Early morning, India. A small town named Podanur. Podanur used to be the little sister of Coimbatore, the bigger city, noted for its cotton spinning mills. Elders used to refer to it with pride as The Manchester of the East. Today, it would appear that Coimbatore has many little sisters, Podanur being only one of them. But this small town itself has grown over the years.
What once used to be a vast railway colony with hordes of Anglo-Indian families in residence is now merely a ghost place in that regard. The colony is — to all intents and purposes — non-existent.
The railway quarters I grew up in as a teenager is no longer visible — being razed to the ground for whatever purpose I am yet to determine. But the town itself has burgeoned, become busy with traffic and crowded with residents in other areas not including the railway colony.
On this early morning, I am seated on the balcony of my sister’s rented apartment, overlooking the busy road. I’d like to say the road is humming with traffic but as any visitor/resident knows traffic doesn’t hum, or purr.
It is instead driven by a very active horn section and this everyday symphonic composition continues in like manner, building gradually from an occasional toot to a jarring cacophony of sounds as everybody behind the wheel wishes to be heard (and seen).
Across the road, I watch the little cafe come to life. It is called Sri Pandy Mess. Translated, I guess that will read as Mr Pandy’s Mess. Mr Pandy himself, I am informed, is the man who does the least. (Look for the one in a checked lungi, a type of sarong, and white-sleeved vest, I am told.)
Mr Pandy is the one who walks about with his hands clasped behind his back most of the time in the cliched attitude of supervisor/overseer.
It is not Mr Pandy, however, who is the main star. It is his dough maker. A human dough maker, not a machine, although to watch him from start at the crack of dawn to finish late at night he could very well be a human representative of the mechanical dough makers. In appearance he is as nondescript as the brown nightingale which, as we all know, once it opens its mouth and commences its song, has the ability to bring listeners to a standstill. Mr Pandy’s dough maker is a bit like that.
I’m convinced that patrons walk into the restaurant merely to watch his skills with fascination while their order is being prepared, because instead of walking in and taking a seat a diner will position himself next to the kneading section and watch as the dough maker either kneads a huge mass of soft flowery flour into a feathery pliable mound, or with even more admiration observe him fashion a roti (round flatbread) into a roundness that takes ordinary mortals years of practice to achieve. And he does all this while carrying on a staccato conversation with the onlookers.
I have often thought to myself, seated on the balcony, that if only I could pack this talented dough maker into my suitcase and spirit him away to Sydney I would. Restaurant owners would fall over themselves to employ him, I’m sure. But instead, here he is, in my little — some would call it one-horse — town, doing what he does best and never seeming to tire of it.
Watching him, I am reminded of the words of a poet, Milton, I think, who advised us to ‘bloom where you are planted’. If Mr Pandy’s Mess is as popular an eatery as it obviously is, the secret for its success lies right before my eyes.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.