There is no accompanying call – one sound, a single high-pitched tinkling, is sufficient and has brought incalculable happiness to generations of Colombo children (and more than a few adults). The ringing bell of the Bumbai Muttai man.
Bombai Muttai? Fine strings of spun sugar, stretched into light, off-white and sticky strands. A kind of indigenous candy floss but the strands are wider and more satisfying. There’s a hint of coconut oil, the suggestion of less-refined sugar – which imparts a less sickly-sweetness than its fairground rival.
Since time immemorial men in sarongs carrying buckets full of these sugary threads have wandered the lanes of Colombo. Profiting from the most ancient, and carnal pleasure of all -the taste of something sweet. In a time before Web 2.0 and supermarket shelves stacked with imported confectionery the bumbai muttai man’s visit was the sticky highlight of any afternoon. And even in this age of Baileys infused mocha pots and cream-cheese frosted red-velvet cupcakes, when everything is instant, instagrammed and online- the bumbai muttai men survive. Still plying their trade along Colombo’s, now somewhat spruced up, streets.
There’s something so deeply right about the tradition- that ringing on a seaside lane at the end of a long afternoon, and a slightly pavlovian thrill – the sound of happiness- that’s kept it alive into the 21 century. Perhaps, it’s the pleasure of anticipation of waiting, uncertain for your reward. It might come at 4, maybe 4.30- perhaps he went by at 3.45 and you missed him. It all depends on the vendor’s, winding circuit and how many, or few, customers he’s encountered along the way. My neighborhood (Havelock Town) bumbai muttai man seems to turn up daily at between 11 am and midday. Not handy if you’re at work, at school, a housewife cooking lunch, generally it’s a bad time. But the other day, alerted by that unmistakable brassy-peel I managed to scoot out in time to procure a bag of sweetened, stringy goodness..
The wrinkled old vendor deftly pulls a clump of strands from his battered, thermos bucket (these days a hygienically gloved hand is used for this purpose). Out of some crackling, plastic wrapping he unsheathes the perfect circle of a thin, pink wafer. The disk is broken and a generous spool of the longed for thread is placed between two half moons- more than anything the end result resembles a taco, a cotton candy taco. I produce Rs 100 and retreat inside to devour my prize. Tugging at it not seconds after its been placed in my hands.
The wafer, as always, was terrible- it tastes, if you can call it a taste, like barely edible paper but it’s light enough to be inoffensive – the strands of bombai muttai themselves are excellent. Feather light, cotton-wool soft, sweet but not sickly, a trace of coconut. I’m not sure a better tea time snack has ever been conceived – except its 11.30. But well there’s always time for bombai muttai. Or maybe not. On a certain level Time is almost certainly running out for these old vendors. More regulations, the rising cost of the muttai they procure from a factory in Aluth Kade, the difficulty of converting kids weaned on more modern sorts of sweet, and perhaps, worst of all, falling demand from those who, while fully appreciating the joys of this local delicacy, no longer have the time to wait.