Makers of the Morning Snack- The Idliwallas of Mumbai

It is four in the morning, an eager group of formally dressed office goers, factory workers,haggard looking college students and taxi drivers stand huddled together near a tea-stall eyeing the road-turn by the Chembur local-station with mumbling anticipation and frequently questioning the tea-vendor- “When will Anna arrive?”, “Why is Anna taking so long today?”. The tea-vendor who industriously switches between serving tea to setting up the stall and cleaning the area, courteously assures the annoyed group of hungry bystanders that Anna will arrive by 4:30. But the barrage of questions don’t seem to stop until Anna arrives on the scene with his delectable consignment of idlis, menduwadas, upma, poha and sheera all tucked in large aluminum containers. The crowd that was till now looking irritable and morose is suddenly animated into giving Anna just enough time and space to let him and his retinue of two align the containers on the stall. Moments later, the feast begins and the morning air is ripe with demands for extra serving of coconut chutney, sambhar and the familiar satisfaction of a well fed crowd.

A Family business
Very few who regularly visit Anna’a stall for ‘the tried and tasted’ south-indian delights know that his actual name is Shankar Gowda. Anna came to Mumbai eight years ago in 2006 from the city of Mysore in Karnataka. And it was around the same time he set up the shop with help from his relatives. The stall’s menu comprises of idlis, meduwadas, upma, poha and sheera with sambhar and green coconut chutney for gratis.

Shankar is assisted by his brother-in-laws in preparing, selling and transporting the food and his tea-vendor nephew Ravi who arrives an hour early to set up the shop helping the hungry customers with masala tea. The preparations extend from day to day and are managed by the family itself. The rice needed for making the batter for the next day stock is soaked early in the morning. While the availability of electric gadgets have immensely eased the preparation and decreased the time it used to take earlier preparing the food manually, rising around two in the morning everyday without fail is still not an easy task.

Not an Anna Affair anymore
Ashwini Adankondilikar who has been running a similar shop in the wee hours of the morning, with the assistance of her three sons and her husband at Chembur Camp emphatically remarks that selling idlis and wadas is no longer the domain of South Indians just like it is not just Maharashtrians who sell vada-pavs and paanipuri now-a-days. Anyone who can cook properly and follow the daily routine is welcomed by the customers.

The everyday income ranges from Rs 300 to Rs 500 which adds up to approximately 9000 to 15000 a month. Also the income fluctuates seasonally. More people frequent the shop around Ganesh Utsav – “Large groups of young boys and girls practicing in the neighbouring areas for Dahi-Haandi contests gather every morning. Late night celebrators also turn up. We have to prepare a lot more than our usual stock of 500-600. But I don’t mind, since we also end up earning a lot more than in other months. It is like a compensation for the many customers we miss during the monsoons. Ganpati’s blessing!”

But considering it is a family run business, there is also the anticipation and anxiety about continuing the shop given the allures of the jobs in the city for the younger generation- “I have three sons. The middle one helps me the most. The elder one and the younger one not so much. They don’t like to mention working at a street side stall, loading and unloading containers and washing them day in and day out. I tell them that there is no shame in this because this is also work but sometimes they don’t seem to understand. They would prefer a job at a call-center or a shopping mall rather than helping the family business. I will carry on as long as I could.”- told Ashwini hesitatingly.

Cheap Delights
The prices vary from 20 to 30 rupees for a plate of idli or wada with servings of sambhar and chutney. Poha and upma sell for 15 rupees a plate. Shankar tells that when he began the shop eight years ago he sold a single plate for a mere price of 6 rupees. But with the rising prices of cylinders and cooking materials food prices have risen too- “We have not really raised the prices that much. The cost of LPG has gone up considerably in the last few years and so have the prices of cooking oil and other materials. Customers care about the quality and we have maintained it all along. Today, hundred rupees are not enough for eating at a proper restaurant. Our food in comparison costs a lot less.”

The shops functioning from 4 to 9 in the morning are spread all across the city. Most of the early morning idli vendors live close to the places where they set up the shop. It makes it easier and a lot more economical to transfer the stock. While Ashwini’s two sons transport the daily stock on their bicycles from the nearby Murgi galli in Vijay Nagar, Shankar and his retinue prefer taking an auto-rickshaw from Shell Colony in Chembur which is where he lives with his family and relatives.

The crowd usually consists of office- goers, college students, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and residents from the surrounding areas. Males make a larger portion of the crowd and few young women who generally come do so in a group. Most of the people frequent the shop because the food is both cheaply priced and is fresh. Kishor Bhai, a regular customer of Ashwini’s idli and meduwadas for the past eight years told that he has been frequenting the stall for years and has never ever found anything wrong with the food. His only complaint is that it has not changed even a little bit, he adds in a jest. Many had a similar opinion about the food- “It is as healthy as anything prepared at home and a lot tastier…” The college students told that sometimes the only incentive for studying all night was the fact that they could come together and enjoy Anna’s scrumptious cuisine.

Asked if he loses track of who has eaten how much and who is left to pay in such a crowd, Shankar beaming with confidence, replies, trying hard not to mock the simplistic pointlessness of a question put up by a curious customer- “Most of those who eat here are regular customers. Few new faces arrive everyday and when one has been in the trade for so long it is not that hard to remember such things. It sort of becomes a habit. Plus, I have the assistance of my in-laws and most importantly of those who frequent the shop everyday without fail.” A customer standing and listening to the conversation interjected- “This is an everyday affair. If we have to come and eat the next day, we cannot afford to not pay. Don’t you understand that a shop which sells food as good as this for a price as low is difficult to come-by.” As I gorged down the soft and supple Idlis, a mild understanding of what the old man was trying to tell me began to sink in.

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