Vanishing street trades


Knife sharpeners, mattress makers and re-tinners who were once patronised by thrifty households for their skills and craft are a rare sight these days

Not long ago I had to vacate our ancestral building as it was to be demolished to give way to an apartment complex. During the clearing process I had to dispose of a number of things which were somewhat outdated.

These household articles which were once the favourites of my forebears stood testimony to the care with which they were maintained over the years. They made me recall across a gulf of seven decades the periodic visits to our house of Munusamy, the frail re-tinner of brass vessels, and Khadar, the burly cotton-mattress maker. They were among the traditional artisans who helped our household in maintaining things in good condition.

Long before stainless steel vessels came into the market, it was brass, copper, bronze and aluminum utensils that were used in our households. Brass and copper vessels, however, needed a tin coating (kalai) inside them and the coating had to be done periodically.

The re-tinning operation by Munusamy was a sight to behold. When a few brass vessels bereft of the shiny tin coating were given to him, he would set up a mini workshop in our courtyard. Digging a small pit in the ground he would create a temporary blast furnace, airing it with bellows. Taking up a vessel, he would heat it and sprinkle in it a powder (ammonium chloride).

Holding the red hot vessel in one hand with the help of kitchen tongs, he would, in the manner of a juggler, quickly rub the inner portion of the vessel with a cotton cloth giving rise to a sudden curl of white smoke. Finally, the vessel would be dipped into a bucket full of cold water. Humming a jaunty tune he would take out the vessel, the inner surface of which would glisten with a silvery sheen. Even before he completed re-tinning our vessels, he would get more clients from the neighbouring houses, each giving one or two vessels for re-tinning. We, the children of the locality, would watch with great admiration the whole operation.

Re-tinning workers have almost vanished from the streets of towns now due to a lack of demand for their services. As have the makers of cotton mattresses who would come door to door, offering their services.

In those days, though people mostly slept on mats spread on the floor, each household had one or two mattresses stuffed with cotton that needed restuffing often. I vividly remember Rehman, one of the mattress makers.

Strumming a veena-like instrument that was used for carding the cotton, Rehman would announce his arrival on the streets. In our house, he would carry out his work in an open space in the garden. He used the carder to beat and fluff the cotton already in the mattresses and pillows. He would also add fresh cotton. He would finally hand-stitch the seams and return the mattresses in their new robust forms. The entire garden would reverberate with the “twang, twang” of the carder during the operation. Those of us who watched his work with interest did not mind the liberal cotton coating that we got. Rarely does one see these mattress makers on the streets now as people prefer to buy mattresses, mostly foam, from shops.

The other day I was surprised to hear a call of “kathi saannai” on the street. It was that of a knife sharpener with a portable contraption slung over his shoulders. He said that he had continued in the traditional profession in which he was trained by his late father. He, however, rued the fact that it was not quite paying, as most people discarded knives or scissors with blunted edges and bought new ones.

Street vendors continue to be active in selling vegetables, fruits and food items. However, the sight of tradespeople offering unique household services may soon be a thing of the past.

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