Anasuya Menon gets a glimpse into the lives of nomadic toy sellers who vend their wares at temple festivals across the State

A horseman lunges forward at the turn of a key, gallops steadily until he hits the edge of the cart and stops. Twenty others wait behind him in obedient rows. A festooned duck beats a drum. Other ducks follow and a minor ‘plasticky’ commotion ensues.

Between Vrishchikam (Nov-Dec) and Medam (Apr-May), the temple grounds in Kerala are transformed into little clockwork universes. Dolphins that somersault on their bellies, African elephants that charge at you, butterflies with animated wings, bees and octopuses that glow and crawl, dolls in prams, automobiles of various kinds, American superheroes in gel… there is little left for imagination here. Toy sellers from various parts of the State and outside converge during festivals with a profusion of these charming playthings.

Even in the age of Angry Birds and Lego, Barbie and Dora and other upmarket brands, such inexpensive toys with a touch of the old-world have takers. The most expensive toy here is not more than Rs. 400. “It is not about the brands. Children will be children. They would always love toys. You bring them to a festival, you think they can resist these?” says Gokhale, picking up a soft yellow chick that clucks and twirls on its orange feet at the turn of the key. “These are just Rs. 30 a piece. But the kids just love it,” he says. Gokhale’s stall at the recently-concluded Ernakulam Siva Temple festival had a variety of small toys. He has been festival-hopping for over ten years now and says he has never felt the need for a more “permanent” set-up.

The toy sellers travel from festival to festival, from temple to church, across the length and breadth of Kerala to make a living. Those who have the wherewithal to store, stock up their wares during off season. Others just find seasonal odd jobs. Almost 90 per cent of the toys are made in China. Even the distinctly Malayali chendas in plastic are from China. The only toys, some shopkeepers say, that are made locally are the metallic boats and guns. Kids and sometimes adults still come asking for them. But it is the Chinese toys that are in demand.

“Gone are the days when we sold traditional toys made here. These are more profitable, for the seller as well as for the buyer,” says Sinu, whose stall consisted of a small cloth spread out on the floor at the Ernakulam temple grounds. He is from Thodupuzha, but would be spending some time in Ernakulam, making the most of the season. “Aluva Sivarathri is coming up. So it is destination Aluva,” he says. The most popular among his toys is the magic ball, which is sold for Rs. 20. The colourful, squishy balls glow at night and afford endless entertainment to children, Sinu says.

A clamour of children has gathered around Sasi. A piece of paper stuck on the temple compound wall comprised his business spot. Several Spidermen in fluorescent colours lollop on the wall, as curious eyes watch in rapt attention. “I buy these from Mumbai. They are plastic with gel inside and they stick to the wall,” Sasi offers. He, like the others, does business only during festivals. “The income is not much. But it is enough to get by,” he says. Sasi would go to the festival in Payyavoor temple in Kannur next. “We have never had any problems with temple authorities. Their’s is the only permission we need to set the stall,” he says.

Raja has come to Ernakulam straight from the Arthunkal church festival. “Business was good. It is always good because children love our products,” he says. Originally from Madurai, Raja has been travelling up and down Kerala for the last 20 years now. “I buy my toys from Madurai and stock them at home. For this season, I have bought toys worth Rs. 10, 000,” he says. The season holds a lot of promise for him. From Ernakulam, it is Attukal Pongala in Thiruvananthapuram.

These nomadic shop-keepers form an integral part of the festivities, says Raghu N. Krishnan, a regular festival enthusiast. He remembers how he looked forward to the festivals as a child, just to buy some of the toys and balloons. “Well, the balloons now are not like what they used to be. And the toys have changed. But these stalls always bring back warm memories,” he says.

By midnight, business has drawn to a close. The toy sellers, gypsies with their bangles and beads, cotton candy sellers, sugar cane juice sellers, women hawking vermillion powder, mud pots and kitchen equipment cover their wares with tight plastic sheets; only to appear the next morning, hoping for better prospects.