Occupation – Kumkumam seller. A few women still buy it to adorn their forehead while many others buy different-coloured kumkumam to decorate kolams, especially during festivals such as Pongal

Baby Krishnankutty admits that her life is not half as colourful as the jars of multi-coloured kumkumam and deep red vermillion that she sells in a push cart on the way to the Attukal temple. “But it earns me enough to keep body and soul together,” says the 48-year-old with a beaming smile that has not been wiped off her face by the vicissitudes of life.

Who buys coloured kumkumam in the age of the stick-on bindis that Baby has also stocked in different colours, shapes and sizes? “Actually, a lot of people!” she insists. She adds: “A few women still buy it to adorn their forehead while many others buy different-coloured kumkumam to decorate kolams, especially during festivals such as Pongal. Foreigners buy this as an exotic memento from India as they would not have seen anything like this in their countries. Moreover, I have added earrings, slides, stick-on bindis and other ‘fancy articles’ to my stock,” explains Baby. To buy the latest in such articles, she borrows money on a daily basis and about Rs.100 has to be repaid ad the end of the day.

During the peak of the tourist season, certain resorts in Kovalam take these hawkers to the beaches near the resorts to add a dash of exotica. “I go along with a palmist, an astrologer, a bangle seller and so on. It is good money for us. Even if we don’t sell anything, each of us is paid Rs. 500,” she says.

She has been selling kumkumam and vermillion for the last 15 years. “I began by selling sindooram for the Goddess. I learnt to make kumkumam from migrant Tamil vendors who used to sell multi-coloured kumkumam here. They used to bring it from Madurai. It is a mixture of colours, flour and gum. Over the years, I perfected the art of making kumkumam,” she explains.

A resident of M.S.K. Nagar, Baby stays on a three-and-a-half cent plot with her sister, nephews and their children. “All three of my daughters are married and I have seven grandchildren,” says Baby.

It was after her husband, Krishnankutty, a daily wages worker, passed away, that Baby worked as a domestic help in Dubai and Malaysia to make ends meet. When she fractured her arm in a fall she decided to quit her job but she lost all the money she had earned in Malayasia as the labour agent duped her.

“I did pay my debts and marry off my daughters but I certainly prefer this to my work abroad,” admits Baby.