Stepping around puddles and squeezing through cramped roads, Aparna Karthikeyan takes a look at one of India’s largest vegetable markets

At 3.45a.m. on a Sunday, when all of Chennai is slumbering, I’m following a mini-lorry with six sleepy passengers at the back. They squint when headlights strike their faces, and perk up the moment we turn into the Koyambedu wholesale market. Since 1996, this sprawling complex has kept Chennai supplied with vegetables, fruits and flowers. As I walk into the flower market, the enormous building on the extreme left, Azhagumalai is already hawking roses. “Sales starts at 3a.m,” he tells me, seated beside a pile of saffron roses. “These come from Hosur. On good days — muhurtams, festivals — I’m sold out by 7 a.m.”

Regulars shop with an ease that comes with practice; talking into cell-phones, they communicate quantities in sign-language. Acid-yellow marigold and jam-pink cockscomb are, in one fluid movement, swept into plastic bags with ‘morams’. The bags’ ears are knotted, they’re weighed on digital scales; lungis are hiked, money is taken out of long-drawers and another sale is made.

Stepping around puddles, I find myself in front of a massive pond. On the four corners, neem trees shimmy in the early-morning breeze. In the middle, men and women are asleep on old jute-sacking and sarees. “It used to be filled with water. It became very dirty. And now it’s used to dry Vilvam leaves,” an old flower vendor tells me. All around, the hawking gets louder. Numbers and names are thrown at the customers. By the exit, a food stall gets ready for the day. Behind the tea counter, a grinder hums noisily, while two large pots boil and sizzle in the process of becoming the day’s sambhar.

Fruit lover’s paradise

Crossing over to the fruit market is like entering a fruit lover’s paradise, a paradise where teeth are cleaned in the open and water gargled and spat out freely. Chickoo, mango, apple, pomegranate, guava and orange jostle for space with the more exotic durian, mangosteen and kiwi fruits. The casual heaps of the flower market give away to clean geometric lines. Ducking every time I hear a throat being cleared, I admire the fruits arranged in tidy, aromatic pyramids. I watch as mangoes are inspected, the bruised and puckered ones put aside, to be sold by the basket for a pittance. Rajamanickam, a mango vendor tells me that Chennai prefers Banganapalli, now sold for Rs.50 a kilo. “But Kalapadi is also very sweet,” he says, pointing to the runty little mangoes.

Right opposite, A. Thangaraj, in a spotless white dhoti and shirt, lights incense and prays. The clock next to him shows 5:10a.m. “The common yellow bananas are preferred for weddings,” he says, pointing to stalks as tall as a toddler, from which unripe bananas stick out in neatly spaced tiers. “Elakki is also popular now,” adds his salesman, showing me a curved stump bristling with small fruit. The exotic fruit seller is not so garrulous. “You can eat or juice Rambutan,” he tells me, his face turned, shooing me away with a ‘come back later, I’ll talk, I’m busy now’.

The market too gets rather busy. Store fronts are swept, fruits are packed, carried, loaded; men with sacks on their head half-walk, half-run. Fish carts wheeze across, churning the rotten fruit — juice drips off the spokes of the wheels.

I squeeze myself past the mini-lorries parked tightly between the fruit and vegetable market. The scent of ripe guavas follows me as I negotiate the treacherous, pitted road. I make it to the veggies, and exactly a minute later, the whole place is drenched in darkness. “Power goes fifteen times a day,” an old man mutters. In Iyyaparaj’s shop, on the periphery of the market, a salesman is seated on top of a mountain of prickly, brown coconuts. “I’ve been in the business for 25 years,” he tells me, adding that he sells a staggering 10,000 coconuts a day. I wait around for a bit, watch the sky lighten, but the electric lights do not come back. I walk into the dimly-lit market. Ghostly heads of cauliflower, eerily white garlic, and snake gourds patterned with strange wick-lamp shadows greet me.

Mind-boggling statistics

Balaji, a fourth generation vegetable vendor, is amused when I ask him if his lady’s fingers have their tails snapped off to check their freshness. “Not here. People don’t do that,” he smiles, and talks of the ambitious switchover from cluttered Kothawalchawadi to Koyambedu in 1996. “There are 3,000 vendors at Koyambedu,” he says. The light comes back. Business appears brisk, even though, as Balaji says, the harsh summer and fuel price-hike have led to soaring rates. “1000 lorries bring in produce, 750-800 truckloads are shifted everyday,” says R. Gunasekaran, the secretary for one of Koyambedu’s vegetable associations. “Sales runs into crores daily. It’s one of India’s busiest markets,” he tells me.

Customers mill around the shops; fish carts and mopeds choke the passages; cries of ‘move, move’ and ‘make-way, make-way’ ricochet off the walls. I make my way out; a small boy sells thick, red soup in one-gulp paper-cups; calves eat freshly discarded cauliflower leaves; lorries brim with sacks of vegetables, and several people seat themselves on top of them. They sway as the vehicle bumps about on the metro-rail scarred road. But they look satisfied with their morning’s work. Another day has begun well.

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