Koyambedu: Chennai's Wholesale Market
Wednesday, September 19 marked the celebration of the infamous elephant deity, Ganesha. At 4am we stole out of our apartment and down the deserted main road to meet a few classmates on a rare outing to Koyambedu, Chennai's wholesale market. The city was sleepier than I would have imagined at this wee hour, presumably the only time of night when the worlds of late-night stragglers and early morning risers collide. We had the rare opportunity to actually see how much time it took by foot to walk our daily path to class. I even ventured a toe or two out into the main road to avoid a few puddles. It was so novel I almost didn't realize we were on the same street that a few hours later would become congested with rickshaws, motorcyclists, pedestrians, ox carts, cows, and vendors. For once we didn't bother with the earplug that has become a daily ritual for Matt and I, our tiny, colored foam defense against the bustle that is Chennai. But at this hour, on the other side of the city, Chennai's flower, vegetable and fruit market had already sprung to life.
We met Bici, Inga and our guide, Ashish, outside of our local restaurant haunt, Sangeethas. About 30-40 minutes later we were pulling up to a massive series of warehouse buildings atop an equally gigantic leveled parking lot. The air was already filled with the exhaust from hundreds of trucks, rickshaws, cars and people balancing all sorts of foodstuffs on their heads. For the next three hours we witnessed a colorful mash of activity, a fervor of selling energy that is really only appropriate around dawn. Ashish told us the market opens about 3 or so, but it was best not to interrupt the importance of a first sale with our photo-taking and general whiteness.
We dodged all manner of carts as Ashish directed us towards one of the dozens of entrances. The flower sellers formed a square corridor around the edge of the building. The center opened out into a large courtyard where the vendors specialized in garlands and herbs. Whether they're selling carnations or sweet limes, Indian sellers are in a class of their own. They have a flare for the dramatic and a knack for good visual marketing. At the flower market, colored lights accentuated the roses and carnations, which our Canon generally interpreted as a flower massacre. Each concrete platform was piled high with baskets, one or two suggestively spilling their contents out over the floor. Men had their monopoly on the selling, while almost all of the buyers were women. They wore sober expressions, expertly balancing plastic flower bags on their heads and pressing you lightly on the shoulder with a single finger to indicate they wanted to get by. But once you turned around and smiled, most of the women turned shy and gave downward smiles before disappearing into the crowd.
We slowly made our way through the corridor, listening to the harmonized melody of vendors all offering the same product. We took breaks by ducking into the side alleys for air where we could watch young men deftly tying flowers together to form garlands that spanned up to 8" in diameter.
After an hour, Ashish corralled us towards the fruit market. The fruit vendors were decidedly civilized where the flower sellers had been a brazen blur of arms and legs. We found ourselves in more austere surroundings, the blue sky of dawn artfully contrasting the greens of under-ripe banana trees, sweet limes and papayas. In this market young men lugged carts and carried large loads on their heads and backs while the older generation sat on stools inside the shops. Here the pace allowed for elaborate pyramids of sweet limes. Every single fruit had a perfect place. All over India fruits are given their due, being carefully plucked and buffed and arranged like rare jewels. And for a greater majority of the population, they are. Matt scoured the place in search of Himachal apples. Then we made for our last stop on the tour, the vegetable market.
From first appearances, this was the most organic of the three. As we headed down the outdoor corridors between markets, the straw and packaging debris under our feet gave way to cabbage leaves, until the whole thing resembled a soft green carpet of decaying produce. Traffic streamed through, forcing us to dodge this way and that. Both men and women held fort at these stalls. All were smiles and "Hellos." Over the course of the morning, we had been slowly collecting business cards in promised exchange for copies of our photos. Bici was particularly a favorite, being tall, blond and all smiles herself. Sun was now streaming through the tall skylight windows, adding a more natural color to the baskets of okra, carrots, herbs, and gourds. The smells of fresh cilantro and curry leaves finally started pulling us towards a good meal, so we slowly made for our departure. As is true of wholesale markets, the parking lot proved to be the most tricky footwork of the morning. We dodged all the brightly colored carts and trucks - "Horn OK Please!" - waving our hellos to the drivers as we passed. We were out, the sun was shining, and it was just coming on 8am.