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Serving with passion

SOMA BASU.
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PEOPLE Even in difficult times, S. Ramu Servai sells a meal for Rs.6 demonstrating a gesture par comparison, writes SOMA BASU.

HUMANITARIAN Ramu Servai Photo: Soma Basu
HUMANITARIAN Ramu Servai Photo: Soma Basu

N o lady of the house will forget how she struggled keeping her home budget from going bust what with prices of onions shooting up to Rs.80 a kg and tomatoes selling for no less than Rs.40 per kg. The struggle is still on in many homes given the fact that prices of these vegetables have only marginally come down. However, price rise is not today's topic.

A chance crossing past a food shack near Anna Bus Stand the other day aroused my curiosity. A fairly long queue of people waited outside this shanty little eatery with a rusted signboard “Valli Tiffin Centre”. What is so special? I wondered, spotting a few police and Government vehicles as well. People floated in and out, some with parcels in their hands. It almost appeared like a wedding venue, where people go in batches to eat.

The neighbouring pharmacy shop owner revealed that one “Ayya” sells “one of the cheapest meals here”. I couldn't contain my curiosity and discovered Ayya sells a three course meal for Rs.6! And more, he serves all without any discrimination even if they pay less or nothing.

When I caught up with 75 year old S.Ramu Servai, I realized as so many times before while writing this column, that more than money, you really need a heart of gold to serve others.

A run away from home at the age of 12 after his mother's death, Ramu Thaathaa worked in various roadside dhabas in Alaganallur near Madurai, Trichy, Manapparai, Madras, Kumbakonam. He wandered till 17 doing odd jobs here and there and returned to work in a tea kiosk in Madurai in 1952. Five years later, his maternal uncle spotted him and offered his daughter's hand in marriage. His errands fetched him Rs.1.25 a day and making both ends meet was becoming difficult as he now had a wife and a son.

First venture

“My wife Puranathammal is a good cook and we decided to start a small time eatery,” he flashes his toothless smile. In 1965 Thaathaa took this space for a monthly rent of Rs.10 and started selling vadas, idli, apam and tea for 10 paise each. “Mostly Medical College students started coming apart from passengers from the bus stand,” he recalls. Next, he introduced noon meals for Rs.1.25.

“I could provide one cup of rice with sambar, rasam and curd plus two vegetables those days. I did not earn much profit but I wasted no food either. I had the satisfaction of serving poor and the hungry and even all my family members,” he shares.

Every five to eight years he hiked the price of his noon meal by a rupee. And despite recession and rising prices of vegetables, he has not increased it from Rs.6 in last four years. “The only item I have reduced is one vegetable and replaced it with pickle,” he almost regrets and cites that even dal costs Rs.80 a Kilo now. And, he even serves good quality rice to all his customers. “Not the one rupee rice available at ration shops. I buy good rice in the open market for Rs.22 per kg so that whoever eats in my shop enjoys the meal fully,” he asserts.

Ramu Thaatha obviously is not chasing big money. Having suffered through his childhood, it is his innate desire to bring a smile on the face of others. Lot of beggars, street urchins, visually handicapped persons, poor villagers regularly turn up at his shop. “As a rule, I ask every customer to pay minimum Rs.Two but if really they don't have a penny on them, I do not refuse food to them.”

Many people have offered him grocery, money or help to renovate his shop. But this self-made man has turned down all. “The only time I agreed when a Swamiji from Rama Krishna Mutt visited my shop eight months ago after seeing me in a TV programme. He even entered my kitchen, blessed me for the service I am rendering and then offered to change my old utensils. He actually gifted me all new vessels worth Rs.10,000 which I accepted.”

For last four and a half decades, his doting wife stood by him, cooking daily even as the number of meals to be prepared grew from 10 in 1970 to 250 daily in 2010. For last few months she has not been keeping well and is on rest forcing Thaathaa to engage a cook, trained by his wife.

He has hired another boy for help and of his seven children (including four sons working as drivers), one daughter, a daughter-in-law and a grandson help in cutting vegetables, cleaning vessels and the shop.

But all his children their spouses, 17 grand children and staff eat the same morning tiffin and noon meal cooked at the shop.

Even now Medical College Students come to his shop but on Mondays specially his shop overflows with villagers who come to the Collectorate with their grievances. Besides, peons, clerks from nearby Government offices, lot of Constables take away packed food. “Many of them give Rs.10 for the meal instead of Rs.6,” he says humbly and extends his gratitude to his landlord also who after 46 years charges him a monthly rent of Rs.500 whereas other shops of the same size in the area go for no less than Rs.2,500 per month now.

While sticking to such a low priced menu, Ramu Thaathaa sells morning dosa for Rs.5 each, a plate of pongal for Rs.6 and idli/vada for Rs.Two each in the mornings. The rush is no less then and by 10 a.m. his shelves go empty. He reminisces with pride how 30 years ago he supplied 100 cups of tea when Jayalalithaa came for a performance at Gandhi Museum. “MGR had also come and as mine was the only shop around in the vicinity, the medical college students made the arrangement,” he reveals.

With that being his only and the closes brush with power, Ramu Thaathaa says, many people advise him to apply for grant or loan so that he could modify his shop. But he is clearly not interested because he strongly feels he is blessed in the place the way it is.

I can't help but ask the obvious: How he adheres to hygienic standards? Non-chalantly he replies: “In these so many years, there has not been a single complaint. My shop may look shabby but while cooking we take utmost precautions.”

Ramu thaathaa's life and story is bereft of all glam, power, money quotient. But he is making a difference by serving so many hungry stomachs every day.

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to somabasu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)

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