Mini-micro-enterprises that sustained Indian Malaysians for generations

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Veloo Saminathan looks at a kaleidoscope of timeless ventures that have provided livelihoods for many in the community – and vital services to society.   

Indian Malaysian mini-micro-enterprises constitute a world of their own and mostly involve a solo effort.  

Taken as a whole, they provide a fascinating kaleidoscope of human resilience and ingenuity, of adaptability and the innovative spirit. 

This is the chief reason many of these enterprises have survived and continue to be sustainable for the owners or operators. Some have even become institutions in their own right, playing a seamless, effective role in how they serve the needs of the people.

Newspaper vendors face uncertain fate

Newspaper and news magazine vending is one of the mini-ventures in which ethnic Indians – Tamils, in particular – hold a virtual monopoly. These Tamils are descendants of ancestors who immigrated into the country from the Tinnevelly District of the then Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu) during the colonial era. 

In the old days, they distributed their newspapers and magazines to their clients from house to house on their bicycles at the crack of dawn. These days, their descendants – the younger generation – use motorbikes, covering a much larger area.

These newspaper vendors have a contract with the newspaper companies, which deliver the newspapers in massive bundles at their distribution centres. After collecting the newspapers, they go on their rounds and throw the newspapers suitably tied up in a rubber band across the gates of houses, taking great care that the bundle does not fall into any flooded area if it had rained during the night.

Despite the internet, their arrival is eagerly awaited by elders in the customers’ family. A cup of morning coffee accompanied by reading the newspaper is their morning routine, especially if they are retirees. Their anxiety, even annoyance, can be palpable if there is any delay in the delivery.

Our daily bread

Bread vending is another mini-venture undertaken by Indians, in particular by Tamil Muslims. There was a time when Punjabi Muslims used to operate mini- bakeries in the ground floor of shophouses in a suitable part of town in the country. 

Bread vending then was the exclusive preserve of these Punjabi or Bengali Muslims who went from house to house on their bicycles and graduating later to motorbikes. Many wore their caps, signature beards and sarong. Some chewed betel leaves. They were mostly large in physical stature, genial and spirited. They were known rather familiarly among their clients, especially the women, as “roti bhai” (literally, bread brother).

The mini-bakeries have now vanished and along with them the “roti bhai”. They have been replaced by Indian Tamil Muslims who can be seen on their rounds, their motorbikes laden, bursting at the seams, with their assorted bread and buns along with other accessories.

Many use a special type of horn to alert their clients, especially the children who have their own peculiar favourites and needs. Despite mini-markets and supermarkets sprouting, these vendors have held on gamely, testifying to their resilience, even forming a familiar mark on the cultural landscape.

Flowers galore!

Flowers, flowers and more flowers. It may sound amazing but the love for flowers by Tamils, especially the women, must be seen to be believed. 

Flowers are basic for worship, in decorating the idols in temples every day before ritual prayers are conducted. Flowers are used for prayers at home every day at the family altar and for religious ceremonies at home. They also form an important component in engagement and marriage ceremonies. 

Women, in particular, use flowers to decorate themselves for social and religious functions. And, finally, flowers are used to make garlands for decorative purposes and to welcome VIPs at functions.

Flower vending at small stalls, especially at the entrance to temples, is a popular Tamil mini-enterprise in many parts of the country. The flowers, in all their colourful variety, are available in conical heaps at the stalls operated by the vendors. 

Customers have a wide choice of colour, variety and quantity. The flowers are sold by the weight. Of special interest are the many colourful garlands hung for display to attract customers’ interest. Some buy the garlands as an offering to the main deity in the temple. Others may buy them for ceremonial, ritual or social purposes.

The Tamil garland is a heavy colourful affair with insertions of foil – different from Thai, Filipino or Hawaiian garlands – which are loosely strung and sit comfortably around the neck. 

Flower vending of this kind is competitive.  More than one stallholder can be found in the locality where the flower-vending business is conducted. Tamil women have started to participate in this business. Some even employ a young apprentice and provide suitable training. At the macro, wholesale level, it remains a Tamil monopoly. Other Indians are not in it, nor for that matter, the ever-enterprising Chinese.

Birdman-astrologer

The Tamil ‘birdman astrologer’ is a one-man entrepreneur who operates from a niche along the footway in the cities and larger towns. His is a unique occupation in that he uses a bird, the size of a slightly large sparrow, to predict the fortunes of his clients. 

His other ‘tool’ of the trade is a stack of cards containing verses in Tamil. These cards, spread in front of the cage, contain the vital information required by the astrologer in any specific case. The astrologer ‘bribes’ the bird in the cage with a grain of rice before letting the bird out through a small door in the cage.

The bird comes out and picks one of the cards in front and gets back. Locking the door of the cage, the astrologer reads the verse in the card loud to his client and thus predicts his fortune in the lay person’s language. He charges a small fee for his service. It is a moot point whether a bird can be an accessory in predicting the fortunes of a human being, but there are people who believe in the whole process, elderly Tamil women being the most ardent.

