Ilango loads his rickety air rifle with pellets, takes aim and fires – and a red balloon on the third row pops. “I was aiming for the blue one on the first row,” he says with a grin, as the breeze pushes the young man’s hair into his eyes. Among the many dozens of people who run a balloon shooting stall on the sands of the Marina Beach, 20-year-old Ilango has been running the business for the past three years. In the past week though, business has been a little better than usual - and it’s all thanks to Olympic bronze-medal winner Gagan Narang. “My father started this many years ago, and when he thought I was old enough, he trusted me to manage this while he drops in from time to time,” he says.
As he sets up shop preparing for the Sunday evening rush, he checks that his three air rifles are well-oiled and functional, even if they are a little worse for the wear.
There are many enthusiastic people who try their hand at this, even if they are not very good, adds Chandru, who has been in the business for almost 10 years. When asked if he knew that Gagan Narang had won a medal for India in shooting at the Olympics, he says, “Yes I heard of that and I am very proud to be in the same line of work. I hope we win more medals and this will become more popular. It will mean better business for us.” Chandru was also enthralled when told that Narang had his first taste of shooting at Marina Beach. “He can be our brand ambassador,” he says with a laugh, adding that sometimes he has seen children who aim and shoot better than the adults who accompany them. On a typical weekend starting Friday evening, Ilango’s stall alone gets around 50 customers per day.
At `20 per person, he earns more than `1000. “This balances out the rest of the week, since we barely have anyone coming here,” he says. In tune with the inflation, even shooting prices have inched up, “We used to charge much lesser, `10 for 10 pellets. With the rise in prices, we have had to increase our rates. But it doesn’t seem to have affected the number of people.” Now that the monsoons are coming, he says that the numbers will decrease, and they literally have to save up for a rainy day. As the Government plans various schemes to beautify and streamline the businesses on the beach, people like Ilango and Chandra are slightly apprehensive. Ilango says, “We are part of the beach landscape. I am sure they will not remove us. I will not mind moving the stall as long as I get to be by the beach every day. It is like a second home.” If not anything else, it still could be the place where several future Olympians could take their first shot!