D. Selvam, Mobile Tailor

Selvam’s tailoring machine is parked under a mango tree. I sit on the parapet wall, beside a heap of blouses and pyjamas, and wait for him to get back. “I had gone to drink tea,” he smiles when he returns. “I am from Kovilpatti. I learnt tailoring from my elder brother. I came to Chennai 20 years ago, and since then, I’ve been a mobile tailor.”

Back in the 1990s, Selvam managed to earn only Rs. 50 a day. “Now, the money is better. But everything has become so expensive… I spend over Rs. 100 daily just on tea and meals!”

Selvam shares a room with a friend in Velachery. His family lives in his village. “My wife looks after our three children; my son is in Std 12, and the girls are in Std 8 and 6. I visit them every month, staying there for a week.”

When he’s in Kovilpatti, Selvam prefers to rest. “You know, tailoring is rewarding. I earn, on an average, Rs.300 a day. But it’s not easy. I push this machine at least 5 km daily. It’s very difficult negotiating traffic; crossing the Teynampet signal in the evenings is a nightmare. And after a whole day of stitching, when I go back home, podhum podhum-nnu aayidum.’’ Selvam’s wife works in the paddy fields for about three months a year, to supplement the family income. “She gets Rs.150 a day,” he says in chaste Tamil.

In the early years, Selvam mostly stitched torn/damaged clothes, and charged Rs.1 per piece. “Now, everybody wears ready-mades. They buy something they like and get it altered.” Salwar kameez, nighties, pants, shirts and blouses make their way to Selvam to be re-fitted.

Selvam and his family too prefer ready-mades. “I don’t cut and make garments; I’m happy doing alterations. My customers call me up when there is work; I go to their house/apartment, find a spot in the shade, and do the job,” he says, turning over a pair of shorts, and measuring it for a zipper. “I get all this from Parry’s Corner,” he points to the thread rolls, zippers and hooks, stored neatly in plastic boxes. “I try to keep a good stock of coloured threads. Why lose Rs.10 just because I don’t have the matching thread?,” he asks.

Selvam’s mobile cart was hand-made by a carpenter in Kovilpatti; the big round wheels are made of wood and neatly fitted over with rubber. “Every morning, I wipe and oil the machine. I can manage small repairs by myself, but I still keep two spare tailoring machines in my house, for emergencies.”

Over the years, Selvam has noticed two trends: ready-mades have become commonplace and people are chary to wear clothes that have been repaired once. “People discard clothes very fast,” he says. Asked if any of his children want to take up tailoring, he says he would rather they study. “That is the true ‘selvam’ (wealth),” Selvam tells me earnestly. “If they’re educated, they stand on their own feet.”

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)

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