Sunday, August 12, 2012

The White Economy: Story of 1,000 Idli makers in Mumbai.

Pottery and leather, we know, but 700 of Dharavi's families are behind 3,00,000 idlis feeding Mumbai's appetite each day

It's 3.30 am, and Dharavi's 90 Feet Road is in no mood to wind down. The streetfood stalls are ready to down shutters after Sehri, the last meal Muslims eat before the break of fajr or dawn during the month of Ramzan. But for its 1,000-odd idli makers, it's time to move.

The alleys that crisscross this 557-acre intricate area, lined by 15x15 feet kholis, go from dark to glowing as tubelights flare up in successive shanties. Inside, men who only use their first names - Chella, Chinna, Murugan, Karpan — bow to a gigantic aluminium steamer, and light up their stoves.

Between 500 to 700 families that live in over 60,000 structures, several of them caboose-like, earn their living by making idlis and vadas, every South Indian's staple breakfast. Each home whips up a minimum of 400 steaming, fluffy rice cakes every day. A household with two or three men could take that number up to 1,000.

That's nearly 3 lakh idlis leaving the shantytown, wedged between Sion and Mahim, on trains along the Central, Western and Harbour lines to satiate Mumbai's workforce.

This community is easily recognised by what they carry on their heads — a large aluminium vessel with idlis snuggled inside. Fastened to it with a fat industrial-strength rubberband are smaller stainless steel containers carrying coconut chutney and sambhar, a heap of paper plates, and an inimitable horn that announces the idliwalla's arrival in a neighbourhood.

Image credit: Cafe Idly.

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