A fine cloud of flour sits on K Kabali’s eyebrows. It’s a telling accessory to the 48-year-old who owns Mayura, an 80-year-old flour mill in Mylapore’s Mosque Street. He has been working all day inside the tile-roofed structure that houses three ancient grinding machines that his father bought at Parry’s. Flour has seeped into the mill’s walls, the wooden rafters, the floor, the lone bench at the entrance...even the framed photos on the walls have a thin layer of flour on them. Mayura is one of the oldest flour mills in the city, and among a handful still remaining in an area that once teemed with such businesses.
Do people still get rice, wheat, and spices ground at these mills? How are they faring in an era of ready-to-cook food packets and ₹5 masala sachets? T Rajendran of Venkateswara Mill on Bazaar Road paints a bleak picture. “My uncle opened this mill in 1966,” he recalls. “In the initial years, our mill opened at 7 am and had customers walking in till 11 pm. There was so much crowd that we had to regulate it using tokens,” he explains.
The 64-year-old says that Bazaar Road alone had around 38 flour mills. “Today, only five of them are left,” he adds. “There were 90 in Mylapore. I remember seeing four mills around the place that houses Citi Centre,” he says. But the masala giants took over their market, forcing them to shut shop. “The bigger brands started selling masalas in packets and people preferred them to painstakingly getting spices ground,” explains Rajendran. “We did well until 1980, after which the mills closed down one by one.”
“Who has the time to put out pulses and spices to dry and bring them to us?” he asks. “I’ve had customers who rush in with something to be ground and leave the minute I ask them to wait for 10 minutes. They have no time; neither do they have the patience to wait till I get the machine started.”
In the past, however, people didn’t have a choice. “Now they do,” says A Jaya Kumar, who owns Jaya Kumar Mill a few blocks away. “A kilo of wheat flour costs around ₹40, but we take ₹15 just to grind the same amount,” he says. “Getting packaged flour may work out cheaper.” Which means only those who are particular about the taste of mill ground flour, prefer them. “The taste of something prepared with so much attention is definitely better when compared to its quick-fix counterparts,” feels Kumar.
At Mandaveli’s Krishna Flour Mill, R Madurai is grinding shikkakai in a smaller machine. Dusted in flour head to toe, Madurai shouts above the ‘chug chug’ of the machine, “All mills have separate machines for shikkakai , spices, and rice and wheat.”
Akbar Herbal Mill, also on Bazaar Road, has a more upbeat atmosphere. The mill specialises in herbs and roots such as turmeric. MA Akbar, the owner, says that the mill has been around for 60 years. “My father opened this place. Right now, I’m doing better business than him owing to a lot of people taking to alternative medicine,” he says.
Are the machines still being sold? “Yes,” says Rajendran. “They’re available at shops on Thambu Chetty Street. They are being manufactured in Coimbatore.” But Rajendran wouldn’t recommend anyone to invest in them. “I’ve ground for just ₹200 since morning. From this amount, I have to keep some aside for electricity, castor oil for machine maintenance, food for my wife and I...there’s no question of savings.”
But he’s pushing on since it’s a family-run business, one that he’s been doing for years. His wife comes with him to the mill every day and sits on a plastic chair by the entrance. Do they use machine-ground spices and flour at home? “My wife has stopped cooking due to old age,” says Rajendran. “We eat outside.” He hastens to add, “When she was younger, though, she would grind masalas in a small mixer at home. She took the trouble to grind each ingredient. I can still taste her sambar .”