It’s the first and, perhaps only, time I hope for a power-cut; because, when M.A.Akbar’s marundhu (medicine) mill runs, I doubt I can hear anything he says. So, I fix to meet him during the load-shedding (12-2 p.m.). Outside his shop at Bazaar Road, Mylapore, sacks of rose-petals, vilvam and orange peel dry in the sun. Inside, sitting on a bench covered with newspaper, I listen in…
“My father started this mill in 1970. I’ve been running it since 1987, and business has never been better,” Akbar begins. Home-remedies are catching on; shampoos are abandoned for shikakai; and the buzz around herbal cures certainly helps, he says. “People learn cough/ cosmetic recipes by watching them on TV. They then head to Dabba Chetty Kadai with the list, and come straight here to grind the ingredients,” he smiles.
As – probably -- the only speciality mill in town, Akbar’s shop receives a fair number of customers daily. “I’m here from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Even if I stay later, people will turn up to grind something. But I have to go to Velachery where I live. So I leave early,” he says.
What about helpers, I ask. “Nobody lasts long! They complain that they’re allergic to the smell and quit.” And yet, the same heady, herbal smell agrees very well with Akbar, who reasons he never falls ill as he’s constantly inhaling turmeric and herbal dust. “I don’t even get a headache,” he says. I touch wood on his behalf.
Customers are often finicky, says Akbar, adding that he has five different machines to cater for them. “This is for grinding vaasanai podi for women, and that one grinds face and body scrubs for men,” he says. When I look puzzled, he explains that the arrangement is to avoid turmeric staining then men’s skin.
The second mill, I learn, is for medicinal powders. “During Diwali, it’s very busy; people stream in with packets of herbs to be ground. The next one is for shikakai. But in general, it is the mooligai (herb) mill that runs well. Recently, somebody ground up 6 kg of Triphala (a laxative),” he says.
Akbar is knowledgeable about herbs. “Arugampil is good for people with high BP; Vallarai aids memory; Thoodhuvallai cures cold,” he rattles off. Yet, his wife and son prefer Allopathy.
The rates to grind herbs have increased over the years, from Rs.10 in his father’s time, to about Rs.60 a kilo now. “The mill can grind both coarsely and finely. If I loosen the wheel, it will roughly break the ingredients, so you can boil it into a kashayam. If not, it comes out as a powder, through this cloth tube.”
A gust from the street blows fine, herbal dust on my notebook, as Akbar tells me about grinding 5 kg of dried mint the previous day. “The fragrance travelled all the way to the end of the street!” he smiles. Our conversation is interrupted by a customer from Perungudi. “Aiyo,” the man exclaims, when he learns there is no electricity. “This has to be ground and sent to the U.S. at once! It’s for a parihaaram; an astrologer said this powder must be applied on the wick and lit,” he explains. “I will grind it as soon as the power is restored,” Akbar says, getting back to business mode…