There was a time when you had to work hard to earn one rupee, says Anser Basha, sitting in his mattress shop on TTK Road. “When my father, Sheikh Bava Sahib, had just started this business, in 1956, a client called him from Tiruvanmiyur and asked if he could make ten pillows. My father agreed; and started walking at 5 a.m. from here (behind Music Academy) to Tiruvanmiyur, to collect the materials and once again to return the pillows. For all his trouble, he earned 10 paise per pillow as labour charges!”

Basha’s reminiscences take us back to the 1950’s, when TTK Road was called Mowbray’s Road, and only two buses (No.4 and No.5) went past, besides horse-drawn and bullock-carts. “My father, a farmer, had come to Chennai to work with his brother, a mattress maker. His daily wage was 10 annas. When I was born — a son after two daughters — it wasn’t possible to manage with that amount. He decided to start his own business, and my mother sold her jewellery to raise capital. Back then, the rent here was Rs.5!”

Language was one of the challenges his father faced. With little knowledge of Tamil, he was conversant only in Telugu, he taught himself the alphabet from Tamil newspapers, in a nearby hair-saloon. “Soon, business picked up. He got many clients, among them big hotels in the area, and film stars.I’m sure there are still pillows and mattresses out there with the label ‘Sheikh Bava Sahib’,” says Basha.

Basha began working in the shop in 1976, when he turned 20. And even today, he says, silk-cotton mattresses and pillows are in demand, as natural products are very ‘in’. “There are alternatives, such as polyester filling, coir and rubber, but we don’t use it. Silk-cotton is good for the body; it is comfortable and cooling. There’s even a saying in Tamil — ‘Ilavanpanjil thuyil’,” he laughs. When the British were in India, they recognised the goodness of silk-cotton, and patronised a shop in Spencer’s, which handmade mattresses.

Tamil-Nadu produces a lot of silk-cotton (it’s found inside pods, on trees). Machines have simplified mattress making, and made the process faster. Earlier, it took, on average, one week to make a mattress, but now, they can manage ten in a week! “But stuffing the silk-cotton, by hand, is still a time-consuming and skilled job. The pay, however, is better now — you can earn Rs.500 a day. And after learning the trade for about two years, you can set up your own shop. Yet, parents are reluctant to encourage their children to take up this kind of job. Can everybody become a doctor?” asks Basha.

This industry is a bit like agriculture, there will always be people who want the end product. (The silk-cotton filling has a life of five or ten years — after which it crumbles, becomes powdery and needs to be replaced). However, prices, Basha says, have risen sharply; what sold for Rs.5 for 5kgs (in the mid 60’s) now costs Rs.360 a kg. “But it is still a viable business. My sons too work with me now, so that’s already the third generation. And many of our customers too have been with us for decades. Some of them come here for wedding mattresses, or at least buy pillows from us. That person from Tiruvanmiyur who gave my father one of his first job orders, well, his grand-children are now my customers!”

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