I met Porkkodi recently. It was a chance encounter. Porkkodi’s face lit up with a charming smile. Nodding her head, her twin pony tails dancing this way and that, her lips puckered, her eyes glimmering – she was visibly excited at doing something patently wrong. I chanced on her precisely at that moment! It happened thus. I was returning from my daily morning walk. I usually jog across the seemingly wide expanse of Madurai city, where the roads become as narrow as narrow could be as soon as vehicular traffic starts, to the eco park at its northern end.
It is a verdant space with sculpted walkways where the morning hours are inevitably dominated by the chirp and chatter of different birds. I take almost an hour to walk over to the park and complete one or two rounds in it — one round of the park’s paved walkway is about two kilometres! I exit through the doorway at the back of the park after smiling, nodding and exchanging pleasantries with other daily walkers.
It is at this point that I am usually confronted with a weighty question: where, with what and how should I break my fast? I have choices galore! I can go to my usual Bhagaym thattu kada, where a gastronomic feast in the form of pongal flavoured with finely fried pepper grains and two or more kinds of chutneys awaits the foodie. Or I can go to the famous Sri Krishna Café, also known as Sweet Karam Coffee (SKC!) where the specialty is steaming iddlis and not to forget, a minute helping of sweet rava kesari ladled on to the plate, compliments of the owner. There is always the third option of limiting the breakfast to a super large cup of excellently brewed coffee and an extra large medu vadai doled out by the Visalam Coffee Bar.
But one morning, I decided to wend my way to one of the Amma Unavagams (canteens) that had grabbed the headlines in all the newspapers. These unavagams are a brainchild of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. Idlis will be available at these canteens for just a rupee. The significance of these canteens can be gauged from the fact that even the Bhagaym thattu kada charges `5 per idli! I went to an unavagam near my room in the heart of Madurai. The canteen was housed in a modern, freshly painted building. Inside were gleaming benches in a central hall.
Two or three ladies were always there to take away used plates as well as wipe the benches clean. The canteen hall was also fitted with an array of wash basins and a clean water dispenser. I peeked into the kitchen too.
As far as I could make out, basic hygiene was being practised. Ladies engaged in preparation of idlis, idli batter and the sambar that goes with it – all were wearing plastic caps. Huge vessels, in which the dishes were being prepared, were gleaming, clearly proving that they were washed well.
At the centre of the hall was a small cubicle where was seated the supervisor. She collected the money from customers and handed out coupons. A customer has to take the coupon to the window near the kitchen, where it can be exchanged for idlis. There was space near the kitchen to drop used trays and I was surprised to see the many young customers taking the trouble to drop the plates in the designated trays. I was also surprised to notice that they were particular about washing their hands thoroughly before eating food. I bought a plate of four hot, fluffy idlis and found a spot under a fan and started enjoying their fresh feel.
It was then that I saw Porkkodi at the far end of the hall. I had met her earlier at a library near my home that used to arrange talks regularly. I was often called to give basic lessons in English. Porkkodi used to be an active participant in these classes. This morning, however, she didn’t seem eager to meet me. I wondered why. It was then that I saw Porkkodi surreptitiously opening a tiffin box and emptying two plates of idli sambar into it. Our eyes locked at that exact moment!
My gaze moved to the notice board, occupying an entire wall of the hall. It read: “food should not be taken outside! Parcel food not allowed!!” No more words were needed. It was obvious that Porkkodi knew she was breaking the rule. She went away without seeing me!