It is the most crowded street in the city. One that never falls silent, not even in the dead of night. When the electric trains call it a day, tempos arrive to unload goods at Ranganathan Street and shop assistants work into the dawn.
If you happen to visitin the early hours of the day, you will see a group of men and women clearing strewn litter. But by midmorning, garbage piles up and pedestrians deftly sidestep the tiny mounds of bits of cloth, plastic and used cups as they gawk at the shop windows.
After the fire in the Saravana Stores building which damaged quite a few shops, several others have been remodelled. One garment shop has displayed ghastly facemasks to attract attention -- ‘Hot Male Ghosts', it announces. There is a large crowd in the shop, probably thanks to the grotesque cardboard beings in tee-shirts and trousers hanging outside and attracting people .
Hawkers walk around with their wares, immune to media attention. R. Lakshmi has been selling savari (false hair) for the last 20 years. Lest a customer is misled, she explains that the product is from Tirupathi. Brushing a silky black savari she says, “It is not made of original human hair. It is artificial hair.” Like her there are a couple of others on the same street. If you think their wares are pricey (a savari costs Rs. 40 to Rs. 60) they quotehalf the price. But that is how far they will go.
Despite the crowds and the good money that they bring in, there is a lean period here shopkeepers say. “When the exams begin we see a fall in the number of people coming to shop,” says Velmurugan of R. K. Tailors, who has four people working for him. According to him, the lean season lasts for three months. He charges Rs. 70 per salwar suit and takes home Rs. 100 a day after paying his employees, he says.
Every day, Eshwari, around 45, makes her way to the street in the afternoon from her home in Kodambakkam. Her brother owns a tailoring shop there but she works for another tailoring shop some distance away. When someone with a bag of cloth walks past her she approaches them and asks, “Thekkanuma?” (Want it stitched?) If the customer says yes then she is assured of Rs. 20. In a day she manages to make at least Rs. 200 if she can work until 9 p.m. During peak season she earns as much as Rs. 400 to Rs. 600, a windfall.
There are many ways to hawk one's wares. Nalla Mohammed who began as a vegetable vendor 50 years ago, now sells toys. The 83-year-old says he was featured in the Tamil film ‘Angadi Theru'. Around his neck is hung a tray filled with plastic toys . There are colourful cars, guns and rattles. Even at his age, he continues to work to support his wife, because he does not want to depend on his children.