Thirty-three years back, we sold rice by the padi. Then, one padi itself was only Rs. 5/6; now, just a kilo of good rice sells at Rs.50!

In the one-hour that Krishnananthan talks to me, we travel from Southern Tamil Nadu, via West-Mambalam, all the way to the rice-growing regions of Andhra. “Back in my village — Kurangani, near Tuticorin — my father was a farmer,” he begins, and in broad strokes describes their slow, sweet life, on the banks of the Tamiraparani river. “Karupatti (palm jaggery) was the main produce there; tappers from Nagercoil climbed the trees, three to five times a day, and that sap was boiled, and poured into coconut shells to make karupatti. But all that is now gone. The next generation has moved on!”

But even in his generation — he’s now sixty — many moved. Krishnananthan came to Chennai in 1974, after his PUC in VOC College, and set up a grocery store with his brothers in West Mambalam. The area, then, was very quiet; unlike the present swell and sounds of traffic, all one could hear was frogs, croaking! In 1981, he started Shri Ganapathi rice mandy, and business, he says, is flourishing. His raw rice comes from Andhra, while the boiled rice comes from Red Hills and Kanchipuram. But he has no direct contact with the farmer; it is only the broker who brings him samples, and when he cooks the rice at home and is happy with its quality, he places the order. I ask him why he does not stock rice from Thanjavur, and he replies that it’s because it’s more expensive. “Ponni, sonam masoori, IR20, J13 – those are the popular varieties now.”

Over the years, the price of rice has increased, but the quality, he concedes, has not. “Thirty-three years back, we sold rice by the padi (one padi = 1.5 kg). Then, one padi itself was only Rs. 5/6; now, just a kilo of good rice sells at Rs.50!” Chemical fertilisers and pesticides tell on the taste of the rice, says Krishnananthan. “When we were young, we worked our paddy fields. I remember climbing trees, chopping leaves, kneading that and cow dung into the soil with our feet, and composting it.” And that rice, he says, was special.

Competition and falling rice consumption have made some dents in his business. Super-markets have introduced smaller, handier packets of rice; and, suddenly, more people are switching from white rice to chapathis. “So, families that once bought 20 or 25 kg a month, now only buy 10 or 15.” Rice too comes packed (from rice-mills) in smaller bags. “But we transfer it into huge sugar sacks, as customers can see it, feel it and, well, it makes for a good display,” he says, pointing to the tall, stout jute sacks, filled with pearly grains of rice.

The wedding season somewhat makes up for the dip in sales; on average, a wedding (with 1,500 guests) would require 300 kg of rice.

“The price varies with the season; in Thai maasam , it’s lower, as new rice comes in; after that the price goes up.” Customers usually ask for ‘old rice’ (milled from one-year-old grain), Krishnananthan explains. “Old rice cooks well — it does not turn mushy, and you get more from each measure.”

Krishnananthan visits his village a few times every year, and never misses the famous Muthu Maalai Amman Koil thiruvizha. “Almost everybody who has migrated comes back for it; people from neighbouring villages arrive in thousands of bullock carts; there are fireworks; it is very grand!”

Their own land, back in the village, is now given on lease; and while neither he nor his three sons — post-graduates, either working abroad or in India, in leading MNCs — will settle there, they all make it a point to visit the temple festival. Such is the pull of that little village, on the banks of the Tamiraparani river...

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