Sandhai speculations

As there is a buzz of a change in address for the weekly Pallavaram Sandhai, Sonu M Kothari visits the market to find that though the rumours are spreading strong, there is a twist in this tale...
Photos | Ashwin Prasath
Photos | Ashwin Prasath

CHENNAI: As pregnant clouds loomed large in the city on Friday, I decided to go out on a ride. Waiting at the signal near Pallavaram, I hear a mother instructing her excited kid to tightly hold the hem of her shirt as they cross the road to join a swarm of people moving towards the Old Trunk Road. I head the same way, and I am invited by the sounds of vendors selling their goods — ‘moonu pantu 400 ruba’ (three pants at Rs 400) — chirping birds and haggling customers.

This service road is located amid the choos and chugs of the trains — Pallavaram and Tirusulam rail route — on the right and the whirring sounds of flights taking off at the Chennai International Airport on the left and is popular for the Pallavaram Sandhai, held every Friday. So famed is this market that Ashraf, a vendor, tells me one can find everything “from a safety pin to spare parts of an aeroplane.” And rightly so, one can find stalls of antiques, clothes, bicycles, electronics, furniture, fruits, vegetables, provisions, and more spread across this two-km stretch.

The vendors come here as early as 4 am to set up — position their pushcarts, unload sofas and cupboards from trucks, arrange jewellery and place boards reading ‘fixed price’, ‘pick any item and pay `15’, and ‘cheap quality products’ under umbrella tents —  and wind up only after 11 pm. The vegetable and fruit stalls at the sandhai are as popular as the ones selling myriad wares.

One can find vendors sprinkling water on them to keep them fresh. “Polaika vandhom, polachittom! (I came here for business and live, and did it!),” says 63-year-old Velayutham, a fruit juice vendor, who has been setting up shop every Friday for 20-odd years. Thanks to the booming business here, he got his daughters married to “well-settled families.” As he narrates his journey in the Pallavaram Sandhai, he says, “I hear people talking about the market being shifted to Kilambakkam.”

Rumour mills in the market

Such rumours have been on the rounds since the market was relocated to its present location in 2010. “The Defense Department maintains this road to transport raw materials to their CSD canteen. There are talks to move the market,” says G Boominathan, a stall owner and a member of CPI (M). It was he who moved to the Madras High Court in November 2010, to secure this location as it is a source of livelihood for 2,000 small-scale business owners who sell refurbished and second-hand goods at a nominal price.

In a writ of Mandamus, petitioner Pallavaram Cantonment Varasandhai Siru Viyabarigal Nala Sangam (registered under the Tamil Nadu Societies Registration Act, 1975) vs the respondent president in charge of the Cantonment and the chief executive officer of St Thomas Mount – Pallavaram Cantonment filed a joint memo. It reads, “… the respondents not to evict the members of the petitioner from their respective small shops… and the petitioners to continue their roadside business in cattle market permanently or Friday Weekly Market by allotting the 4 acres of land in… Old Trunk Road”.

Securing the spot on the Old Trunk Road, the Cantonment started inviting bidders to keep books of accounts. “The tenders increased the stall prices and started exploiting the vendors. For an 8x8 stall, we paid Rs 50 earlier and now it is Rs 1,000-Rs 2,000. The profit margin is not very high on furniture. Since people below the poverty line come here, we do not negotiate the price much. So, on a good day, the maximum sale goes up to Rs 8,000. The rent is Rs 2,000, transportation costs up to Rs 2,000, food and beverage come up to a thousand; at the end of the day only Rs 3,000 is left in our pockets,” shares 47-year-old Mohideen, who own a godown in Ramapuram and has been visiting Pallavaram Market for the last 15 years.

Be sneaky and sharp  

“Anna 900 ku mudichidunga, (Brother, close the deal at `900),” says one of the buyers at Ismail’s chair and table shop. Sealing the deal, Ismail says, “When people get products at the rate they wish for, it gives them happiness. They are always on a budget and that is why they come here. For them, owning a chair and table itself is a luxury.”

Another provision store vendor says, “The packing (of goods) starts a week in prior. We pack 100 g of each spice and sell it for Rs 20. This will sustain customers for a week. So, there are those who come in every week,” shares Abay. Sumathi*, who runs a dry fish stall, says, “I have been coming here for 30 plus years and have seen all kinds of customers, some pay the higher price I quote, some bargain, and some are reluctant to pay. You should know a few techniques to get money from them. Going to a different space, to understand the needs and demands of the crowd there and to settle will take a long time; the business will be hit.”

Like everything in life, the customers and vendors are two sides of the same coin. Even the regular customers do not want the sandhai to move to another location. “Owning a TV, sofa, and fridge was a dream. And now, I am living it because I can afford all of them here at the sandhai,” says Lakshmi, adding “If it is moved to any other location, it will be difficult to go there and purchase.” 

Not a goodbye, yet

This sandhai is a traditional practice and has been relocated five times. Started by the Arcots who ruled the Madras. It was then called maatu sandhai (cattle market). Livestock, ropes, bells, knives, and paints for their horns were a few on sale at the Sandhai Road. “There is a stone inscription as proof in the Cantonment Park, which the British half demolished,” shares Ashraf, co-convenor of the Varasandhai Siru Viyabarigal Nala Sangam. From the Sandhai Road, it moved to the Cantonment Park, Cantonment Ground, and then to the RC Church Road.

“This sandhai is our history. We have come here after a lot of struggle and will not easily shift if we are asked to. We will fight again,” he says. But like every story there is a twist in the this sandhai’s tale too. Even as the vendors fret over moving and customers worry about their weekly purchases, the present tender by Meenal and Co, owned by Kumar affirms that the sandhai will not be moved. “There is a piece happy news for the customers because starting this month, the market will operate for two days – Thursdays and Fridays,” he shares.

The first half of the month is behind us and two Fridays passed by, but this provision of bi-weekly market operation is not set in action. “The Madras High Court memo states that the sandhai is to function every Friday. So, for the market to function twice a week should be given to us by the court in a written order. And we have not received any orders yet,” points out Boominathan, adding “The decisions taken by the tenders should be of benefit to the public.”

One of the regular customers of this sandhai, Ramya says, “The mini trips to the market will be more if we get an extra day. We could take our own time and visit every stall leisurely, bargaining with the annas and akkas.” This will add to the plight of the sellers. Mohammed Anish, a clothing stall owner says, “This decision will be bad for us. If only for a day, people would save and thirumba thirumba varuvanga (come again and again). If it is extended for two days, then customers will be split. People would ask for the cost one day and will assure to come the next day which they might not and get the product from another stall. This will result in huge loss.”

Will the fate of the Pallavaram Sandhai change in the coming months is something that Chennaiites need to wait and watch. But for now, customers can block eight days a month instead of four, as the sandhai is here to stay.

*Name changed on request

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