Speaking in the language of the customer

Residing a kilometre away in Pooncheri, Valliamma said she managed to pick up words from foreign tourists.

Selling colourful beads in Mamallapuram is her livelihood but Valliamma is keen that she makes it lively for the tourists. Speaking in multiple languages – fluent English, Tamil and Hindi and a little bit of French, Italian and German – is her strength, and she has not let it down despite the dullness that the lockdown has brought on her trade.

“I could not study after class V. I started to sell beads from the age of 10. Foreigners stayed in hotels here, and I used to try and talk to them in English saying, ‘Sir, want some beads, marbles and red coral?’. If I did not know how to ask something, I used to ask them to teach me English. That is how I learned the language, little by little,” the 24-year-old woman said.

Residing a kilometre away in Pooncheri, Valliamma said she managed to pick up words from foreign tourists. “I can greet tourists in French and Italian. In French, I say ‘bonsoir’ or ‘ça va’. I mainly learned to say the cost of the beads in these languages so that it helped me communicate with them,” she said.

When she saw Indian tourists, she spoke according to the State from where they came. “I speak to tourists in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and also in English. Some of them get surprised to see me, a woman from the Narikuravar community, speaking in fluent English,” she quipped.

But not all is well for people like her, who rely on tourists, to make a livelihood. Valliamma said that business was badly hit during the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. “We used to travel to Agra and Delhi by train to purchase stones. Mahabalipuram gained more popularity after the visit of Prime Minister Modi. However, sales were hit due to COVID-19 and the lockdown. We had no business after the lockdown, and stayed at home for nine months,” the mother of a three-year-old boy, added.

Describing the difficulties that they faced, she said that a few persons from Chennai distributed groceries such as rice, oil and dal to a number of families including her, helping in their survival during the lockdown.

“Sales were good when we had an inflow of foreign tourists. It is picking up slowly in the last one month, and I earn ₹200 to ₹300 or nothing on some days. It will take at least two years for business to return to normalcy,” she said.

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