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Fifty shades of politics

As election campaigns draw to a dramatic close, we catch up on the excitement by meeting shopkeepers selling political merchandise in George Town

The cramped Bunder and Malayaperumal Streets in George Town are perhaps the only places in the city where the flags of every political party flutter together. Every leader, irrespective of his party, rubs shoulders with another on the many posters that hang outside the shops selling election merchandise.

At Balaji Offset Calendars, boxes of badges labelled ‘DMK big’ and ‘AIADMK big’ are arranged on a shelf that is stuffed with mufflers in party colours. Inside, cloth flags in combinations of red, black, and white, are pinned against a wall. Colourful metal pins in the shape of party emblems stud a polystyrene board on display; cardboard hand-fans with faces of party leaders hang from the ceiling…

OP Sai Baskar, who works at the store, is taking a breather after a long day. “We will do brisk business till the last date of the campaigns; we usually wrap up sales of the merchandise then and restart once election results are out,” he says. “The speciality this year, is the paper thoranams (streamers). Until last year, we got these in plastic, but this time, manufacturers have been mindful of too much plastic.”

Seated behind the counter surrounded by the merchandise, Baskar probably stares more at the faces of political figures than he does everyday people. His job is not as easy as it looks. “I deal with a lot of party fanatics,” he says. “I have to be careful with what I say to them.”

Does he get stressed? “Not really,” says Baskar. “I find my job interesting, actually. I get to speak to people with a varying political outlook.”

Fifty shades of politics

He says that there have been times when arguments have been sparked off inside the shop as a result of the salesperson commenting on something sensitive. “But I handle these situations carefully. I keep smiling, and agree with everything customers say about the party they side with.” He chuckles adding that people would think that he too is a supporter. “But I will say the same to customers from the opposite party,” he laughs. Anything for some peace at the work place.

While most of the merchandise is sourced from Sivakasi, Tirupur and Jaipur, Baskar says that the shop has customers even in Kerala. “We send them consignments by road,” he says. “We also have regular customers walking in from Tiruchi and Arakkonam.” Balaji also sells birthday party paraphernalia like hats and streamers, paper bags and tinsel. “Come Independence or Republic Day, the whole place will be full of tricolour-themed paraphernalia,” adds Baskar.

MS Maniam & Co, which has been in the business since the 1930s, is packed with customers. SM Moorthy, who runs the shop is tight-lipped about how business has been so far. At M Meera Mohideen Sons next door, M Sadiq is dealing with two haggling customers who have come to buy flags. Meanwhile, back at Balaji Offset Calendars, the post-afternoon lull gives way to some bustle. Baskar hops to his feet, sporting that smile he reserves for his political customers. We know he doesn’t mean it, but it’s as good as real.

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