As the crowd of emotional supporters outside Rajaji Hall swells, so does the heat. By 10 am, the weather has begun to swelter, but the crowd shows no signs of fatigue. They are prepared to stand in line for hours for a glimpse of their beloved Kalaignar, and their needs are anticipated by a host of enthusiastic entrepreneurs who have sprung up along the length of the road overnight. There are people selling water and cucumber slices, glasses of buttermilk, packets of colourful chips. Small girls sell bottled water at a modest profit. Children of the sellers hover, dividing their time between advertising the wares (“hot, hot tomato rice”) and asking passers-by for a selfie.
Right outside the exit gate, Sivakumar and Meghala are selling water packets. The former is an autorickshaw driver, and the latter works as a cleaner in a hospital. Both live in Chintadripet and are staunch DMK supporters. The duo say they have been stationed outside Kauvery Hospital for the last six days, “guarding thalaivar and helping people out.”
Perched on top of a cart stacked with water packets, Sivakumar declares, “It’s only because of thailavar that we came here. A procession will probably leave for Marina Beach around 4 pm; we’ll follow it, with our water.” He says they earned nearly ₹2,000 till mid day, but once the crowd reaches Marina, the business will stop, he adds ruefully.
A few feet away, 17-year-old Sanjeet tries his best to catch the eye of lined supporters and passers-by, helped by the tantalising yellow heaps of sundal in a vessel at his feet. He scoops and deftly wraps a portion in newspaper, before turning to the next customer. “At the beach, we make sales of around ₹300 a day. We charge ₹10 for a packet there, and are charging ₹20 here,” he says, adding however that if a family approaches him, he reverts to original price as “family discount”.
Lakshmi, Sezhian and Ammu, all neighbours, say they travelled to Chennai from Madurai overnight, children in tow. “We reached at 8.30 this morning,” says Lakshmi, guarding packets of thattai, arasi murukku and mixture murukku from the passing crowd. Their wares are from Madurai, and they are selling each packet at ₹ 20. “A lot of our relatives have come as well,” she beams.
Huge pots, filled to the brim with steaming pongal, tomato rice, egg curry and raita, peek from behind the bars of a cycle cart parked by the MRTS over-bridge. Radhika, 30 is a homemaker, while her husband is a welder. She says she stayed up cooking for the better part of the night, and her family arrived at Anna Salai in the morning.
“We are hoping to sell at least 40 plates by the end of the day,” she says.
This in an alternate source of income for the family, she states, adding, “We have a lot of financial problems.”
The family isn’t the only one selling tomato rice. Forty-five-year-old Kannan’s set-up is less elaborate, but more convenient. He has generous servings of rice wrapped tightly in newspaper packets, easy to just pick and go. He shrugs when asked which party he supports and says, “I’m just a supporter of food.”
So is young Ajay Kumar, who had been selling similar packets of tomato rice since 2 am.
“My amma makes it and keeps it ready; I go back and collect those hot packets when I run out,” says the Class IX student of Corporation School. At ₹50 per packet, Kumar had made ₹900 by 10 am. Is he worried about possible violence given the crowds? He chuckles and shakes his head: “Not at all.”
It is only for thaatha that I am selling rosemilk. If someone like us comes to see him, they should not stay thirsty
Ramesh, from Vannarpettai in Tirunelveli district, stands in the middle of the hubbub with his buttermilk-bearing bicycle.
“I usually sell at Kasimedu,” he says. He says he’s been confident from the very beginning that his leader would be granted a burial space in Marina. “So there’s no chance of any violence.”
Meanwhile Sivakami, who has made her way over from Kallarai, says she has been serving passers-by glasses of rose milk since 6 am. “I like my thaatha very much. It’s only for thaatha that I am selling rosemilk,” says the 35-year-old, adding, “If someone like us comes to see him, they should not stay thirsty.”
(Inputs from Prathap Ravishankar, Gowri S, Meghna Majumdar)