Cotton candy (panju mittai) makers are an inevitable part of fairs, temple festivals and amusement parks. Twirling a stick in their hands to form the pink, fluffy ball in seconds, they are most sought after by children.
For over a month now, the trade fair at Island Grounds is home for M. Marudumuthu. On weekdays, he opens the stall at 3 p.m. and on weekends his day starts at 11 a.m. and goes well past-midnight.
“I move from one fair to another across Tamil Nadu. The fairs held in Coimbatore are what I look forward to the most,” says Marudumuthu, who has been selling cotton candy for the last 10 years.
They have to stand for long hours and endure intense heat from the vending machine.
They do not own the machine. They work for a salary of Rs.260 a day irrespective of the number of candies they sell.
While some youngsters ask for the umbrella-shaped candy, others relish the smaller ones. “College students flock to my stall and demand the biggest candy,” says Murugan*, who is pursing a bachelor's degree in English literature through the distance mode.
His family has been in the business of making cotton candy but he does not want to stick to it. He works as a bus conductor and takes leave for three months during the Chennai Trade fair.
“Many just love to watch us at work and I explain the process,” says Marudumuthu as he expertly puts together the sugary strands of thread flying out of the bowl. “I ask children to move away from the bowl as hot sugar can burn the skin,” he adds.
R. Vijayakumar recalls that when he was busy spinning candy, the bowl caught fire. “Impulsively, I detached the cylinder and dipped it in water,” he recalls. He also takes turns to work at the popcorn and sugarcane juice shops at the fair.
The additive used to give the candy its unique pink colour is sometimes a cause for concern among customers. “Parents are sometimes cautious and they enquire if their children would catch a cold or fever. But I convince them that it is hygienic and safe as we use standard quality food colours approved by the government,” says S. Sankar.
Business during monsoon is challenging. “We have to be careful as the candy shrinks when it comes in contact with moisture,” he says.
R. Dineshan sells cotton candy during the fair at Island Grounds and then returns to work as an agricultural labourer in his hometown Tiruvannamalai. “The sight of these children and their excitement brings a lot of comfort as I am away from my children,” he says. “Sometimes when poor children come and watch the candy being made, I quietly give them one.”
(* Name changed on request)