They come to the cities with poignant backstories that drives them to thrive here. South India wouldn’t be South Indian if it’s not for these people who run the handcart or pushcart industry. Cities or villages, streets or busy roads; handcarts appear unannounced at every corner in South India.
In most South Indian towns and cities handcart or pushcart vendors are native to South India. There are some who are from states as far out as the northern and north eastern states. Other vendors immigrate to bigger cities from villages and smaller towns in South India.
Pushcarts are popular for street foods like noodles, sweets and samosas. Most vendors sell fruits and vegetables whilst other sell flowers, watches, clothes and toys.
A tiny part of their sales support their huge families back home. The remaining earnings repay debts and support their life in big cities.
To the pushcart vendor, roads of all shapes and terrain, mean business. Beginners work the hardest, as they push planks of wood on four or sometimes two wheels, around South Indian neighborhoods. The vendors start small, only in terms of a variety in their products. But the vendor’s passionate voice to sell, serenades through countless neighborhoods everyday in south India.
Most pushcart vendors break even in the first year and repay their loans.
Progress in the pushcart business is gradual but the benefits make it worth their wait. The dehydrated and sunburned vendors invest in canopies who use this make shift roof to protect their perishable goods from rain and shine.
These canopies aren’t any industrial grade and are a piece of plastic or fabric hooked on to four iron rods jutting out of four corners of the pushcart. The canopy is delicate in every way; it tears easily during South India’s monsoon which often brings a deluge of rain and unsparing winds.
Sometimes, rains change the terrain of South Indian cities, almost permanently. Craters form instantly on tar roads that fill up with mud and water. Pushcarts are lucky to have a wheel or two stuck in these potholes or on slushy roads. The unlucky carts succumb entirely to a minefield of ditches.
After the rains fall and white clouds bleach the southern sky; thriving pushcarts end up lifeless in waterlogged entrapment. Clear skies make way for sights of vendors picking up after urban debris. Anything found in proper shape in the garbage is a quick fix for their broken carts.
Losing their livelihood to the deluge or other circumstances don’t affect pushcart vendors. After rainy fallows pushcart vendors sell consumables or assist other successful pushcarts to dip into their opulence – temporarily.
Successful vendors plant themselves to a single spot. They never move from busy roads even if the civic authorities send them away. Oftentimes, officers ignore their presence as long as the wheels on their carts are visible. This way some pushcarts live out the ‘ignorance is bliss’ cliche.
Popular carts lend their name to their locations. For example, if the Ramu’s Dosa Bandi [colloquial for pushcarts] remains at the same spot for over a decade, ‘Ramu’s Point’ or a ‘Ramu Junction’ will replace the old name of the cart’s location.
Some pushcarts acquire fame early – especially if they sell food.
It is common in South India for pushcarts vending food, to outsell fine dining restaurants. The vendor’s eponymous locations become a popular hangout for young South Indians. Once popular among the city’s poor, for their affordable meals, the pushcarts now cater to everybody. Even the affluent middle class crowds dig in.
After the South Indian bourgeois has its fill of food and street fun they drive home on four wheels too.
The four wheels of most pushcart vendors don’t have a home to go to. They often live on footpaths or sleep on the roads under their parked carts; fading into the background of mundane urban life. But at a second, more closer look; their tired faces show a restlessness to survive. And, the ones that do survive, tell ordinary stories of adjustment to their extraordinary lives on the road.