Where idlis mean their daily bread

Gokul Krishnamurthy | Updated on April 27, 2012 Published on April 26, 2012

‘Idli’ seller starting their day’s business in the morning for Dharavi in Mumbai. — Photo: Paul Noronha   -  Business Line

All the idliwallahs acknowledge that their idlis are more sought after than the ‘Udipi Hotel' idlis and vadas – a key reason being the spicy accompaniments. It's advantage ‘anna' in Mumbai on this front.

The street opposite Kamaraj Memorial School on Dharavi's 90-feet road looks like it's a one way for pedestrians at 7 am. And it seems like every second person emerging from the street has a big utensil on his head. Packed in each are about a 1,000 units of South Indian delicacies — idlis, vadas, and mini- dosas; with the accompanying chutney(s) and sambar meticulously packed in too.

For many of these ‘idliwallahs' emerging from what is referred to as the ‘labour camp' in Mumbai's now famous ‘slum', and their families, these idlis and vadas are the means to their daily bread. And for a lot of Mumbaikars, they have been the source of breakfast for decades now.

A family affair

Further into the street, a lane, barely four feet wide, begins. It's tough to make out at first glance that people live in houses inside this path. But it is in the small houses dotting the lane on either side that most of the idliwallahs' inventory is prepared.

Meenakshi sits at the entrance to her house, as her husband, Govindarajan, sprinkles the topping of fried curry leaves ( karuveppilai) and mustard seeds ( kadugu) on the chutney, before shutting the lid tight. He looks a little hung over from the previous night, but there can be no excuses — there are a 1,000-plus idlis to sell. His wife, father and son have been getting the food ready from 4 am. It used to take longer, notes his father, before the electric gadgets to mix and grind came into the household. The father, who moved from Madurai to Mumbai, should know — he had been an idliwallah before calling it a day.

Govindarajan himself has now been in the business for over 30 years. He doesn't want his son to join the trade, though he isn't complaining about having to walk 10-15 km (sometimes more, he estimates) selling his stuff. It keeps his kitchen going, in more ways than one.

“What else can I do? When I was younger, someone took Rs 30,000 and promised me a railway job. That didn't happen. Someone else promised another government job, which also didn't happen. This trade keeps us going. Mostly, the same people eat our food everyday, and our needs are met too,” says a weary Govindarajan.

Simple food, simpler math

Four idlis (or two idlis and two vadas) are sold by most of Govind's ilk for Rs 10. If the idlis are bigger, it's three for Rs 10. Even at the lower rate, this translates into Rs 2,500 per day for 1,000 units sold. Assuming no one in the household does any other job, and at a conservative margin of 30 per cent, that's a profit of Rs 750 per day for the family's business.

Some say the margin is closer to, or more than, 50 per cent, without any rental or employee cost associated with the restaurant business.

Govind's household has only one idli-selling breadwinner, down from two earlier. In the case of Veluchamy, it is a triple- idli-income household today. The 35 year-old has been in the trade for 12 years, following in the footsteps of his brother and uncle. “I moved from Theni to Mumbai in 1995. My uncle used to be in this trade. I used to help around the house for the first five years, as I was new to the city and young. From 2000, I have been selling idlis six or even seven days a week,” says Veluchamy, getting ready to move his wares to the waiting taxi.

Supply meets demand

Taxis are lined up outside the street, on 90-feet road, ready to ferry the breakfast-sellers to the nearest railway stations. Three or four of them, including their wares, fit into each. They head off to Matunga, Mahim or Sion stations, from where a train will take them to their ‘markets'. In the market, they are on foot all the way, until they head back home.

There is no system of market allocation. Which is why, one often finds multiple idliwallahs in the same locality. There are others with larger stocks moving around on bicycles too. Is there room for conflict?

Rangasami, one of three idliwallahs in a taxi, tells us: “We can carry only a certain number of idlis, and finish selling everything by 1 or 2 in the afternoon. Three of us sell in Bandra every day, and have different areas within Bandra, Khar and Santa Cruz (adjoining areas) divided amongst us. But there are others (idliwallahs) also who come from other places, including Dharavi. There is no competition as everyone finishes selling almost everything they carry.”

They all acknowledge that their idlis are more sought after than the ‘Udipi Hotel’ idlis and vadas – a key reason being the spicy accompaniments. It’s advantage ‘anna’ in Mumbai on this front.

Most mobile idliwallahs say sales are steady through the year, while some admit they are unable to ply their trade during the monsoons.

In sum, there seems to be as much demand as there is supply, for the home-made, healthy and affordable snacking delights born in South India. And these ‘foot soldiers' from Dharavi ensure that the idli-vada demand, at the bottom of the pyramid in Mumbai, is met, with no compromise on taste.

Published on April 26, 2012

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