Friday, October 03, 2014

UNUSUAL OCCUPATIONS - The flower seller

UNUSUAL OCCUPATIONS - The Flower seller 

As a 5 year old girl, Nethra would come back from school and spend the evening helping her mother at the makeshift shack where her mother sold flower garlands to the devotees who thronged the adjacent Shanishwara temple. On Saturdays,  the auspicious day for Lord Shanishwara the footfall of devotees would be particularly high and Nethra would help doing small errands for her mother helping with the customers at the flower stall.  
The footfall at the temple was dwindling because of frenzy of roadworks that cut off the approach to the temple for all the regular devotees who would come on foot or alight at the nearby bus stand.  It was a shack that her mother had set up to do business for as long as Nethra could remember.  
Construction work for the flyover bridge that would cut across the railway track and build an approach road to the other side of town was in full swing.  In anticipation of the flyover bridge the builders had already grabbed lands that were erstwhile factory godowns to build multi-storeyed apartment buildings and office complexes on the other side of the railway track. 

Selling garlands made of fresh flowers, was the business that helped them meet the ends.  As Nethra grew up and attained puberty, there was increasing pressure on her mother from the neighbourhood, not to let the young attractive girl attend to the customers. 
It was a pressure that her mother reluctantly gave into. 
Money was scarce and the business at the shack where she sold flowers near the temple was not doing well except for a few devotees who still braved their way through all the construction works and came to the temple. It was at this point in time that Nethra took to being a domestic help washing dishes and clothes at the nearby houses. Her education had stopped after secondary school.
Years of hard work took a toll on her mother in the form of ill health. When Nethra was in her late teens her mother died leaving behind a shattered daughter whose future would hang at the mercy of relatives and neighbours. 
It was in these trying times Nethra met the young Manjunatha and fell in love with him. 
Just at the time when her relatives from the extended family and the neighbourhood moral police started getting a whiff of romance sprouting about, the couple decided to run away and set up home and livelihood far away from the prying eyes of the relatives and neighbours.
The bridge over the flyover had now been inaugurated and the lush green landscape  that was home to factory godowns, quaint farmhouses and huge tracts of rose farms that fuelled the floriculture business opened up to embrace the  development of the city.  It was to Thubarahalli, 10 kms away, on the other side of the railway tracks across the flyover bridge that they ran away to set up home after getting married at the temple where her mother sold flower garlands long time ago.
Manjunatha did odd jobs to earn a living and they set up home. Their daughter was born the next year. With the high tide of prosperity that swept due to the development all around them, he  managed to lease an autorickshaw, drove around and was earning decent money.  Their son was born four years later and by now Manjunatha’s income from the autorickshaw was falling short for the family of four.

Nethra, who had always been economically independent even since her mother died, found it hard to nag her husband for money to meet household expenses especially when she knew that he was doing all he could to make the ends meet.
The Venkateshwara  temple at Thubarahalli had been built and inaugurated two years ago. Manjunatha was the loyal and trustworthy auto driver who would ferry the grandchildren of the temple’s trustee to school everyday. The temple trustee had owned the vast stretches of agricultural land in the area. He sold a good portion of his agricultural land when the government sanctioned permission for construction of a planned residential layout. As he made good money selling his land, he donated a portion of the land for building the temple in exchange of being designated as the managing trustee for the temple.

Nethra sensed the business opportunity. She sent in a word through Manjunatha and asked if she could set up a mobile cart that would sell flower garlands near the temple. While the temple trustee agreed and gave his blessings for the business, opposition came in the form of two other carts who had already set up business.
A third entrant into the same business would eat up their market share. There was no organized set-up to regulate the hawkers and hangers-on who could set do business around the temple that was now a popular public attraction set amidst the plush residential colony with many devotees that thronged the temple.
Nethra knew she was a late entrant.  Unlike her mother who had a monopoly near the Shaneeshwara temple, she was sceptical if she would be able to do business unhindered with two other competitors who had already set up their cart in the vicinity in the last two years.  Moreover there was no guarantee, that other hawkers and flower sellers would not follow in the future.
She persisted because she instinctively judged that she had an advantage.  It was a business she knew like the back of her hand. She knew the potential that the business held with growing population and prosperity in the area.   She, through her husband had the blessings of the temple trustee. On the side, Nethra had already grabbed an informal  contract to clean up the temple premises and draw ‘ rangoli’  every morning for a meagre but fixed salary for the temple.  
Determined, she elbowed her way through, and set up her cart right in the middle with the other two vendors who had already set up their carts and were doing brisk business selling flowers, coconuts and other items to the devotees who thronged the temple.
Nethra paid the price for pushing her way through. As an aftermath of a violent and ugly showdown in public amongst the three cart vendors, news reached the local police station. She along with the other two vendors were summoned to the police station.  
Like most workers in the unorganized sector she and the other two vendors bribed the local police and bought peace on the condition that they would not create any more problems.  Realizing that the blood sucking police would now demand a good deal of their profits in the form of bribe or confiscate their entire inventory, the three vendors decided to peacefully co-exist by setting up their carts at three different corners of the temple entrance and as far away from each other, so that the footfall of devotees who came to the temple  ended up doing equal business with each of them.

In order to be fair they also decided that each one of them would rotate and position their cart at the other’s positions every week so that  they all got a fair share of footfall as the devotees came to the temple.

This works well for the three of them. Although they do good business they pay some money to the local police every now and then. It serves two purposes.  One, the police does not make life miserable for them and moreover there is a guarantee albeit a temporary one, that a fourth entrant would not get into their business. With the protection money they pay the local police, it would get extremely difficult for a fourth competitor to get in and eat into their market share. If that ever happened, they are all too well aware that the fragmented market share would make business extremely unviable for all of them.