The astrologer, usually an elderly swarthy man in Tamil attire, is not averse to providing his ‘specialised’ service to people of other ethnic backgrounds, including foreign tourists for whom the entire process can be a source of curiosity. The “mystical East” is what they see reflected in what he does and in his ability to attract customers. 

What’s in the stars?

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” So declares the great Bard in his play Julius Caesar. 

Despite this, studying the exact position of the planets at the time of a baby’s birth to the minutest detail to divine its future is a highly specialised job which only a Tamil Hindu astrologer is believed to excel in. He is a ‘soloist’ and can be contacted through the local Hindu temple. 

The more enterprising type operates from a small room in a quiet street. For a fee, depending on the scope, he can calculate and write out, using many charts, the trajectory, as it were, of the baby’s future. He is also an accomplished palm reader.

Haircuts at home

In the olden days, the itinerant barber, invariably an elderly Tamil, would cycle to his customers’ homes, especially on a weekend or on request, with his instruments in a small basket. 

Using a borrowed chair, he would cut the hair of male members under a tree. The boys took their turns first, followed by older members, ending with the head of the family, if any. 

At the end, following Hindu Tamil custom, he would not quote his fees for the service rendered. When asked by the head of the family, he would say, bashfully, “As sir wishes.” He would probably earn more this way than if he had quoted a price! After being paid, he would pack his instruments in his basket. Pushing his bicycle out of sight, he would then run alongside it, mounting it with a powerful heave before pedalling away.

Such barbers are no more, but perhaps one can be procured from a local barber shop.

Try your luck?

Among what may be called “soloists” or “single-style operators” is the Tamil lottery ticket seller. Carrying a cache of lottery tickets in a cloth bag slung across his shoulder, he peddles his tickets wherever people gather; coffee shops, kopitiam outlets and restaurants are special haunts.

Attired in the Tamil way – long-sleeved shirt flowing over his dhoti and wearing Japanese slippers – he moves from table to table, showing a sheaf of lottery tickets, his face wreathed in a subtle smile.

Most customers may merely shake their head without even looking at him. However, others may want to try their luck: they may buy one or two tickets, but there could be a few intrepid ones who might buy an entire lot. There have been cases when the lottery seller himself might strike a number!  Such are the vagaries of life and its mysteries.

Healthy nourishment

Milk vending in the urban and semi-urban areas is also a ‘soloist’ Tamil mini-enterprise although, over time, Sikh milk vendors also moved in to gain a share of the market.

The milk is derived from cattle farms in the urban outskirts, suitable land being a perennial problem. Milk vendors now use motorbikes to supply milk to households regularly. They use special ladles to measure the volume to sold.

Usually contracted on a monthly basis, the milk is also available on an ad hoc retail, basis. Indian banana leaf restaurants contract to buy milk in larger quantities. In these restaurants, boiled cow’s milk is available as a drink or as yogurt.

Dhobis still around

The Indian dhobi trade is as old as the early waves of South Indian immigration into the country and is exclusively a Tamil enterprise. 

The Tamil dhobi, even today, caters for Tamil families. These families believe that it is the Tamil dhobi who can give their sarees and vests (dhotis) the special sheen not available even with modern technology (read washing machines).

Tamil dhobi enterprise can be a family affair with the female spouse also playing an important role. Tamil dhobis provide their service weekly, mostly on Sundays, when they make their deliveries, collect clothes to be washed and get paid at the same time.

Part-time house helpers

Among the “soloists” are those who can be described as service providers in modern day parlance. The most prominent, if this is the right word, is the Tamil woman who is a part-time house helper. 

Many are from the lower-income group, often the wives of Tamil outdoor workers, widows or even single mothers. They contract to work in middle-class homes for a few hours a day, cleaning and mopping, washing clothes and, if so desired, even cooking.

This for them forms an additional income to maintain their family and even pay off any debt the family may have incurred.  For many, this may be hard work, on top of caring for their own families. Somehow they cope and become even indispensable to the families who employ them.

Adapting to change

Indian mini-enterprises serve the needs of the people in any given locality. They provide a source of income for the operators daily, depending on their business turnover. The operators need to adapt to changing conditions and use their ingenuity to survive.

These ventures are just one step below the more organised and better financed small and medium-sized enterprises, which form the bedrock of the nation’s economy.

‘Soloists’ the entrepreneurs and part-time workers may be, but they perform a vital function in keeping the wheels of the nation’s economy humming – while providing essential services to local communites.

Veloo Saminathan is a former senior civil servant with a passion for writing
 

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Benedict Lopez
4 Jul 2020 8.10am

Keep your articles coming in Veloo. Always very insightful!

Last edited 1 month ago by Benedict Lopez
Artroom
Artroom
3 Jul 2020 6.17pm

Wonderful piece!