At the young age of 13, Daya Nayak left his home in Karnataka’s Udupi district to earn a livelihood. His father, a labourer, had died early and the family was of modest means. He sought a job in Mumbai. The city’s dense network of Udupi restaurants promised shelter, food and a support system that sustained him — till he joined the police force. Over the years, Nayak came to be known as an “encounter specialist”, after he allegedly slayed 80-plus members of Mumbai’s underworld. “Even today, I can hold five glasses of tea in one hand,” says Nayak, now 49 years old, as he reminisces the “innocent days” of his childhood, when he worked at an Udupi restaurant in Andheri’s Versova neighbourhood.
The restaurant closes for lunch in 30 minutes but the queue outside Matunga’s Cafe Madras continues to grow longer. Inside, everything is precise, like clockwork. A waiter in a grey uniform materialises at one’s table within seconds to take the order. His colleague wipes the table and places glasses of water. It’s the efficiency that residents of Mumbai take for granted.
For years, Mumbaikars have gone to the Udupis for a quick fix of dosa, idli and medu vada. The restaurants are credited for having introduced the city — and much of the world — to these staples, which were once part of temple cuisine at the famous Sri Krishna temple in Udupi, Karnataka, set up by Madhavacharya in the 13th century.
Typically opening at 7 am, most of these restaurants operate through the day. “Work begins as early as 4.30 am,” says Devavrath Kamath, who runs Cafe Madras along with his brother Jaiprakash. “The kitchen is cleaned first and then those who grind the masalas take over, followed by the cooks. By 6 am, the restaurant is abuzz and by 7am, we begin to serve.” The day ends only after 10.30 pm. It is a routine followed by most such restaurants across the city.
Legend has it that the story of the Udupis began in the 1920s when a young boy migrated to Mumbai from his coastal village in Karnataka. Rama Nayak was 11 at the time. With a job at a restaurant, he worked his way up from chopping vegetables and making rotis to managing the kitchen. In the late 1930s, he started his own stall in Matunga, a central Mumbai locality with a strong Tamilian and Kannadiga population, selling idlis and dosas. In 1942, he opened Udupi Shri Krishna, said to be the first Udupi restaurant in the city. Fort and Matunga eventually emerged as hubs for Udupis that served fresh, steaming breakfast and teatime snacks to officegoers.
Over the years, they also emerged as a source of employment for migrants, many of them teenagers who had dropped out of school. “An Udupi employs upwards of 20 boys. So, it was a natural choice for me to seek a job in a restaurant when I came to Mumbai (from Pangri village in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district),” says 55-year-old Shivram Gawde, who has been working at Cafe Madras since 1982. Gawde came to Mumbai with the dream of pursuing his education. He could not continue his studies but he stuck to his job. “I earned around Rs 175 a month, most of which I could save because the food and shelter was free,” he says. Until 12 years ago, he lived in the restaurant or in the staff quarters. “I am old now and cannot do the kitchen work anymore. But I am happy in this job. I have been able to buy my own house where I now live,” he says.
Gawde represents the aspiration with which hundreds migrate to Mumbai every year. Kannada author Jayant Kaikini, who has written about the mundane and the everyday in the lives of Mumbai’s common man, has more than once used Udupis as a motif in his short stories.
But barring a handful of such instances, the lives of those who work at these restaurants remain invisible, especially in popular culture. This is what prompted director Sandeep Modi to make his Marathi film Chumbak about a migrant boy who cleans tables at an Udupi. “Most of my memories of family outings revolve around visits to the Udupis. My parents would tell me that if I didn’t study hard, I would end up cleaning tables like them. The boys serving us would often be my age. It was if their aspirations didn’t matter,” says Modi.
Chumbak is the story of Balu, a boy in his early teens who works at an Udupi in the hope of saving money and returning to his village, where he dreams of starting a juice and cold drinks stall. He sleeps with the other boys on the restaurant floor and works the morning shift. “I discovered some interesting facets while researching for the film. For instance, child labour is a grey area. Many eateries hire boys who are younger than 14. Each of the boys I interviewed said food was no more a delight for them; they preferred to spend their money on movies.”
Success stories like Daya Nayak are fewer and far between. A first-class student throughout, Nayak remembers that he came to Mumbai with the dream of taking up a bank job. Starting his day at 4 am, he would clean tables and wash cups all day. In the night, he would study at a nearby park under the street lamp. Over the years, the restaurant became his home and his colleagues, his family. “I am still grateful for the support system that the Udupis provide to outsiders like me,” he says, adding that it was the owner of an Udupi in Goregaon who got him admitted to a night school. Later, Nayak used this very network to mine information on gangsters, who would frequent hotels and restaurants run by fellow Kannadigas.
Over the years, the concept of Udupis has evolved. “As temple cuisine, the food was supposed to be sattvik. So our dishes contained neither onions nor garlic. But the cuisine and recipes have since evolved. We do use onion but garlic is still left out of the dishes, except our rasam,” says 37-year-old Kamath.
Today, the menu in many Udupis includes everything from pav bhaji and samosa to pizza and Indian Chinese. And the sambar is often sweet. Those that stuck to pure menus and did not adapt have had to shut down. While it’s tough to place a number to them, officials of the Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association say that over 150 such eateries have shut in the city in the last 10 years.
The last of the customers have left. Gawde gets a moment to sit down. “The Udupis are one place where people from every background sit together and eat. It’s one of those things that makes Mumbai what it is.”