It’s only four in the evening, but Basheer has already decided to go home — he has no work that day. “The festive season just got over, hasn’t it? People will come to polish bangles and chains only after a few days,” he says, softly. Seated in front of a steel basin, with four boondhi kottais (soap berries) and four small brushes floating in the water, Basheer talks of the gold polishing business that he has been a part of for the last 30 years.
A Class 8 dropout, Basheer was initially a two-wheeler mechanic, before he trained for five years and became a skilled silver and gold polisher. After working out of several locations in Mylapore, Basheer now runs the ‘K. Noor Mohamed Gilt Shop’. “Earlier, I had my own shop. This one,” he says, pointing to the small, rectangular shop, with its blue shutters and green walls, “belongs to my cousin. He asked me to run it.” I strain to hear his voice, which gets drowned in the street noises of Mathala Narayanan Street; it’s only an old, narrow thoroughfare, but vehicle sounds and arguing neighbours make us raise our voices.
Our loud voices attract attention. One gentleman enquires why I’m asking Basheer “all these questions”; another offers to answer on his behalf and says, “He lives in Kunrathur.” Basheer explains that he moved to the ECR approximately 30 years ago. “Land was cheaper there, but now, it sells for crores!” Every morning, for the last three decades, Basheer has been taking two buses to reach Mylapore. “It’s faster to get here now, even though there’s heavy traffic after Tiruvanmiyur. In those days, there were hardly any buses, you see!” he smiles. The return journey is equally long, and he typically gets home for a late dinner around 10 p.m.
The day is spent in polishing silver and gold. Job orders range from small items — bangles and chains — to the temple kavacham or crown polishing. “Approximately 15 years ago, I polished silver items for the Kapaleeswara temple. Many of my customers are from Chennai, but some come from faraway places too.” Basheer, very modestly, says he’s an expert at polishing temple (dance) jewellery. “Dance jewellery is made in Nagercoil, and it’s difficult to clean and polish, as it has a lot of stones,” he says, showing me a pair of red-stone bangles that he has freshly gilded for a customer. It’s hard to tell it’s only ‘covering’.
To gold polish jewellery, Basheer first cleans it well. “I use soap berries bought from the naatu marundhu kadai; they foam naturally,” he says, pointing to the soapy water in the basin. Next, Basheer readies the ‘gold bath’, by dissolving a tiny amount of gold in acid, and boiling the resulting fine dust in water. This is then used to coat the article, by electrolysis. “After plating, the chain or bangle is dried on a bed of sawdust. It will then shine like gold.” (Silver plating is somewhat similar, except, it is buffed in the end).
Gold polishing costs around Rs. 250, a price that does not make it really profitable. “Gold prices have increased, but customers are not willing to pay more,” Basheer says. But he also rationalises their reluctance — gilt jewellery itself sometimes only costs Rs. 250, and the gold finish lasts for just a few months. And yet, Basheer seems happy with his lot; he talks of his three children — all graduates — and his visits to Nagore, with his family, once every two years. And when an old woman comes to his shop seeking alms, he springs up from his low stool, and fetches her a few coins…
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)