When Jaya mami was a little girl, Deepavali meant a new seeti pavadai, glass bangles and marudhani on her hands. “We had one jhimiki between the girls in the family; one of us wore it for Pongal, the other for Deepavali,” she smiles. The 68-year-old recalls simpler times, when rava laddu and gothumai halwa were the only sweets made at home. “Rava was ground in a yendhiram (hand-mill), so the grains were coarse, and the laddu tasted lovely.” Today, Jayalakshmi makes thenguzhal, oomapodi, ribbon pakoda, mixture, laddu, halwa, payathaladdu andDiwali marundhu. Not all of it is for her family, who sit around us in her Madipakkam house; she makes them for her clients, who relish her sweets and savouries.

Jayalakshmi took to cooking professionally when she moved to Chennai. “My husband and I came here, about 30 years ago, when my daughter got a job in the city. Until then, we lived in Melattur, a village near Thanjavur. In Chennai, a priest told me that people were looking for cooks for ceremonies. Since then, I’ve earned my living as a freelance cook.” Over the years, the pay has gotten much better, says Jayalakshmi, as has the respect accorded to the profession. “In Melattur, I used to get Rs. 5 a day; here, it was Rs. 100. Today, the pay is quite good; my life has improved, and for that, I owe a lot to my daughter.”

The days she has cooking assignments, Jayalakshmi reports for work before sunrise; she chops vegetables, cooks, serves food, clears up the vessels and cleans the kitchen; she’s back home around 2 p.m. “I can cook single-handedly for about 30 people and I like to leave the kitchen spic and span. And when you work that efficiently, you’re almost always called again.”

When called to cater for a bigger gathering, Jayalakshmi takes along a helper, and splits the money. “Every household has its own specification, especially for ceremonies. You need to be very patient and learn to adjust. It’s a bit like being a nurse,” says the soft-spoken mami with a smile. And as we speak, she roasts besan and sugar in a pan, and ladles in hot ghee. “My mother died when I was very young’, she tells me, stirring the mixture. “Her elder sister brought me up; she taught me cooking. Later, I picked up tips from my mother-in-law. Those days, we used the kumutti (coal stove), and the ammi-kaloral (stone hand-grinders). Vessels were heavier, either pithalai or vengalam. Today, only the traditional families use them.”

The Mysore-pak bubbles away from the sides; Jayalakshmi hefts the vessel with a cloth, and empties it on a greased tray. “This was my mother’s speciality. The houses I frequent often ask me to make it. The children say, ‘paati is here, she will make sweets’. I’m happy to oblige,” says Jayalakshmi, carving out the golden sweet into rough squares. “These days, there’s plenty of everything. New clothes for no reason at all, lots of sweets and savouries; everyday seems like a Deepavali,” she says, handing me a piece. The sweetness lingers in my mouth as I take leave.

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