the tourist season, from October to March, that vendors of all kinds throng the beach in large numbers.

“This has been my bread and butter for the last 35 years or so. Now there are many of us selling fruits,” says Sarojam, even as she peels the mangoes. Nirmala, another fruit vendor, is carrying two plates of fruits, tastefully topped off with a sprinkling of grated coconut. Elsewhere, Vijayamma has neatly sliced slivers of coconut on a plate. A plate of cut mango is all done and then she asks in English whether if her customer, a foreign tourist, wants the robust red ‘kappa pazham’ (red banana).

Business is brisk and the vendors have no time to indulge in small talk with snoopy visitors who only want to talk about their work. Shantha and her daughter Shakunthala are also in the cut-fruit business. “The business is not good today,” says Shantha, who has been coming to the beach for the last 38 years or so. “It was all different then. I didn’t know English and even used to say, ‘Tomorrow eat, today come’. Now my English is much better!” she says with a laugh.

Most of them buy the fruits from fruit sellers in and around Kovalam. One plate of cut fruits costs between Rs. 50 and 100. “There was a time when we would give 10 bananas for one Rupee. I still remember how I used to walk around with the fruit basket on the head and the customers, mostly foreign tourists, would help me to place it down,” Shantha says.

Even as I wonder what is in the small bottles that all these women have with them, Shanta explains that the bottles contain coconut oil. “Foreigners would need it for sun bath, right?”

There are many vendors who come to the beach only during the tourist season. Like, Bharati. She is from Gujarat and stays with her husband and five children. “My husband and two of my sons are working in shops here and my daughter takes care of things at home. Once the season is over, we go to Mumbai where we have a sari business,” says Bharati, even as a customer bargains with her in Hindi to reduce the price of some chains he was trying to buy.

Only those vendors who carry an ID card provided by the government are allowed to do business. The location where they are supposed to carry on their trade is also noted on the card. “Earlier we could walk around the beach with our ware. Now, it is illegal,” says M. Appu, who sells clothes – dhoti, lungi, wrap-arounds, shawls, and dupatta among other things. He has been a hawker on the beach for 35 years now.

Tailoring is another trade that is thriving on the beach. There are nearly 50 such shops on the beach where the tourists get their summer beach wear tailored. “We make kurtas, kurtis, pyjamas, blouses, tops... usually with the clothes that our customers bring and in the style that they want. We have unstitched fabric too. Dresses can be tailored in a day’s time. We sometimes get orders to stitch blouses for foreigners who come down for marriages or some occasion,” says K.N. Pillai, giving us his entire sales spiel.

His father, Kumara Pillai, had set up shop here. In those days, lungis were in demand amongst the flower children who came in droves. Pillai has been running the shop for 35 years now, with Maniyan as his tailor since then.

What made me really curious was a stack of books at his shop. “This used to be one of the biggest libraries here, with books in different languages. But as the number of foreigners coming here came down, the stock also got depleted. Earlier they used to exchange books. Now, some of them just leave the books with us for free,” Pillai says. Tattoo studios and henna designing shops have also made a mark.

The big business here is on the hospitality side. The growing number of hotels, so-called cottages and resorts and restaurants prove this.

However, despite the crowds and the sunny picture, things are not all that rosy. The dwindling number of tourists is a matter of great concern for the shop owners and vendors. “Our business has not been doing well for the last three years and every year a few members of the community leave the beach,” says Abdul Hameed, who owns one of those ubiquitous shops selling ‘handicrafts’.

Problems are many. Lack of privacy is a factor that is driving away high-end tourists who come in search of peace and privacy. Muzaffar, a shop keeper adds: “There aren’t enough toilets, enough water, and the beach front isn’t clean. A lot was and is being done in the name of tourism development. Even as domestic tourists are coming in large numbers, foreigners aren’t flocking to the place as they used to. The hotels and restaurants on the beach can manage even with the domestic tourists. But what about people like us who depend on foreign visitors?”

They fear that Kovalam, once the prime destination in Kerala, will be wiped off the tourist map.

However, as long the sun keeps shining during the tourist season, not all is lost. Hope is keeping the traders afloat. Long days and warm nights and the tropical climate make it a great place to catch the sun during the long winters in Europe and the United States.

At home

An ubiquitous presence on the beach has been the Kashmiri community selling handicrafts. “There are 110 members in our Kashmir Handicrafts’ Traders Welfare Association from across Thiruvananthapuram of which over 60 have shops on the beach,” says Muzaffar Makdoomi, president of the Association. His father Ghulam Din Makdoomi was the first Kashmiri trader to set shop in Kovalam. For Muzaffar who came here as an infant, the city is his home.

Though not many in numbers, the Tibetan community is making a presence on the beach with their handicrafts outlets. “There are six such shops here. Besides silver jewellery, we stock metal balls, masks, scrolls, metal handicraft items, dress...,” says Pema Tsering.

He has a rule for his customers: don’t bargain. In fact, a board kept at his shop reads: ‘No hassle, No haggle, No pressure.’ “Some tourists/visitors have been told that they should bargain at the shops, which I don’t encourage,” he asserts.