For thousands of Malayalees across Kerala, August 24, 2018, was set to be a day of illuminations, music, athapookalams and a hatful of other festivities. But those expectations were literally washed away by the floods that hit Kerala last week. Now, only a feeling of emptiness and stillness could be felt across the state on Friday.
The Kerala government on August 14 had announced that it will not be organising any Onam celebrations in the state due to the severe damage to human lives and property. In fact, several other organisations in the state, including schools, colleges, IT companies, residents associations and recreational clubs, had decided not to celebrate the iconic festival of Kerala, this year.
As a result, several businesses, which had banked on the festival for their livelihood, have taken a severe hit.
The worst affected are the flower sellers of the Chalai market in Thiruvananthapuram. Keeping in mind the huge demand for flowers to prepare the traditional athapookalam (rangoli) during Onam, these vendors had stocked up on flowers from outside the state.
“The hands that normally buy flowers during the Onam season are now carrying items for flood relief,” says Nemom Radhakrishnan, who runs Sri Vinayaka flower stall in Chalai market, told TNM, in a pensive voice.
Radhakrishnan, who is also the vice-president of the Thiruvananthapuram Florist Association, said that their business is all about celebrations. “At a time like this, when the entire state is mourning, who is in a mood to celebrate!” he said, adding, “Having said that, our business has indeed taken a back seat, as our businesses thrive on festivals like Onam, and on normal days, because of occasions like weddings. ”
He points out that during Onam season, a bulk of their orders for flowers come from schools, colleges and offices, which have athapookalam as a significant part for their celebrations. With celebrations being called off, they have not received such bulk orders.
“As a result, the stock that we brought from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka will go to waste. And we owe money to the sellers in these states, who might even hesitate to send us more stocks in future,” says Radhakrishnan, who adds that their financial loss is not a cause of concern considering the current situation in the state.
This seems to be the emotion shared by most of the vendors in the Chalai market.
Suresh Kumar, who runs the Pournami flower stall, shared Radhakrishan’s thoughts. “It is okay that we are facing a financial loss. That is nothing compared to the crisis that the people in the state are facing, who lost their homes and family members,” he said.
Talking about the magnitude of loss, Suresh Kumar said that they had initially bought a stock worth Rs 50,000 from Tamil Nadu, out of which, only goods worth around Rs 10,000 have been sold as of Friday.
“Normally during Onam season, we would have had to bring stocks from Tamil Nadu every day, because we used to earn around Rs 1 lakh to Rs 2 lakh per day,” said Suresh.
It’s not just the flower sellers whose business have been hit. Chandran, a native of Venganoor in Thiruvananthapuram district, runs a vegetable stall in the market. He and his wife had been waiting for the Onam season so that they could earn some extra money for the construction of their new home.
“That dream will have to wait. The business this season is nowhere close to half of the business we had during last Onam season,” said Chandran.
“Who wants to cook sadya when the thousands of people in the state are struggling for a morsel of rice!” says Chandran.
He also admitted that he is upset that his business is not doing well. “We were expecting to earn around Rs 20,000 each day this week, but now, we are hardly getting Rs 4,000 per day. We are answerable to the vegetable producers in Tamil Nadu,” points out Chandran.
The situation is bleak for everyone who depended on the festival for a better business. This includes banana leaf sellers like Ayappa Panikker.
Ayappa reveals that he hardly had a handful of customers on Friday, compared to the previous years, when he used to get orders ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 banana leaves, just from one office.
“This Onam season, I am doubtful if I sold 1,000 banana leaves,” he said.
Despite incurring losses, the vendors and merchants of Chalai market did not sit back and wallow in self-pity. Instead, many merchants, including Nemom Radhakrishnan and Suresh Kumar, came out for relief work and collected funds to contribute towards the Chief Minister's Distress Relief Fund.
“After all, it is just a matter of money. Onam will come again next year,” said Suresh Kumar, who also hopes the state will come out of these dark times soon.