As the first signs of dawn lit up the city, 12th Cross Street, or the Island street as the localites called it, came to life. No, it wasn’t because it showed any signs of water and land, but because, the stretch was surrounded by a slum dwelling with just one bungalow in a corner.
The first to arrive at the scene was Senthil, the vegetable vendor. His daily routine began with collecting the first lot of fresh vegetables from the Koyambedu market, and stocking them up before the first customer arrived. Having been in this business for several years, he prided himself of being an efficient worker, because more often than not, by early noon, the best stock would be wiped clean.
As he began stocking up the raw mangoes on a plank, his mobile rang, with an old-style Nokia caller tune.
“What?” he asked, grudgingly.
Seconds later, his face lit up. It was his daughter, Selvi. Her 10th standard results were out today, and she’d passed. As Senthil continued to listen in on the conversation, Muthu, the tea-stall owner arrived and gave a shout to him. “Senthil! All fine? He asked. Senthil absent-mindedly gave a nod and resumed his work, with the mobile glued to his ear.
Muthu turned back and with tremendous effort, lugged himself into the store room, to bring out the tea bags, tea stand, glasses, and water cans. The alcohol hadn’t done him well. He had a pounding headache, and to add to that, the heat wave in the city was making him feel quite sick. As he carried his things and walked out, he realised that something was amiss. There was a Rs.20 note on the cash desk and one water can was missing since his last count before the first drink last night. After several minutes of scanning his shop for any clues, he noticed that his green water jug was missing as well. Puzzled and exasperated, he slumped on the plastic chair, cursing himself for being careless, yet again.
“Given up already?” asked Shanthima, as she and her son Murugan stood beside his stall, carrying a baskets of fresh flowers.
“It’s none of your business!” snapped back Muthu, and made a yet another herculean attempt to get off the chair.
She shrugged and turned to her stall, waiting for her son to pull off the blue plastic sheets. Shanthima, as she was fondly called by the localites, was a popular flower vendor in the locality. Be it for weddings, festivals or any family occasions, customers would swarm into her stall and make small purchases or place bulk orders. On days when her customers complained of high pricing and insisted that she pick and give them the best flowers, she’d charm them with her usual, “Be it any occasion, it’s flowers meant for the Gods. Would I be careless and give you the spoilt ones? Don’t you trust me?” And they’d give a defeated smile and readily succumb to her words.
The three shops, that of Senthil’s, Muthu’s and Shanthima’s, acted as gatekeepers to the small slum dwelling that lay right behind. Over the years, each of their lives became intertwined with those of the families’ that lived behind, and their role went beyond just taking care of business. Take Shanthima for instance. When the women at the slum are busy doing household chores, she would keep watch over their children, lest they run amok and hurt themselves. Or take Muthu for that matter. His shop was more often an open psychiatry centre than a tea-stall, where the men slumped on the wooden benches and complained to Muthu for hours together, about their demanding wives or unreasonable labour compensations. Senthil was different though. He made no unnecessary remarks. His only contribution was to hand over any leftover vegetables of the day, to the families living behind. On such days, the aroma of chilli powder and boiled rice would be replaced with that of a sumptuous meal.
By now, the Sun was up and showing its prowess to the entire city, and, the street was abuzz with activity. Senthil’s daughter, Selvi too had arrived, to help her father at the shop, and the next few hours passed in each of the vendors’ serving what seemed like an entire village of people.
By late afternoon, as the last of the customers walked out with a bag of vegetables, Selvi found the golden opportunity to take a quick glance at Murugan, Shanthima’s son. For long, his tall, slender build and sharp features had attracted her to him like a morsel of sweet would to an ant. A bit of a movie buff that she was, she imagined her encounters with him to be a scene out of a romantic movie, where, one day, he would sweep her off her feet, and take her away from her misery.
“Dreaming is not going to fetch you any money! Now, step up and tally the day’s expenses!” instructed Shanthima, snapping her out of her wishful world in no time. When Senthil was not in the shop, Shanthima took it upon herself to watch over Selvi.
It was when the sky turned an orangish-hue that the first signs of calling it a day began. As the children from the slums fought over who would play the last over of gully cricket, a strong aroma of kerosene began spreading in the air, and Senthil, Muthu, and Shanthima began wrapping up their last orders.
Soon, it was time to bid goodbye to their second home, on the left stretch of the 12th cross street, I wrote. Then, I placed my pen down, and longingly gazed across the street, at the scene, from the French windows of a bungalow, that showed no signs of life, except of the clock ticking.