E. Nataraj, kolamaavu seller

Long before I see Nataraj cycling down the street, I hear the loud cries of ‘kolamaavu’. Scanning the street quickly for customers, Nataraj parks his cycle and settles for a chat. “I’ve been in this business for a few years now. Earlier, I was a mosaic polisher. When work dried up, I switched to selling kolamaavu and rock salt.”

Born and brought up in Chennai, the 35-year-old dropped out of school in the sixth standard. “I wanted to be an engineer, but padippu yerala,” he says, with a touch of remorse. Had the mosaic work flourished, he might have become a mason. But losing the job that fetched him Rs.2,000 a week, Nataraj joined his wife’s family’s kolamaavu business. “It’s hard work,” he says. “I cycle all day with my heavy sack, and I take home about Rs.1,000 a week. I want my four-year-old daughter to study till tenth standard at least.”

Nataraj buys kolamaavu from Salem and rock salt from Tuticorin when the lorries come in, and then stores his sacks in a godown in Mylapore. “I leave my house in Kotturpuram at 6 a.m. At the godown, I strap the load — 50 kg of kolamaavu or 90 kg of rock salt — on the pillion and start my rounds,” he says. An iron measuring cup stands in the middle of the grainy, white kolamaavu.

Nataraj hawks his wares in and around Alwarpet and North Madras, and gets home around 2 or 3 p.m. when his sack is empty. “During Margazhi, when everyone makes huge kolams outside their homes, kolamaavu is in great demand. And Aadi is rock salt season, when devotees make koozhu in the temples.” Rain is bad for business, and that’s when Nataraj does coolie work.

Fifteen years ago, kolamaavu was about Rs.5 for one padi; now it’s Rs.20; while rock salt costs Rs.12 a measure. “People still haggle,” Nataraj laughs, “and try to beat me down by a rupee or two.” During festivals, trade is brisk. But otherwise, people now use chalk to draw or paste kolam stickers. “That has affected sales,” he says.

Evenings are spent at home, watching television with his daughter. “I take her to the beach sometimes; she likes the bajji and sundal there.” As Nataraj readies to leave, his phone rings; he plugs in the headset with a hand coated white with kolamaavu, right up to his elbows. “I’ll be there in half-an-hour,” he says to someone and, adjusting cap and lungi, pedals off. I hear the cries of ‘kolamaavu’ until he turns into the main road.

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

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