From the outside, the 30-year-old eatery looks like any other nondescript building in a village. Home to octogenarian M. Kamalathal, in Vadivelampalayam on the outskirts of Coimbatore, visitors arrive here from near and far for her sought-after idlis — priced at ₹1 each.
Ms. Kamalathal wakes up at 5 a.m. every day, and prepares her idli batter and chutney for side dish using a traditional grinding stone. She opens the doors for diners at 6 a.m. and closes at noon, sometimes sooner, depending on how much batter she is left with.
“I use eight kg of rice for the batter,” she said. When asked how many idlis she steamed every day, she replied,: “I don’t have a count for that!”
According to paatima (grandmother), as Ms. Kamalathal is fondly known among her customers, she is 82 years old. Despite her wrinkled, bespectacled face, a bony frame and a slightly hunched back, she appears as sprightly as a middle-aged person, running the cramped eatery all by herself.
With her son taking to gardening work, it is P. Aarthi, wife of Ms. Kamalathal’s grandson, who keeps her company during the day time. “She likes to do everything by herself,” the granddaughter-in-law said, adding that Ms. Kamalathal even chooses the firewood to be used. On paatima ’s age, Ms. Aarthi, who intends to continue running the eatery after the old lady, remarked, “She might be even 90 years old.”
With the number of customers visiting the eatery steadily increasing from 7 a.m. onward, Ms. Kamalathal cooks without a pause in her traditional idli vessel, on an an earthen stove with firewood. “I don’t know how to use a gas stove,” she chuckled.
Among her customers are children from the Panchayat Union middle school, who have their breakfast here before heading off to school. S. Nishanth, a student of Class VIII, said he had been frequenting the shop since he had been in Class III. Another customer, a youth named S. Sathishkumar from the nearby Nathegoundenpudur village, said he has been a regular for nearly two years. When asked what drew him to to Ms. Kamalathal’s idlis, he said, “It’s her kai pakkuvam [unique taste].”
K. Marappan, a senior citizen, said he had been a customer for 20 years. “I sometimes eat without even paying her.” he said laughingly, as he and Ms. Kamalathal argued over his pending bills. “My children prefer eating outside, but I would like to eat only here,” he said.
One customer, A. Rajan from Coimbatore city, said he had come for the idlis after watching a video on Ms. Kamalathal on the Internet. About six unique videos on Ms. Kamalathal are available on YouTube, with three of them having over one lakh views. “I have been selling idlis for ₹1 for the past 15 years,” Ms. Kamalathal said. For the past three months, she has also been selling bonda s for ₹2.50 per piece.
When asked whether she would consider increasing the price of idlis, she said, “This is all for punniyam [moral or religious merit]. Some prefer to eat for ₹10 and some prefer to eat for ₹25. Let them eat.”