Category Archives: Kadais

Kadais (Part 4): That sinking feeling

There’s this tiny food stall on a by lane of R.A. Puram, off C.P. Ramaswamy Road, that sells noodles and biriyani and the like. I’ve never paid it much attention until recently, when my brother pointed out its signboard to me. It said: ‘Titanic Fast Food’.

Given that the fact that the stall is about the size of the cardboard box my refrigerator came in, that title is a tad incongruous. Ironic, even. But, I told my brother, good for the guy. He might be small, but he dreams big. Real big. He might be a roadside vendor, but his aspirations are palatial. Nothing wrong with the owner of a cardboard box wanting to be a Titan, you know? It’s praiseworthy. Motivational, almost. I was almost giving myself goosebumps at this point. Then my brother told me to look at the sign again.

Here, I even remembered to take a picture for once, so you can see it too:

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See that, on the left side of the signboard? Right beside the picture of the chicken rice? Yes, that’s an image of the Titanic. The ship. And yes, it’s sinking. Like, tilted-at-45-degrees-and-heading-for-the-ocean-floor sinking. If this were the movie, it would be the point at which Rose is on the raft and Jack is freezing his skinny butt off in the water and Leo fangirls everywhere are shedding copious tears.

Not, you’d admit, the most appetising image. Not particularly motivational either. Because now we’ve gone from Titanic Fast Food, the grand, imposing, colossal seller of roadside biriyani, to Titanic Fast Food, the roadside seller of biriyani who is doomed to sink without a trace.

I found myself coming back to that question I ask so often in this Kadais series of blogs: What was he thinking?? Why would you want to equate your business with catastrophe? Why would you want to give your customers a sinking feeling before they even begin to eat?

I mean, I’d understand if he’d used a picture of the Titanic as it was when it first sailed… majestic, a feat of human ingenuity and engineering. Yes, it did eventually sink, but it was pretty awesomesauce to start with. But why, why would you want to show it mid-tragedy, semi-sunk?

Unlike all those previous times, I’ve got nothing. Zilch. I have no explanations of the possible thought process behind the name. Except for one thing — he did get my attention. I may not ever actually eat his waterlogged biriyani, but I certainly won’t forget this roadside vendor who, apparently, adds a dash of disaster to dinner.

May his (food) cart go on and on…

 

 

 

 

 

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Kadais (Part 3): Flip a coin

So, I’ve been meaning to write about this shop on P. S. Sivasamy Salai in Mylapore for simply ages. Every time I pass its signboards — there’s one above the entrance and another larger one to the side, on the pavement, so you just can’t miss it — I’m floored by the remarkable honesty on display. This is what you call keeping it real. This is what you call not making false promises. This, folks, is the face of integrity.

A tailoring and clothing shop called “Hit or Miss Boutique”.

The first time I saw it, I was sure I’d seen wrong. I must have passed by too fast. Not read it right. The second time, I stopped and made sure to read it carefully. No mistake. I’d gotten it right. After that, every time I went that way, I’d make it a point to look for it, and revel in its weirdness. Over time, it’s become one of my favourite Chennai shop signs, up there with ‘Hotel Runs’ (which delivers nowadays, in case you were wondering).

“Hit or Miss”. Why? Why would you name your tailoring shop that? What earthly reason could there be to choose that name of all the possible names in the world? I’ve really given it some thought, and I’ve finally come to the decision that there could be no reason other than the desire to be totally and completely upfront. Really, he’s just saying — before you even enter the door — what every woman who has ever gone to a tailor to get her clothes stitched already knows. The process is inevitably a toss-up. Of the three dresses you give for stitching, one will turn out to be unwearably, irreparably bad, one can maybe be salvaged and one will be reasonably wearable. It doesn’t matter whether you give a sample or give your measurements, it doesn’t matter how many times before the same tailor has stitched similar sari blouses or salwar kameezs for you, the result is the same. Any woman going to a tailor mentally writes at least a couple of the outfits even before stitching begins. You just hope the ones that get utterly ruined aren’t the ones you really, really loved.

So, “Hit or Miss Boutique” is just telling it like it is. No false advertising here. He’s telling you, “Look lady, you’re gonna win some, you’re gonna lose some. That’s the name of the game. Take it or leave it.” It’s refreshing, really. Good on you, Mr. Hit or Miss, for putting the truth out there. No pretenses. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more commercial establishments followed this policy of honesty? The glitzy designer store could call itself “Le Rip Off”, the auto mechanic could call himself “No Idea Repair Works”, the private clinic could be “More Expensive Tests Hospital” and so on.

I applaud you, sir, and the next time I want to get something stitched with an uncertain outcome, you’ll be my first choice.

