‘Paati avlo famous aayitanga, pa,’ they laugh when I ask for directions to Kamalaathal’s shop. ‘Vaanga saami ,’ she calls out as I enter. Her shop is the converted front of her home in Vadivelampalayam (Coimbatore), a two-kilometre ride from the Siruvani Main Road.
Kamalathaal (no one is sure how old she is, but the estimate is around 90) has been selling these idli s for 30 years. She doesn’t lose sleep over making a profit, she says, and is more than happy with what she earns, along with her family members who are daily wage earners. “I am doing well. People love it here, and eat to their heart’s content. What more can I ask for?” she smiles.
When asked if she faces flak from nearby eateries for her price of ₹1 per idli , she firmly responds, “It is my choice, I will sell them at the price I want to. I am not going to budge for anyone.” Kamalaathaal sells 500 idli s a day. And she does not take a holiday, not even on festivals. While she makes the idli s, her grandson’s wife ladles out hot bonda s — each costing ₹2.50 — on the other side of the house.
Every seven minutes or so, a fresh batch emerges. Hot and fluffy idli s are scooped out and served with a tangy tomato chutney and a spicy vegetable sambar . She affectionately enquires whether I like the idli s and smiles when I tell her I do. Pointing to a gang of boys devouring idli s, she says they are her favourite customers. An elderly gentleman enters and, on finding no space, tells paati that he will return later. In the meanwhile, the boys troop out arguing about who ate the most.
Kamalathaal does the lion’s share of the work herself; whether it is buying the rice from the local ration shop, grinding the batter for her idli s, pouring it into the mould and serving them to her customers. She grinds the chutney on the aatukal or grinding stone. Her day begins at 5 am, and her first customers start coming in by 6. If they are not eating there, they bring tiffin boxes to fill up. She winds up around noon.
The hot idli s, served on plantain leaves, keep coming till I protest. She asks if I need more chutney or sambar , which I am urged to help myself to. As I leave, a little girl arrives, with a big vessel and a tumbler for chutney. She leaves with a smile, carefully balancing her family’s breakfast, all taken care of with just ₹30.