The idlis looked inviting. More importantly, my stomach was growling. I watched the elderly man in his apron for a couple of minutes. There was a continuous stream of customers and one could say that business was brisk. It was close to lunch time and I couldn’t wait till I reached home that was a two-and-a-half km walk away.
His bicycle said ‘Shaktivel Idliwala’. “Eat here or parcel?”, he asked in Hindi. He was surprised to hear me reply in Tamil. “From where?” He was more surprised that I was not from a place in Tamil Nadu!
He handed me a cone made with torn-out telephone directory pages lined with a plastic sheet, containing five or six soft idlis with sambhar and chutney.
I sat myself on the ledge of the compound wall of the Samata Nagar bus stand (Thakur Village, Kandivali East) to eat. This bicycle eatery occupies a small portion of the footpath here, in between the trees. Several people came, ate, paid and went. Many seemed to be regulars for they were served without having to say anything, and some were in a hurry, maybe to get to afternoon school, college or work. Those who asked for vadas were disappointed as the day’s stock was finished.
The entire set up was compactly impressive. A large steel vessel with lid was tied behind the bicycle seat, with the idlis inside. Specially fabricated grills on either side of the rear wheel held large bottles of water, for customers to drink and wash their hands.Two bags hung on the handle bar, to hold steel containers with sambhar and chutney, and the telephone directory, plastic sheets, wiping cloths and other things he would need.
Most striking was the large rice sack that hung at the back of the cycle. After eating, people would wipe their hands on the paper from which they ate, and then throw this into the sack. There was the odd paper dropped by some careless customers, but the place around the cycle was more or less litter free. An excellent model for any roadside eatery to follow.
Shaktivel has been pedalling idlis (literally!) at Thakur Village since 1983. He’s originally from Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. (Most of the idli sellers on the Mumbai roads are!) As it was lunch hour, he was so busy that that I didn’t get to talk to him much. With his permission I took a few pictures of his set-up, asked him to pack a few of his delicious idlis to carry back home, paid (Rs 20 per plate) and left.
A few days later, on 30th March, was World Idli Day. It was early in the morning and I was at the same footpath, but in Shaktivel’s place was someone else. It was Subramaniam, Shaktivel’s son. I discovered that they worked in shifts. Oblivious about the significance of the day, he was happy to talk about the food they served and the family business.
Subramaniam is one of four children. Two sisters are married and a younger brother is studying in college. He had to drop out of school as his dad met with an accident, and he had to take over at that time. “Dad has fallen off the cycle a few times… he’s got hit on the highway while cycling from Malad to here.”
The family lives in their own ground plus one house in Malad. The ground floor is used exclusively for idli making and they live upstairs. “Does your mom do the cooking?”, I asked. It turned out that the entire idli business is handled by the two men and the mother chips in only if required.
The day starts early. Shaktivel prepares the first lot of 325 idlis and about 70 vadas, while Subramaniam makes the chutney and sambhar. Subramaniam then leaves home on his cycle (they have two cycles) to reach their footpath spot by around 7:30 a.m. Shaktivel in the meantime prepares a second lot. He reaches with his stock at around 10:30 a.m., by which time Subramaniam is usually finishing the supply he brought, and he gets relieved. Located in the Thakur educational hub, during college time, sales is very good. During the exams, college holidays and rains, business is lower. Shaktivel is usually back home by about 2 p.m. Afternoon is rest time and then they need to start preparing for the next day.
“Idlis is what I know.”, says Shaktivel, “and this is what I will be doing as long as I can.” Same with Subramaniam. People need to eat, so business is assured… especially when my sons gobble up the delicious idlis and ask for more!