Name: SivaprasadOccupation: Trader in plants and herbs with medicinal properties

Monday is a busy day for Sivaprasad with customers of all ages queuing up to buy various roots, herbs and powders that are stored in dusty plastic containers in his antiquated shop at Kaithamukku. One of the containers labelled kanava nakku (tongue of squid) catches my attention. “Yes, that is indeed obtained from squids. We get it from Tuticorin… very good for lovebirds,” he says with a smile.

Then there is sandalwood powder, turmeric, red sandal wood, multani mitti… Outside the shop, plants with medicinal properties are kept for sale. Aloe vera and dried ridge gourd are strung in front of the outlet while all kinds of intriguing-looking roots and twigs jostle for space in the crowded shop. A chest of drawers, gleaming with the patina of age, has interesting stuff in each small cavity.

Once upon a time, the city boasted several commercial establishments that were built in the ethnic style with tiled roofs and planks of wood (nila palaka) that were used to close the outlets. But successive road widening efforts and the attempt to be in with the times have all but completely destroyed such little gems from a bygone era. Most have been replaced by glass and metal outlets that all look so monotonously the same.

Packets of burnt and powdered rice husk (‘ummikari’) are neatly packaged in sachets. He insists that there are still many buyers for this powder that was once widely used for cleaning teeth.

“Some of our items come from Nepal, Afghanistan and Iran,” he says, showing a dried root with a reddish tinge and waxy look. “This is ‘manchatti’ and it comes from Iran. This is the most expensive item here. It costs about Rs.5, 000 for a kg. It’s used to make various oils such a Pinda Thailam. Kismis comes from Afghanistan while Adiveayam, another root used in making Rasnadhi Kashayam, is from Nepal,” he explains. Experience helps him identify the roots and herbs correctly.

Started by his grandfather Bhagavathan Pillai, this shop, Sreebhagavati Traders, sells all kinds of raw materials required for various oils, potions, brews and ointments that are prescribed by practitioners of Ayurveda and folk medicine. It has been operating in this rented space for the last 70 years.

Since his father and uncle were not inclined towards this business, it fell upon Sivaprasad to continue. A graduate in commerce from Mar Ivanios college, Sivaprasad says he prospered on account of this shop.

“The only problem is of space. Most of the products we stock are seasonal. So we have to stock enough of it to last the year. For instance, Peechanga (dried ridge gourd that is used as scrubber) comes from Tamil Nadu. It in fruit for only two months in the year. So we have to stock enough number of pieces,” he says.

Beaming, he says that many more people would benefit by growing plants and herbs with medicinal properties as there are many that are difficult to find.

“For instance, leaves of murukku are hard to come by as the trees seem to have become inflicted with some kind of disease. As a result, we are forced to fall back on its branches to make murivenna. If only the government takes some steps, Kerala could easily become a large supplier of such plants and herbs with medicinal properties.”

Payar podi, manjal podi, naruneendi, kurunthotti, eenja and so on are in great demand. “In fact, business is better than what it was 10 years ago,” he admits.

He tells you, sotto voce, that he now employs four assistants, two from Bihar and two from North India, to help him in the shop. His shop is open from 10.30 a.m. to 10.30 p.m. Contact: 9846035582

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