Balding 76-year-old Uyaram, sitting atop a wooden stool covered with maida flour has been making vermicelli for the past 40 years or so. As he feeds dough made of maida and water into the machine, it shreds it into fine strands that resemble lush white tufts of hair.
During other months, his efforts materialise into upma which children complain about and then eat. But during the month of Ramzan, the rumani seviyan or fine vermicelli that he makes is extremely sought after.
For him and the five others who work at the vermicelli-manufacturing unit in Tiruvottiyur, this is just another job, and a festival means brisk business.
A desolate house by night, the unit wakes up to a flurry of activity in the morning, when Jayalakshmi P. and her husband Prabhakaran, who run the unit, capitalise on what they call ‘the best month of business’ because their vermicelli turns into sheer khurma, the popular Eid speciality. The roughly 1,500 square feet of space is lined with wooden planks on which the vermicelli is laid out to dry, and the members hardly ever walk on the floor. They take carefully choreographed steps on the cardboard pieces strategically placed across the open area and the tiny room.
“During the month of Ramzan we prepare around three to four tonnes of rumani vermicelli. At other times, there is demand for just close to 100 kg,” says Prabhakaran. The coarser and thicker variety of vermicelli which they produce, however, has takers all year round.
Each of the six people in the unit has a designated role. Other than the use of two machines, the process is completely by hand.
The first machine which looks like a resilient war veteran mixes the dough, and the second which has a brass plate shreds the dough into fine strands. Once it comes out of the machine, it is spliced into bundles the length of an arm, segregated into thinner bundles and rolled like a croissant.
The small bun-like bundles are left out to dry on wooden planks for two to three days before being packaged. Jayalakshmi says they make anywhere between 100 kg to 150 kg every day.
A wholesale unit, their vermicelli travels to Vellore, Katpadi and Vijaywada, among other places, says Prabhakar. Generally they begin work at nine in the morning and go on until six in the evening. But during Ramzan, when the number of orders shoots up, a few members stay back and work into the night as well.