Inside The World Of Dharavi’s Idli-Makers

Inside The World Of Dharavi’s Idli-Makers
Rashi Arora

*Some names have been changed to protect identity.

It is 2:46 AM on a dark, windy night, and for a city that never sleeps, Dharavi is eerily silent. There’s a slight drizzle keeping us awake very much like the suspicious gaze of the street dogs that guard the dimly lit lanes. The only sound is that of the leaves swaying in the wind and our own footsteps until they are interrupted by a deep, muffled voice.

Kaun maangta hai aapko? (Who are you looking for?) a lean young man asks us, standing on the porch of his tiny, one-room-house. “We are looking for idli-walahs,” I say slightly perturbed by the fact that he is holding a metal rod in his hand. “Go straight, take a left. If you see the light switched on in any house, then there’s your idli-walah,” he states leading us into a narrow, dark lane, at the end of which I see a flicker of yellow light. In that tiny room, a couple is busy making warm, fluffy idlis – idlis that will travel from such 10x10 kholis to places across the city and beyond, from swanky restaurants in Vasai to hole-in-the-wall eateries in Matunga and even unassuming stalls in Khar.

In fact, the 557-acre labyrinthine slum may as well be the largest suppliers of idlis of the city, with more than 3,00,000 of these fluffy rice cakes being produced each day by hundreds of Tamilians who call Dharavi their home.

Pulipandi making Idlis. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown.

There’s a musky smell in the air accompanied by the warmth of the steam. 35-year-old Pulipandi is dressed in a lungi steaming idlis, while his 29-year-old wife Kavasiammal puts them in the mould plate. She smiles and looks up at us, unsurprised. “We’ve made more than a hundred idlis so far,” she says in broken Hindi. “My husband will go and sell them near Khar station,” she adds.

The couple works swiftly, almost like a machine. Their hands move mechanically as batches after batches of idlis are prepared. While Pulipandi and his wife are already halfway done with their work by 3:00 AM, their neighbour is just getting started. A tiny yellow bulb is switched on in the adjacent house and an old, frail woman dressed in a pale green checked saree sits up and churns the batter. Her tiny room is done in a bright shade of blue and is cluttered with huge vessels that contain almost 16 kilograms of idli batter, and a mix of chutneys. Everything is sourced from Madurai, the town in Tamil Nadu from where she migrated to Mumbai. “We had a troublesome life back in Madurai. We had a small land to farm upon but no water. So I came here with my husband to start a new life. He passed away 10 years ago and I am continuing his business now,” she states hesitantly.

She shares her fate with hundreds of other households situated in the seedy lanes around Dharavi’s 90-feet road where most of the slum’s Tamil community resides. These are hopeful migrants that came to the maximum city, year after year, in search of a better life after their fields started to run dry.

Though the agrarian crisis is one way to explain the influx, there is also another slightly darker story that makes rounds in the public squalor and even in several books that narrate stories of Mumbai’s infamous mafia. In the mid-1970s’, a liquor ban was imposed in Mumbai. Varadarajan Mudaliar, a notorious Indian gangster, whose base was Dharavi recruited many South Indians and got them here to produce liquor and smuggle it. Many Tamilians stayed back. Though it may be difficult to comment on the Tamilians living in Dharavi, today, the lanes near Kamraj school seem like little hamlets right out of Tamil Nadu complete with Tamilian grocery stores, DVD shops, temples and even Tamil-medium schools. Producing liquor is now a thing of the past and most Tamilians here resort to making idlis and vadas for a living.

Balu and his wife Janaki. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown.

“It is quick and it’s easy to make. It’s comfort food, adjustable to most taste palettes,” says Mani, a young man in his mid-twenties who came to Mumbai with his father. He has a slightly larger room with a bed and a table where he keeps most of his belongings. On the dreary yellow wall hangs a picture of his father who passed away a few years ago. Mani used to be a driver first, but gave up his job to continue his father’s business of selling Idlis at Marine Drive near Chandanwadi Samsad.“I sell 4 idlis for 20 bucks whereas other idli stalls in the area sell 8 idlis for the same price. Still, people choose to come to me for my quality is the best. I have around 240 regular customers,” he states.

However, the quality is not the only thing that is working for Mani. It is also the fact that he has a license to operate a stall and isn’t an illegal hawker like most of his neighbours who constantly have to change spots when BMC officials decide to raid.

