The smell of turmeric draws me to the row of shops outside the Chenna Kesava Perumal temple. At V.M.Velu Chettiar Turmeric And Colour Kumkum Merchants, the owner, Uma Mageswaran, sits on a high stool, surrounded by mounds of kumkum and turmeric. Customers stand at the counter; ‘Namakatti vaangitiya?’, one woman asks another; a man tells Mageswaran, ‘Anna, bill podunga.’

And so, totting up purchases, Mageswaran talks about the turmeric-trade and his 60-year-old shop. “My father started this shop. I’ve been running it for 30 years now. We sell turmeric and kumkum, besides thali saradu, vibuthi, incense and puja articles,” says Mageswaran, sitting under a sepia portrait of his father.

“Turmeric prices are determined by the all India market rates. Gundu manjal is more expensive,” he says, pointing to the fat variety. Others are sorted by size and shape, and heaped in square wooden trays.

“Now, 1 kg of turmeric costs Rs. 160; earlier, it was about Rs. 30. All this comes from Andhra Pradesh; it gives a rich yellow colour, when applied on the face, whereas the Erode variety is excellent for cooking.”

Turmeric and kumkum sales are especially brisk during Deepavali and Pongal. “The wedding season also sees customers buy small boxes as giveaways. Now, we even have a set with a plastic betel leaf added. He asks his assistant to fetch the small green leaf, studded with kumkum and turmeric boxes. A woman to my left, asks for one, and examines it.

Mageswaran has always lived in George Town. While business is usually brisk, Koyambedu, he says, has drawn away some customers. “The stock has changed too. Earlier, there was only sambrani katti; now, we sell ‘computer sambrani’; lighting it is not very fussy, since it doesn’t need coal fire to burn.”

As we speak, more customers mill around; some converse with Mageswaran in Telugu, others in Tamil. Issuing instructions to his staff, Mageswaran tells me their kumkum is made in-house. “There are two rates, depending on the ingredients. At Rs.120 a kg, the more expensive one is just ground turmeric, coloured with a high-quality dye. It doesn’t irritate the skin. Red and maroon are popular colours, and we have people who’ve come to us for generations. For weddings, it is usually the family elders who make the kumkum purchases. Sentimental reasons…,” he smiles.

Sentiment, I discover, is aplenty here. “We never turn away anybody who wants to buy turmeric or kumkum. Even if they ask for Rs.2 worth, we give them a small packet.” He folds a spoonful of kumkum into a piece of paper, puts a piece of turmeric over it, and hands it to a woman. She bows her head reverently, takes the packet from him and presses it to her eyes.

As she and I leave, a small boy, waiting for his mother to finish shopping, suddenly decides he wants to take home a turmeric (marriage) thread. The embarrassed mum pleads with him to leave it behind; but he refuses, until Mageswaran gives him a toffee. And with the sweet in his hand, the boy returns the thread, and skips away after his mother.

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

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