Find out how Amma Unavagam fills growling stomachs without burning pockets

As soon as the shutter rolls up, like buzzing bees to the hive, overzealous children and elders rush to the ticket counter. With a discipline not seen in public places, they queue up making security guard Sankar’s job easy.

Most of the faces wear a smile. While buying tickets, the pairs of eyes move around the canteen workers, who haul huge vessels. From the crowd thronging the Amma Unavagam, you will never guess the time. It is only 6.40 a.m.

Those gathered care a hoot for the new Food Bill aimed at ending hunger in the country or the controversy it generated. Or for that matter economist-philosopher and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s praise for Tamil Nadu's efficient delivery of public services in his latest book. All they care is satiating their hunger pangs.

For some the place is kind of an adult day care centre. To others it is a home away from home. come here not only to eat but also to make new friends, share their problems, discuss politics, and exchange pleasantries.

The Unavagam comes to life at 4 a.m. with self-help group women starting their work to prepare steaming idlis and delicious sambar.

“Everything tastes good here. Earlier we used to eat leftover rice for breakfast. Now we eat hot idlis. My mother does not mind giving me two rupees daily for buying idlis,” says M. Sonai, a fourth standard student while collecting his coupon for two-hot-sambar soaked idlis. As he finds it hard to reach the height of the table, he silently squats on the floor and carefully manages the plate so as not to spill the sambar on his school uniform.

Kumaravel of Class VI walks with a big bag with the smiling face of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister printed on it. He puts his bag in one corner and waits for his turn in the queue. Elders take pity on him and allow him to collect his plate first.

“I am happy to have hot idlis for breakfast daily. Earlier I would get little to eat at home or sometimes even went empty stomach to school and waited for the midday meal at school,” he says. Now his parents, daily wagers, don’t mind giving him three rupees and sometimes five rupees for breakfast.

“It is a luxury now,” he smiles, revealing that he buys two idlis at the Unavagam and a vada from a nearby shop with some chutney. “It is a yummy combination,” he laughs.

It is a common sight to see people entering the eatery carrying chutney packets and vadas wrapped in newspapers.

By 7.15am Tamilselvi, one of the SHG members who run the canteen, walks in. She guides the people to drop off their plates at the right place. Initially, people walked away with the plates it seems.

Lungi-clad Gopi with his messy hair intervenes. He introduces himself as a wall painter, his shirt and lungi splattered with paints is an indication enough. He says he manages to eat sumptuous idlis with a plateful of sambar daily because he eats only once a day. He crushes the idlis to make porridge and goes to the counter to fill his plate with the third round of sambar.

The customers change at 8 a.m. Men and women, neatly dressed, barge in. It is a mixed group of college students, employees of private firms, medical representatives etc.

Navaneethakrishnan, a retired Government Superintendent, says he finds eating in Amma Unavagam more economical as most of his pension money is spent on medical expenses.

A widower Sulaiman gives his pension to his daughter-in-law, who serves food in the afternoon and night. Now, after the advent of Amma Unavagam, she gives him Rs. 12 which he spends here to have breakfast and lunch.

“I buy four idlis in the morning and sambar and curd rice for lunch,” he says with a sorrow tinged smile. Sometimes, I get dinner and most of the time, I just go to sleep waiting for the idlis,” he says and adds “idlis and sambar are tasty and service is admirable here.”

At 9 a.m. the first round of distribution is over and the SHG members begin the next round of work. They take positions — cleaning vessels, soaking rice and urad dal for next day's idli and sambar, cut the curd packets, fill stock books, put seal in the rice tokens and other added works.

In three hours time, they are ready to distribute tokens for hot steaming food. The first to hit the Unavagam after noon are the Government IT students. With a big grin they buy tokens and plates of rice while some share karachevu, murukku and vada.

Pandi who hails from a hamlet near Karumathur says that he stopped smoking as he was able to finish his lunch for Rs.3. Earlier, he used to puff a cigarette and drink water to fill his stomach.

Regulars like seventy-year-old Sathyadevan and 80-year-old Kachamma, a vegetable vendor, come with plantain leaf and personal plate respectively in mornings and afternoons. They buy tokens and fill their plates with idlis in the morning and sambar and curd rice in the afternoon.

“Amma Unavagam is a vedanthangal for me,” says Narayanan. He shifted to Madurai as he has to stay with his daughter but has no friends here. “Now, at Amma Unavagam, I not only get economical, healthy and hygienic food but have also found new friends of my age who share similar stories,” he says.

“Life has become more mechanical,” rues Surendran.

“As per tradition it is a shame to stay in your daughter’s house but I have no other option. I prefer to have a cup of milk at night for dinner. And Amma Unavagam has come as a boon to people like us,” he adds.

Till three months ago, most of the buyers at the Unavagam spent Rs. 30 to Rs. 40 for breakfast. With hectic work schedules most of the daughter-in-laws, working mothers and wives were forced to depend on roadside eateries, vendors and small budgetary hotels for breakfast as they had time only to prepare lunch. Now, they spend just Rs. 5 to Rs. 7 on breakfast with an additional vada.

No tipping is required and there is no hassle at the token counter. Token dispensers do not haggle for change or hand you a candy for change. Where else can one find a clean place that serves reasonably good food at such an incredibly low cost? asks Sudalai, a retired Government employee.

Economics apart, Amma Unavagam is a good social initiative, which the likes of Surendran hope will sustain them for long time to come.

(City3Sixty is a monthly column that captures the different moods of the city. It appears last Thursday of every month).

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