“It isn’t easy for my father to carry the heavy steel boxes on his shoulders and constantly move around,” says Vinita as she watches him make idlis in the messy room that has now been transformed into a stuffy sauna. “But we are used to this steam,” she says amused, as I wipe trickles of sweat from my forehead. 20-year-old Vinita wants nothing to do with idlis – she only wants to eat them for breakfast. “My sister and I are studying. In fact, we have never been pressured to cook. In our family, boys who are not interested in studying have to make idlis,” the final year B.Com student states.

Almost 10 houses away from hers, is a young man who never got an opportunity to study. 27-year-old Sethu Kumar* is busy making vadas in his 10X10 room, already through with almost 300 idlis that he will sell near Andheri station.

“I was only 13 when I came to this city from Madurai. I learned to make idlis from my mother, just like I learned all the other things,” he says enigmatically. Like most people here, his day begins at 2 AM every day. “We prepare the batter in the evening, but prepare the idlis in the middle of the night, so that they retain their softness and freshness until they are sold in the morning – which is when most people prefer to relish idlis,” Sethu adds.

A fresh batch of idlis. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown.

The idlis made by the Tamilians of Dharavi enjoy a certain degree of popularity in the city. The foremost reason being its authenticity that rivals idlis one shall get in any typical mess in Tamil Nadu. They use the Tanjore ponni rice that is sourced directly from their home state. The method used to prepare the batter also has slight variations as the ratio of idli rice to urad dal is different, making these Idlis much softer and whiter in colour. The chutneys are whipped up in a matter of fifteen minutes.

While most of these Idli makers are roadside hawkers earning anything between INR 500- INR 1000 in one day, some of the early settlers are also wholesale suppliers to several restaurants across Mumbai. These wholesalers have a fixed source of income and also take up catering orders for parties and weddings.

“It gives us a better business,” says Balakrishna who makes idlis on orders for catering companies and a few restaurants in Dahisar. “I am able to earn almost INR 2500 a day, which is much better than what I started with - only 700 a day,” he states. Balakrishna came to Mumbai almost 20 years ago from a village near Madurai. He got his contacts from his sister who settled in the shanty, much earlier.

Just like in other households where the husband and wife work together to produce Idlis, Balakrishna and his wife are also almost through with their last batch of idlis. As soon as they are done Balakrishna gets up, tightens his lungi and walks out to get some chai. His wife starts packing idlis in steel boxes while their daughter sleeps peacefully in their 15x15 kholi, seemingly unaffected by the steam. Their son, sleeps outside the house, very close to a narrow drain through which a big fat rat scurries.

Fast asleep. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown.

Life may certainly seem tough here, but these Idli makers wouldn’t trade it for their lives back home where they naturally felt more accepted and where language wasn’t a barrier. “I managed to buy my own room in Dharavi. My ageing mother stays comfortably here. I wouldn’t be able to afford this lifestyle back home,” says 29-year-old Muthukumar who has own Idli stall.

His thoughts resonate with almost every Idli maker that resides in Dharavi. “Here, I am able to send my children to an English Medium school. There are better opportunities here for them,” states Balu and his wife Janaki who’ve spent more than half their lives in Dharavi selling idlis. “Today our son is doing B.Sc in Mathematics,” they add proudly.

For the outside world, Dharavi, which itself is a microcosm of cultures, is just another slum. For those living inside, especially the Tamilians, it is their home, an identity that they are slowly and naturally getting accustomed too. They live their lives, one day at a time where their focus is to earn a decent sum of money to sail through.

Out for sale and supply. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown.

And that’s exactly what they are doing when the sun filters through the narrow gaps in the roofs and hundreds of idli makers walk out with steel boxes and steamers accommodating three tray moulds at a go containing fresh, hot idlis. It is 7:00 AM and they are at the last stage of their work day, looking for shared taxis, taking the train or carrying them on their cycles. They travel to various parts of the city, near and far to sell and supply idlis and return home in the afternoon for a good day’s sleep – until the clock strikes 2:45 AM, and in the silence of the night, these mini idli factories restart once again.

All photographs taken by Rashi Arora for Homegrown.

The conversation between the reporter and the Idli makers was facilitated and translated by Aravind Bharat Rangarajan. We sincerely appreciate his efforts.

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