First things first. A mess is a mess and not a hotel because of two things. The menu for each meal is fixed – one does not get to order. It is mainly those in the know who flock to the mess – unlike your average hotel near a bus stop or at a junction, the mess does not cater to much of what is called ‘the floating crowd’. As a member of the above-mentioned crowd, I missed the place twice. Located off Parthasaraythy Street, itself located off Bells Road, Kasivinayaga Mess (Vegetarian) would have been missed again were it not for the small group of people waiting patiently in front of its small door. Puzzled over why the crowd was lingering outside when there were clearly vacant seats inside, I confidently strode in, and mildly shocked, bought a token for meals plus curd for Rs. 61. (I had read stories of meals costing Rs. 23).
Small tables and stools – 40 of them – were arranged in four rows. In seats 20 – 40, people were immersed in their food. Most of the seats 1-20 were vacant except two where people were winding up. The answer presented itself when the two stragglers left and suddenly, the crowd outside came in quietly, bought tokens and took their seats. Lunch, evidently, was to be had together even if you did not know or did not want to know you neighbours at the table. K. Vasudevan has the content expression of a man who has run a well-known business for 40 years. He began Kasivinayaga Mess, encouraged by the response he got from running one in Presidency College in the 70s, a time of great student unrest. “My principles, then as now, are the same. I buy the vegetables every morning and no leftovers served,” he says. They seemed to have helped, for nearly 500 customers throng the mess at a time when the once-hundreds of messes have come down to dozens. “The messes miscalculated,” he admits. “They were making food for a 1,500 people when there were only a 1000. That combined with the increase in fast food places saw many of them shut down,” he says.
In seat number 18, alongside my ‘batch’-mates, I notice everyone laying their token chips on the table, so to speak. A man rushes past, collecting them and the familiar ritual begins. The washing of the plantain leaf, the poriyal (thankfully coconut laced) and kootu and then the rice accompanied by ghee and paruppu. The rice is a bit sticky but the rest of the stuff tastes great. It might be a limited meal but it sure is filling though what strikes me is the speed at which everyone is wolfing down their meals. I pride myself to be a fast eater and I am disconcerted.Vasudevan seems to be no fan of doctors. “They keep advising people to be health-conscious and eat chapathis. In fact, some customers have even requested us to serve chapathis but I am not for it. We’ve maintained a balance all these years, serving particular combinations of vegetables that are both popular and healthy,” he says. However, the doctors seem to have had their impact.
The number of customers has gone down at night. “It is mainly the regulars who still come here, especially employees from government offices and other firms in the vicinity, that too for lunch,” he says. It does not help that prices of vegetables have been rising steeply as have been labour costs, he adds. All-in-all, I made good time. By the time, rice was had with sambar, rasam and curd, half the people of my batch were still eating. It was a classic working day meal, not much time spent on musing about the ambiance or the service – rather an extremely quick but satisfying interlude before a few more hours of sitting in an office. As I step out, Vasudevan is talking to an old-timer, an erstwhile customer of the late 70s who later moved to another part of the city. The customer, an ex-AIR employee has a ton of stories of his own, of interviews and shows and of how Kasivinayaga Mess would supply food to his office when all shutters were down due to strikes in those tumultous times. “Vasudevan’s wedding was really memorable. The food was from the mess and many of us regulars went and had a lovely lunch,” he laughs. “I make it a point to stop by when I come to this part of the city,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Vasudevan goes inside and returns with a packet full of paruppu podi, whose virtues the customer had been extolling. As he would say, “Ten people might shout at you for various reasons but the one customer who sings praises of your food is what makes your day.”