Akila Kannadasan meets G. Thavalingam to find out how her favourite childhood treat, the pink and white airplane and watch-shaped candies, are made
Sitting on a wooden plank, G. Thavalingam heaps two kilograms of sugar into a stainless steel kadai. He squeezes a lemon into it and adds a chombu of water. He then places the vessel on a gas-stove and stirs. He will do so for another hour.
This has been Thavalingam’s morning ritual for the past 19 years in his one-roomed home. He then pours the molten mass of sugar into an aluminium plate smeared with a thin layer of oil. Two hours from now, the sugar will turn into a mass of pearl-white sweet, tinged with pink — the chewy jow mittai.
Thavalingam will lock up his door and walk to the bus-stand, his precious mittai tucked around a bamboo stick with a plastic doll perched on top. He can deftly fashion the gooey candy into elephants, scorpions, snakes, peacocks, airplanes, watches and necklaces. “The airplane in the most expensive,” he says. “It costs Rs. 10. At Rs. 3, the watch is the cheapest.” He will travel to Athupalam or Ramanathapuram to sell the mittai and return home long after sundown. Thavalingam is perhaps one of the last few jow mittai makers in the city. He learned the art of mittai making from his brother.
The remaining few
“There are just three people who make and sell jow mittai in the city. There are two each in Sulur and Pollachi,” he says. Only the handful remain as they earn very little, says Thavalingam. “We have to keep walking the entire day — I walk for at least eight hours a day. Why would the present generation want to do that?” he asks.
Thavalingam makes around Rs. 500 on weekends and during weekdays, it’s even lesser. But he is not giving up the business because he likes the job, he explains with a smile. “I tried working in a workshop. But it didn’t suit me. I like to keep walking. I can drink tea and eat bun whenever I feel like it, rest under a tree when my feet are tired…And I get to meet different kinds of people.” When he started off, business was good. “But now, kids buy expensive candies from shops. My mittai is not bad for health, you know. I don’t add any chemicals.”
He shows photographs of his two children — they are stuck to his daily-sheet calendar. “My son wants to work in a workshop after he finishes school. Which is good, I cannot afford his studies. But my daughter studies well…” he trails off.
A ‘sweet’ profession
Perumal, Thavalingam’s brother-in-law comes to check on him just then. He too makes mittai for a living. “I enjoy my work,” he says. “People might look at us and think ‘Oh the poor man has to walk in the sun and rain all his life.’ But we don’t want to be looked down upon. It’s a job we are used to and we like it. We get to meet hundreds of children daily and joke around with them. Which other job gives you this joy?”
The mittai has cooled now — it looks like honey. Thavalingam adds a pinch of pink food colour into a coconut shell and mixes it with some of the melted sugar. “This is to make the mittai attractive. You can also add yellow, but I prefer pink.”
Thavalingam lifts the remaining elastic mass and twirls it around. He pulls it left and right, then loops it around an iron rod in the wall (which he wipes clean) and pulls and twists it till it turns into a delicious off-white colour. He sets it on a plastic cover and spreads the pink-coloured mass on it. “It’s done.”
Without another word, Thavalingam picks up the used utensils and sits down to wash them. The man makes sure he leaves his house spic and span before he leaves for the day. “If there are leftovers, I eat them myself,” he says. “I like my mittai.”