Smells Good

A day in the life of a flower-seller in Chennai

Ratna Paati

It smells like early, dewy mornings at home near Ratna paati’s table, where a bunch of cool, white jasmines lie in a heap heaped under the light of the street lamp. The kind of mornings when the fragrance of sweet smelling jasmines, commonly known as mallipus, would linger into your dreams as mother would come to wake you up for school, wearing a garland of mallipus loosely around her long, wet hair. For a moment there, you can almost afford to forget that it is a small, roadside flower shop on a rickety wooden table, near a busy bus stop, bustling with the mundane city life in the busy Besant Nagar area.

No matter what your age is, Ratna paati,with her big black bindi between her twinkling black eyes with golden-rimmed spectacles, will address you affectionately as “mami” or “papa”. Many who have been living near the Reserve Bank Quarters in Besant Nagar recollect seeing Ratna paati sitting on her low-height stool with her table of jasmines, marigolds and roses, with her praises of Amma and her infectious little-girlish laughter at everything for over ten odd years now.

“I used to work as a housemaid before this. I took up this job later in my life, after my daughters had grown up, to live my life with a little more dignity”, says the sixty-year-old woman. Her day begins in a small slum in Besant Nagar, where she spends the first 2–3 hours of the day cooking for her husband and her grandchildren. She then takes a bus to Parry’s Corner where she buys her stock of flowers for the day for Rs 300–400, depending on the day. Carrying the jasmines, the roses, the marigolds, all in a huge basket, she returns with her friends on the train, stringing garlands and sharing the daily gossip on their way. “Sometimes I meet a little girl on the train returning from school with her mother. I don’t know her name but she keeps looking longingly at the flowers and at us women singing and gossiping. On some days, I string a garland for her and she smiles and clutches it close to her heart”, says Ratna paati smiling.

Like her friend on the train, Ratna paati also fell under the spell of jasmines as a young girl girl growing up near the many temples in Mylapore. In between helping her mother and looking after her many siblings, Ratna paati would often wander off to her neighbour’s house in the afternoons, where the women of the family would gather to make garlands. “They would let me sit with them and make garlands. I often took them home and then our house would smell of all things good”, she says, her fingers swiftly making double loops with the white cotton thread called naaru ,around the tiny flowers.

The fragrance that enthrals Ratna paati wafts through the air as women in south India wear these flowers in their hair. Considered as “flowers from the feet of God”, the mallipu is worn by women as a mark of prosperity and good luck. So in a typical Tamilian household in Chennai, mornings would be marked by women wearing these garlands of mallipus in their wet hair before going for puja. Mothers would make their daughters sit at their feet, oil their hair and plait their hair with these pretty and sweet-scented garlands. Although, it is not followed strictly any longer, this tradition has become rooted like a habit with the women in the city, in the way that flowers stay rooted in one’s hair.

And so when Ratna paati comes to her spot every day post lunch, after the heat of the sun has died down a little, women on evening walks, mothers returning home with their kids, husbands returning from office, all stop by her little shop, to buy big and small garlands of mallipus that she sits making on her old, wooden stool. With the same love that mothers put into plaiting their daughters’ hair with flowers, Ratna paati strings the white mallipu flowers into garlands while making conversation with her customers about their kids, jobs, the weather and everything under the sun, like a talkative old grandmother. “They call me paati, like my grandchildren do. It makes me very happy”, she giggles shyly, covering her mouth with the corner of her saree pallu. Romila V, a regular customer of Ratna paati, says she has been coming to her for the past five years, every evening on her way back from office. “I am not only her customer. We have become friends. We talk about everything — from Amma to Sasikala”, she says, buying two malippu garlands for herself and three rose stems for the deity at home.

Back at home however, Ratna paati’s second innings as a flower seller does not receive the same acceptance. Ratna paati’s daughters and husband are opposed to her working as a flower seller She hesitates before answering why they think that way. Looking away, she says that they do not encourage it because they think it is not a decent job.“Flowers have no judgement, no caste, no divisions on them. I love the fact that I can give people something so pure as flowers everyday. It is my way of reaching out to God”, she says, smiling, with an air of resilience that only people with strong hearts and open minds can possess.