Old-world charm by the roadside

On a busy stretch of road adjoining Loyola College in Nungambakkam, several makeshift shops dot the pavement. One of them boasts a set of gramophones, several antique-looking telephones and wall clocks, arranged on a set of newspapers.

Customers mill around the glinting wares, with curious expressions on their faces. A plainly dressed, middle-aged man speaking broken Tamil quotes the prices of each. Few customers seem genuinely interested; most are just passers-by.

“Customers are less today,” rues 52-year-old Mohammad Ali, who has been selling his wares in Chennai for the past eight years.Mohammad, a native of Malappuram in Kerala, first got into this line of work selling gramophones when he was roped in by three other partners into a business.

“I’m a mere 12th standard pass. After working for a few years in the Gulf, I returned back home due to personal reasons. But I did not know any particular trade. It was then that three friends of mine, who owned a few shops dealing in these wares in Malappuram, decided to expand and I was ready to take up the job,” he says.

He was given the job of transporting the items to wherever it was deemed suitable to sell and then ply his trade there until he broke even. Currently, in Chennai, he stays on for an average of three months at a stretch before going back home to collect more wares, returning with at around 30-40 items.

“I have worked in this profession for the past 20 years, and have been to places such as Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, Udupi and Mangalore in Karnataka and Ernakulam and Trivandrum in Kerala,” says Mohammad.

As a customer approaches, he breaks off and moves forward to attend to him, shooting off the prices in one breath.

“Gramophone is for Rs 4000, landline telephone for Rs 2800 and wall clock for Rs.2000,” he says, before adding that he is willing to negotiate the prices. The customer mulls over this a little before moving off.

“Such items are only for people with lots of money to spare. Things such as gramophones, which are not in common use now, are only wanted by elderly people or the rich who want an old-world charm to their residence. So normal passers-by cannot afford it,” he says.

Despite that, he has already sold two pieces earlier in the day, a gramophone and a clock
He keeps shifting his shop between four places in Chennai– Besant Nagar, Kotturpuram, Anna Nagar, and Nungambakkam– always picking one location for a day.

On his clientele, Mohammad says that he chooses locations where “big people” live. He proudly recounts how several of his wares got sold off because one of his clients really liked it and recommended him to his friends.

“Lots of people started calling me after that. Recently a resort owner bought close to two lakhs worth of gramophones and clocks. Such clients have over time built up their trust in me land hence help me sell my wares through their contacts”, he adds.

Sunday is when his business peaks, he says, because according to him that is when the affluent drive around the city with money in their pockets to spend.Mohammad sends most of his commission back home to his wife and four children. The eldest, a daughter, recently got married and migrated to a gulf country. His eldest son is currently working as a lorry driver in Kerala, while his two youngest sons are in the 12th and 8th standards respectively.

“I earn a decent living, though transporting and packaging of goods does come up to a good amount. I send whatever I can back home,” he says, adding that he stays in a single room at a modest hotel in Periamet which he has been frequenting for several years.
“The rent is around Rs 250 a day. But I trust them because I have always stayed there whenever I come to Chennai,” he says with a smile.

As the customers start dwindling, Mohammad prepares to pack up.

“Tomorrow I’ll change my site to Besant Nagar. I had better luck there last time,” he concludes with a smile.

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