My father wrapped butter in lotus leaves, and later, banana leaves; I prefer butter-paper, but I still use my father’s scales

For 65 years, butter and ghee from Kangeyam has been sold from the same spot in Mylapore. “My father, B.R. Krishnaswamy Iyengar, worked in a butter shop in George Town, and then decided to start one here, in Solliappan Street,” says 50-year-old B.K. Kesavan. “Before that, my father — born with a disability — had dabbled in agriculture, sold paddy, and worked as a checking inspector in a bus; he was very keen that his handicap should not constrain him.” So he rode a bicycle, went to the railway station to collect the parcels of butter that were sent from Kangeyam by the overnight train, opened the store at 5.30 a.m., clarified butter in one corner of the shop, and, in the process, spread the delectable fragrance of fresh ghee down the street.

Kesavan started working full-time in the butter shop from 2002; he also runs tourist-taxis, which he co-ordinates by phone. Butter, that’s just arrived from Kangeyam that morning, is stacked in 15 kg tins behind the door; ghee-white, flaky and fragrant — is stored in an airtight container under his desk. “The butter tastes best when it is fresh; so we usually stock only as much as we think will sell in two days. After a few days, without refrigeration, it sours,” he says candidly. Kesavan’s wife melts down the butter into ghee in their house, at least twice a week. Demand for both peaks during the festival season — beginning with Krishna Jayanthi, as he points out on the sheet calendar — and auspicious/ wedding days. But now, with the ease of communication and effective transportation facilities, Kesavan is able to place an order in the evening, and have the fresh butter in store the next morning.

The price of the butter — and therefore ghee (1 kg of butter yields 3/4 kg of ghee) — is determined by the demand-supply ratio; when there’s a glut, the price falls. Currently, it sells for Rs. 320 per kg. But price is no deterrent for their old customers. “They always come back to ‘Iyengar kadai’, as our shop is known.”

Over the years, things have changed a little bit — the fragrance, when butter is clarified, is perhaps not as rich as it once was (Kesavan puts it down to what the cows are fed); Mylapore is far more crowded, but there aren’t many customers late in the evening — so he shuts shop at 7.30 p.m. The rest of the day though, the regulars keep coming; in the hour I spend in the store, four have bought butter. They walk in, sit on the bench, and call out their order. Kesavan puts a wooden spoon in the tin, scoops out creamy pats of butter, and places it on butter-paper; he always switches off the ceiling fan before placing it on the scales.

“My father wrapped butter in lotus leaves, and later, banana leaves; I prefer butter-paper, but I still use my father’s scales,” he says, watching the needle on the old-fashioned iron scales. Packing the butter into a neat, square packet with newspaper and thread, he says the wall colour, the flooring, the furniture, everything is as it was, during his father’s time. “Even his stick is here,” he says, pointing to a stout wooden stick, right beside his chair. “You know, my father never sought any concessions because of his disability. He used to cycle to the shop, and if someone offered him assistance, he would ask them ‘today, you will help me. If I get used to it, I will lookout for someone everyday, isn’t it?’”

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