If you are near the NCF office in Mysore, Seetharam Shetty is the man to look out for. He is famous in the area, not by name but by what he has to offer. For one, he serves inexpensive, hygienic, clean and tasty food. Secondly, when this affable fifty-five year old serves food, he offers it with a broad smile that covers almost half his face with a broom shaped moustache. And lastly, the way he communicates with people of all ages and classes with a standard, “Chatni or curd, Sir! ”.
Seetharam was ten when he started helping his father in the family business of providing ‘tiffin’. While learning the ropes of the business from his father, he simultaneously got trained as a mechanic that helped him secure a job at the Jawa factory. Life was steady, with father running a business and Seetharam working at the factory. The income was sufficient to look after the family of five.
And then, one fine day, things changed! The Jawa factory closed down unexpectedly, Seetharam lost his job and at the same time his father stopped working due to his deteriorating health. Life got dependent on the meager savings. Seetharam went from one place to another, “Sir, do you have a job?” All attempts failed! Finally, he retorted to ‘tiffin’, a business his father had mastered.
From then till date, Seetharam has been running the tiffin service and serving food to hundreds on a daily basis. When asked why he addresses everyone as ‘sir’, he replies “Sir, I learned to call everyone ‘sir’, when I was unemployed”.
For Seetharam, age or class is immaterial, what is important is that his customer relishes the food and that provides the bread and butter for his family. A typical day begins at 4.30 a.m. The rice and lentils get onto the fire while his wife, the chef adds the desired ingredients. The mix gets moulded into various forms that Seetharam finally sells out of aluminium tins as Chitra anna, Bhat, Puliogyre, Idlis, Neer dosa and Dal vadas. His stall opens at 8.30 am under the shade of a chatri beneath a raintree. Little boys in their school uniform flock around and Seetharam patiently serves each of them a plate full of his goodies. He stands under the chatri until the tins are empty.
The best dish Seetharam serves is the Neer Dosa, dosas made with a batter with the consistency of water. It differs from the regular Dosa, as it doesn’t include Urad daal and the batter does not need to be fermented after grinding. Attesting the popularity of this recipe, he claims to sell over 100 neer dosa each day and at times, within a couple of hours. What better way than to start the day with a healthy neer dosa!
Seetharam however thinks otherwise. He believes that what we eat today, even though from his stall, is not really healthy. The best and healthiest food available was that when he was a kid and that too for five or ten paise. “The rice was so pure then! No pesticides and chemical fertilizers. It was pure, organic, ‘fat’ rice, which was fragrant. Now, it is white, ‘polished’ rice grown with pesticides. That old taste is no more!” While talking to me, he gave a spoonful of rice to the child and some curd, then he looked at me and grinned, “with such food, what we don’t know is their future, sir!”