Trapped amidst tiny stalls, mega stores, elbowing pedestrians and pushy hawkers, DIVYA KUMAR discovers that a walk down Pondy Bazaar will faze even the most fearless explorers

I’m trapped in a narrow, irregular corridor with no end in sight. A surreal blue light bathes the entire surroundings, and the ground is hopelessly uneven, dipping and rising and tilting beneath my feet. Horns blare non-stop in the distance, and I feel like I can’t breathe. It’s a situation, I think desperately, that would try the soul of the most intrepid explorer…

“Would you like to buy a nightie, madam?”

I blink. A man stands before me, perched on a rickety wooden crate by a rickety wooden stall with about five-foot high piles of nighties and housecoats. Before I can open my mouth to respond, I hear a sudden dum-dum-dum sound and I jump.

“Drum, madam?” asks a young man with dholaks of all sizes slung across his body. And, before I can respond to that, I find myself pushed to one side by a surge of human traffic — a mother and her child, an NRI couple in capris and coolers, a group of giggling youngsters, and an office-goer yelling into his phone loud enough to give the honking cars out on the road a run for their money — just managing not to trip on a pavement pothole behind me.

Crazy world

Welcome to the crazy world of Pondy Bazaar, which, I maintain, would faze the most fearless explorers of the unknown. The rain, which had played spoilsport in the morning, has finally let up, and the crowds are just coming in at noon (though it’s already crowded enough, by my reckoning). On my right, the stall owners are done setting up all the wares that were packed away into the makeshift stalls the previous night.

“That’s the real work — not the selling, but the setting up,” says Allah Baksh, who’s been working for the last 22 years at his family’s footwear stall, which packs a whopping 1,000 to 1,500 pairs of sandals and chappals. “Usually we’ve set it all up by 9.30 to 10 a.m.” Others, such as Sethu, who sells salwar-kameezs and kurtas, have been at it even longer. Sethu opened this stall, in this same location, back in 1967. “I generally make a little less than Rs. 2,000 a day,” he says. “But during festival time, I earn around Rs. 4,000.” Mohamed Taoufiq, the dholak hawker from Delhi, on the other hand, is lucky if he sells two drums, costing an average of Rs. 200, a day.

Then there are the shops on my left, from the Flora and Poonam stores with their display of lingerie, to the massive and positively disorienting Rathna Stores where pots, pans, buckets and baskets aren’t content to be on shelf and floor space; they hang perilously low from every inch of the ceiling as well.

The space between the stores and the 280 stalls is so impossibly narrow and crowded that I often can’t even see the signboard of the shop I’m standing in front of. It doesn’t help that the blue plastic sheets put up overhead to keep the rain out reduce visibility further, bathing the entire space in a bluish hue. I need a breather, and so step into one of the gaps between stalls and gulp in some air with relief (never mind that it’s mostly traffic fumes from the perennially crowded main road).

That’s when I notice the horrendously coloured soft toys perched all over the cars parked in front of me (one bear is actually fluorescent orange in colour). They belong to Basha, a little man who’s been using parked cars as stalls for his wares for the last 13 years. When the owner of one car returns and says peremptorily: “Remove the toys!” Basha promptly obliges. And, simply shifts those toys to a grey-coloured car nearby as this one drives away.

You could say men such as Basha are the epiphytes of the Pondy Bazaar ecosystem, doing business off parked cars, the backside of other stalls, and storing their wares in borrowed cupboard space in nearby shops at night.

And shops such as Naidu Hall are the big fish, the success stories, having grown from a small tailoring unit in 1939 to a 35,000-sq.ft, five-floor mega store in 2008 that attracts thousands of visitors a day. By evening, these stores have rapidly filled up with Deepavali shoppers, and the various Bhavans — Saravana Bhavan, Shri Balaji Bhavan, Ananda Bhavan et al — are doing brisk business too.

The road and the pavement are chock-a-block, and I, well, have been transformed into a truly intrepid Pondy Bazaar shopper, brazenly walking on the main road (only flinching slightly when car horns blare directly behind me), unfazed by elbowing pedestrians and pushy hawkers alike.