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G. D. Vijayakumar operates a manual ride at the Marina on Wednesday.
CHENNAI: Little girls with pigtails flying in the air and boys with wide grins clutch on to wooden horses as they swirl around, screeching in sheer delight.
“Sometimes they sing English rhymes taught in school to match the excitement'', says M. Egamathy, who operates a merry-go-round on the Marina. While this image of happy children on jazzy-coloured rides seems to be part of everybody's idea of families having fun, those who run giant wheels and merry-go-rounds face many challenges as they seek to remain in the field.
Umbrella wheels, baby giant wheels, horse rides… the children love it all, says R. Jacob, but parents are often very protective. “Instead of waving at them, many parents yell at them to keep holding on and this makes the children scared,'' he adds.
A. Kalaivanan adds that amusement parks and other forms of entertainment give tough competition, and safety is paramount. “I always ask parents to stand on the sides and keep a watch,” he says. “People should understand that since it is manually run, it is easier to stop when a child is feeling dizzy,'' he adds.
Plastic horses are also normally avoided in the interests of safety and Kalaivanan's little horses, bikes and cars are made of piper plastic that is used to make boats. He and his wife K. Gayathri also run a balloon shooting game to supplement their income.
“When my arms go weak after pushing the ride, I ask my wife to do it for some time,” he says. The investment was huge, he says, amounting to almost Rs.60,000, with regular expenses incurred every year. Some of them also work as fishermen or take up odd jobs in the morning to make ends meet.
S. Ahmed paid an even higher price to be part of this business.
“I was seven and was helping my father turn the wheel when the rod slipped and fell on me, leaving me on crutches,” Ahmed still runs a ride on Elliot's beach because the new motor-run ride is something he can operate. Most rides are manually run by owners and a few helpers.
The tsunami hurt a lot of old-timers who lost their heavy equipment usually left covered on the beach, says P. Sethu, who has been in the business for 30 years. Movies and serials are godsend, he adds, displaying his baby giant wheels that were part of the shooting for ‘Goa' and ‘Sivaji – The boss'.
Contrary to what one might expect, festivals and fairs on the beaches are actually a lean time.
“During festivals, when almost half of the city is on one stretch of the beach, people just clutch on to their children avoiding other forms of entertainment,” says Kalaivanan. “Besides, drunk men are a nuisance as they insist on having rides. Controlling them is a problem and they drive away other customers too,” says A. Ramesh. Weekends are the most profitable as they get almost Rs.500 a day while week days are unpredictable.
The peak of the business is during summer vacations. On Wednesday, Jacob came to the beach at 6 a.m. to stick little tricolours on his horses. “Once children like your rides, they keep coming,” he says, gesturing at pictures of Hannah Montanna and Harry-Potter studded with disco lights.
“Children want to eat everything available on the beach, especially ice creams. Our rides are awesome temptations to distract them, and parents exploit that completely,” says K. Tamizharasan with a grin.
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