Paying the bribe to the local police is somewhat  like renewing the licence to operate a reasonably profitable business. This is probably an unwritten rule of law in the unorganized sector all over.      In a slightly altered manner it is the same fundamentals with which businesses operate in the organized sector as well.  Only difference being, it is not called bribe, but licence fee, that is usually given to the ones that have significant muscle power, capital and political connections apart from the ability to operate business.
The business of flowers is a very fragile one. Like vegetables and fruits it is a perishable commodity with a shelf life that lasts not more than 3-4 days. However unlike  vegetables and fruits which are essential commodities needed for everyday consumption, flowers are less so.  The demand for flowers is seasonal and varies depending upon times when there are major festivals or occasions. 

Following the rules of free market economics, prices of flowers also fluctuate depending on demand and supply.
Stocking an inventory of flowers has to be far more accurate that many other commodities, because it perishes in no time. This may lead to huge losses if not planned properly.

Three days a week, Nethra and her husband drive down to the city wholesale market at 3 am to buy fresh flowers. By the time it is about 6 am, Nethra and her competitors  have already set up their cart and would be busy making garlands out of the loose flowers for the devotees who start coming to the temple.  On a normal day Nethra buys about 2-4 kgs of flowers of different kinds and sells the finished product at a margin of about 30-40%.

On Saturdays, festival days and other days when it is an auspicious occasion at the temple, she would raise her inventory to about 10 -15 kgs anticipating a very high demand. On such days the flowers also sell expensive at the city wholesale market owning to increased demand. 

Her margin on those days is not unusually high although the volume of sales increases substantially.

One such day is the eve of Vijayadasami. The ninth day of the Navaratri festival.

The footfall of devotees has just begun for the evening. Nethra has her stall set up with not just her usual flowers and garlands but also coconuts, betel leaves and banana tree saplings. They would sell like hot cakes in the next couple of hours as devotees stop by to buy them for the next day’s dasami pooja at home.

A Skoda stops by, rolls down the window and the customer asks Nethra for the price of different flowers on display. Stunned at the exhorbitant cost for a marigold garland the customer tries his hand at bargaining. Nethra is firm today. She tells them that she is literally selling at cost price and that the wholesale market is selling flowers at Rs. 600  a kg. Realizing that there cannot be a bargain stuck today, the customer from the car buys all his pooja essentials for the next day and moves on.

As he drives on, Nethra’s mobile rings and the customer at the other end is enquiring about prices and the stock.  A couple of minutes later she is telling her the items she wants and Nethra packs them together in a plastic bag while simultaneously speaking to the customer in Tamil.

Meanwhile, a couple, probably new migrants into the neighbourhood walk up and buy some flowers before getting into the temple. Nethra  effortlessly converses with them in Hindi while seamlessly shifting to Kannada, Telugu and Tamil with all her other regular customers with complete ease.  To one of her customers she replies in broken English mixed with Hindi and a tinge of Kannada accent.

Meanwhile her husband drives past in his autorickshaw and parks for a minute across the road.  She quickly crosses the road and hands him over the items packed in the plastic bag meant for the customer that had called over on her mobile sometime ago. In a few minutes he would home deliver the items after dropping his current customers.   

A pile of banana tree saplings and gunny sacks full of marigold flowers are lying behind the cart.  As her stock of banana tree saplings on display in front of the cart has been sold out, she opens the pile to stock up a few more. She is careful that the fresh flowers are prominently displayed and the banana tree saplings and unsightly coconuts do not hide the view. 

According to Nethra, from the vantage point of the customer, apparently the freshness of jasmine buds, the delicate pink colour of the Arali  flowers and colourfulness of the orange and yellow marigold, is what makes the customers eyeballs linger, just a while longer at her shop and eventually choose to do business over there.  It is a split second decision between choosing to buy from one of the three vendors and apparently the customer psyche is usually won over by the cart where the display is bright, colourful and fresh. The unsightly pile of coconuts and banana tree saplings are also on display, but are stacked carefully by the side and replenished from time to time from the stock behind the cart.

In the world of big business are these not the same fundamentals that business consultants from the big four consulting firms are commissioned by the supermarkets, retail giants along with advertising experts to carefully study to determine customer psyche and buying patterns. 

Nethra, a high school drop out, fully puts them to use in her own way in accordance with the local customer preference, prevailing sentiment and demand. One cannot help but notice that Nethra’s cart attracts far more customers than the other two in the vicinity.
It is about 7.30 pm and in a short while the temple would close for the day. The footfall of devotees has trickled down considerably and the activity around the temple has now quietened down. 

Nethra begins to pack up her cart, while setting aside the more expensive and delicate perishables like the fragrant jasmine and roses in a big airy bag, while covering up all the rest underneath the porous plastic sheet and tying it up with sturdy ropes. She calls it a day when her husband’s autorickshaw stops by beside the cart. Before getting into the autorickshaw, she loads her left over inventory  of delicate flowers that would be stacked into their refrigerator at home.

Tommorrow would be another day. 

Tommorrow, they would start off at 3 am to the City wholesale market while the aged relative who now lives with them in their two room tenement would get the children (now aged 12 and 8) ready for school while Nethra and her husband would go about their daily business.     

This post is submitted for Write Tribe - pro blogger October Series

This is the tenth in the Feature - UNUSUAL OCCUPATIONS

click the following to read the previous features




  1. In the United States, this is something brand new to me. I am going to share this on Facebook. I learned something today!


  2. Thanks for visiting my blog post.

    For other posts on unusual occupations read my posts


Thank you for stopping by.
Good, bad or ugly ... Trust me I would love to hear from you...
Please leave your comments here.