R. Mohanan’s ‘shop’ in front of the Museum gate is a child’s wonderland. Hanging from pieces of string attached to the vertical iron thattu (frame) that goes for his shop are colourful balloons of various shapes and sizes and small toys, from plastic cars, dolls, watches and clarinets to kitchen sets, bubble makers, and even pocket video games.
After waving goodbye to a young couple whose toddler seems delighted with his shiny new red and yellow balloon, Mohanan says: 'Once upon a time all that children wanted were balloons. Nowadays, they come asking for their favourite toys instead.' There's a change in new-age parents too, he adds. 'Earlier, most of them would only buy balloons or at the most plastic animals and whistles. These days most parents indulge their kids when they ask for more expensive toys,' he explains. He stock items, priced from Rs. 5 to Rs. 250, all of which he buys from wholesale shops in Chalai.
Mohanan has been a balloon seller for the past 35 years, more or less since the age of 12, having followed his maternal uncle, Gopi Panikkar, into the business. 'He bought me my first balloon and I was enchanted. At the time, I used to work as a head-load worker. For the next couple of decades I traipsed around the city carrying the thattu. When my health got the better of me, I set it up here permanently,' he explains.
Mohanan’s thattu of toys is flanked by those of Ani and Sishupalan. 'There used to be six or seven of us here at Museum. Now it’s just us three, save for a man who sells helium-filled balloons at Kanakakunnu during festive seasons,' he says. 'The money is actually quite good. But our sales depend on various factors. If it rains, for example, they plummet. If there are rows of bikes parked in front of our thattus, our sales come down. Most of our business happens during the weekends, when families come to chill out in the Museum or Kanakakunnu grounds. We also get a lot of repeat customers then,' he says.
So, he must be all set for the Onam crowds, then? 'Actually, Onam and Christmas are lately among the worst times of the year for us. During the festive season a lot of migrant traders set up shop here. What should come to us goes to them,' says Mohanan, with a sigh.
The balloon seller lives at Peyad with his wife, Remani, and sons, Gireesh, an auto-driver, and Mahesh, a painter. Curiously, he is adamant that his sons shouldn’t follow in his footsteps. 'Even if they want to I won’t allow it. In fact, I don’t even allow them near the thattu! It’s a profitable business but this is simply not what they should be doing with their lives.'