A trip to the flower market might mean different things to different people. A loving husband’s hunt for the perfect gajra for his wife, a young intern’s last-minute run to meet set decoration demands or the best place to get the freshest and most fragrant buds of champa in town. For me, Dadar phool gully offered a window into the lives of a family of strong independent women, who’ve managed to make it work despite all odds.
72-year-old Kalabai Vaghmare’s endearing smile is just one of the many things that make you want to stop and chat with her. She is a typical grandmother, she offers you chai and keeps insisting till you agree. She introduces her 32-year-old grandson to us, and much to his embarrassment boasts about how he is doing great work with an NGO, also like a typical grandmother. Apart from being a familiar face to all those who frequent this flower market that is one of the biggest in Mumbai, Kalabai is one of the many self-made women of Dadar phool gully who have, for generations, single-handedly supported their families.
Kalabai with five daughters and two sons in tow, fled from Jalna, Maharashtra, close to five decades ago. “There was a famine, my husband was dead, and I had seven mouths to feed. So, like a lot of other people, I came to Mumbai in search of work,” said Kalabai. Initially, Kalabai resorted to begging in the area that is now a flower market, and that’s when she chanced upon the flower trade and decided to try her hand at it. Priced at just 10 paise for a handful of flowers — which she describes by cupping her hands together — the flower market has picked up considerably, but so have the prices of flower vendors from the massive flower mandi just down the road. Flower vendors have always and still, to a large extent, live a hand-to-mouth existence. Almost all that they earn ends up getting reinvested in the business.
“Mere saamne bana hai yeh (it has been built in front of my eyes),” says Kalabai, pointing towards the Dadar flyover, at the same time, putting into perspective the sheer number of years she has called this locality her home. The Dadar flyover that looks into the chaos of the ever-so-crowded Dadar station acts as a shelter for numerous flower vendors who set shop under it.
“There were stables and cow sheds where these shops and buildings stand today. The street was lined with potters, cobblers and other such people. Today all these places I speak of have been replaced by shops,” pipes in one of Kalabai’s younger daughters Laxmi. Laxmi too works at the flower market and just like her mother, she too leads an independent life. “My husband would drink a lot. I had to escape to have a life of my own and I did. I don’t have children, but I have my nephews and nieces, I work for them and my mother,” says Laxmi. When asked about why she decided against remarrying, she says with palpable pride “I don’t need a man. I did not want to risk being in another bad relationship. I can fend for myself and I am happy.”
Sundarbai Patole’s — Kalabai’s second oldest daughter — introduction to me was something of an interrogation. As I sat deep in conversation with Kalabai, Sundarbai seated with her back towards us, signalled for me to walk over to the other side. I did as I was told. “What happened? What do you need? Why were you talking to my mother,” were her first words to me. She eased up as I went on to explain to her why I was there. While justifying her protective behaviour towards her mother, she said “This woman has seen a lot. She has been working in this very flower market for over 50 years now, but everything around her has changed. Both her sons passed away — one of them died right there across the street — all her children got married, her children have grandchildren now, but she is still here, at the same flower market she started working at so long ago.”
Sundarbai also talks about their frequent tiffs with the BMC, “We live on this side now, when they ask us to move, we move to the other side and that is how it has been for years now. We don’t have an option.”
When asked about her siblings Sundarbai points to three women, one of whom is Laxmi, seated around her. They too work here. Sundarbai’s older sister decided to come work here after her husband passed away. “We don’t know how he died, she never talks about it, but since then she has worked here,” says Santosh Vaghmare, one of Kalabai’s grandchildren.
The streets that make up the Dadar phool gully— once occupied by stables, potters and street dwellers — have figuratively and in some instances quite literally grown and evolved around Kalabai Vaghmare. As I walk back to Kalabai, I closely observe all the women of the family hunched over piles of iridescent flowers, and this is when I see flickers of what Kalabai would’ve looked like a few decades ago, I see it in all their faces. They don’t look distinctly similar, but the strength and toughness that comes with smiling through years of struggle is what makes all these women stand out.
Sundarbai starts work around 4 am when the trucks of fresh flowers arrive and ends her day around 9 pm, which is also when Dadar station’s crowd begins to reduce. At night the flower market is nothing like what it is when the day starts — no vendors ushering you to keep moving while dragging trolleys mounted with flowers bundled up in newspapers, no businessmen rushing in and out of the station looking completely out of place amidst the tokris full of gerberas. The street that seemed to be occupied by half of the city’s population during the day, only has a handful of vendors wrapping up for the day. However, Sundarbai is seated right where she was the last time I saw her — nestled between baskets full of roses, marigolds and some that are a mix of what seem to be the day’s leftovers.
While telling me about what her day entails, she gets up walks to a garbage truck parked nearby and begins to sort through the flowers the florists in the area have discarded. When I ask what she is doing, she says “We buy flowers in the morning, we sometimes rummage through garbage to salvage all that we can. We pick out individual petals from the trash and put them all together. They aren’t all waste, people buy them to use them at cemeteries or other functions.” Sundarbai also talks about her husband, who comes to help when the demand for flowers increases, that is usually around Ganpati and other festivals. But other than that, it’s just her.
As she irritably describes how disgruntled she is by the fact that both her sons, who live in Nasik, aren’t doing much with their lives, she is interrupted by a flower vendor looking to sell rose petals he has left post his not-so-profitable day. This is when I get a glimpse of the businesswoman that Sundarbai is. She is direct and has no time for banter, she states her price and refuses to budge, and once she gets what she wants, she generously throws in an extra five rupees. She also doesn’t hesitate to tell the vendor off when he approaches me for help. “They are children, they work hard. Leave them alone,” she states firmly.
After getting an idea of what Sundarbai’s day looks like, I ask her why she doesn’t move back to the village where living costs are considerably lower. “It is cheaper, but there is no scope to earn for a woman. I have gotten used to this life. We visit our village on and off, but this is home now,” she responds.
Amidst the orange of the marigold garlands suspended from makeshift stands, buds of pink lotuses and red bulbs of roses, the sheer beauty of the independence and hard work that Kalabai and her daughters exude puts all that surrounds them to shame.
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