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Kadais (Part II): Thalapakattu Biriyani and Men’s Beauty Parlours

See, I’d planned to do a second piece on theyil kadais in the city (a sorta sequel to this one) but then I came across some irresistible signboards on a couple of other kadais meanwhile, and the series took a bit of a detour. Here goes 🙂

‘Executive Package’. Written in neat white font on a dark blue signboard put up high on a drab, office-type building in Adyar (I don’t what it is about Adyar and awesome signage… first the iconic ‘Hotel Runs’, apparently now an unofficial tourist destination, the safari kadai and now this), the sign reeks of officialdom. Taking in the name and the style of presentation, one immediately assumes, naturally, that this is a corporate courier company of some sort. Like, you know, ‘we deliver your top secretest documents anywhere anytime’ and all that. But one would be dead wrong. Because right below, in the same super serious and businesslike font, are the words ‘Exclusive Men’s Beauty Parlour’.

The ingenuity is remarkable. Think about it. This humble sign is attempting to do the impossible — appeal to both your average stick-in-the-mud executive and your with-it metrosexual at the same time. The businesslike title and signage should reassure the middle-aged executive who wouldn’t, for instance, be caught dead going into one of those super stylish, house-music-pumping, unisex salons frequented by ‘The Youth’ (with the images of scarily hip-looking men and women with spiky purple hair out front). At the same time, the discrete ‘Men’s Beauty Parlour’ at the bottom should effectively draw in the blossoming middle-class metrosexual who believes unabashedly in the notion of male beauty and therefore in visiting its Mecca, the male beauty parlour, facials, foot scrubs and all.

This is a place, one feels, where sufficiently serious-minded young men in neat tailored trousers and full-sleeved white shirts (with starched collars, of course) will give you fabulous manicures with business-like efficiency, where a tea boy will serve you hot tea/kaapi with Marie biscuits as you wait and you have plenty of peons to sweep up or wash your hair rapidly before styling. It’s truly a breakthrough in marketing the concept of the ‘male beauty parlour’ to the fuddy-duddy crowd.

Ingenious kadai no. 2 is a biriyani place I passed by on ECR the other day. At first glance, its sign looked much the same as that of any other Thalapakattu Biriyani joint in the city, except that it seemed a little more crowded (hardly enough space for the customary headgear (thalapakattu) drawing). That’s when I realised this is a two-for-one sign, with the bottom half — in bold orange– proclaiming proudly that this is also ‘Gayathri Travels’.

Of course, I immediately began to imagine a neatly dressed travel agent in glasses sitting behind a computer, politely making bookings for a three-day package to Singapore (“There is one beginning on June 16… shall I pencil you in? I can get you an excellent deal”), flanked on either side by huge, steaming biryani pots being stirred by big, sweaty men in lungis and baniyans (handle bar mustaches are optional). This is one travel agent’s office where delays are no issue; you can just shovel in freshly made biriyani as you wait.

This delicious picture was mildly ruined by my husband informing me that this isn’t that sort of travels place, but merely a sort of glorified bus depot with benefits. As in, you can purchase tickets for various tour bus companies here, and their buses stop here, so you can hop on. Apparently, it’s pretty common too.

But I’m struck, once again, by the terrific multi-tasking abilities of our kutti roadside kadais. Hungry travellers hopping off after a tiring ride can tuck into the hot-n-spicy confections and families with a 13-hour ride ahead can pack some up for the road. And of course, the biriyani will keep you going during the inevitable delays…

I mean, does any tour bus stop in London or New York provide you that sort of service? No, you have to trudge to the nearest Starbucks and get fleeced for a cup of coffee and a sandwich.  Just like no Parisian beautician ever thought of ‘Executive Package’ to draw in their shyer male clientèle.

Viva la Chennai, I say!

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Theyil kadais (Part One): Safari suits and such

There’s this little tailor shop in Adyar I pass on my way home from work everyday. It’s very poshly named Executive Men’s Tailor, and the tagline under it reads ‘Specialist in Safari and Suits’.

Now, it’s true that enterprising entrepreneurs in the the city often provide more than one service from little more than a potti kadai. Your neighbourhood Veena Medicals might both sell Cool Drinks from dusty old glass bottles with the requisite brightly coloured straws (you don’t see those venerable bottles as often any more. I miss them. Stupid new-fangled cans and plastic disposables) and be able to procure for you any medication you need, prescriptions be damned (‘I’ll have one packet Gems and one strip of Erithromycin, please’). Even so, a little theyil kadai claiming to be an expert in both organising safaris and stitching suits is something quite out of the ordinary, you’d agree (‘I’ll book you and your family on a Kenyan safari and throw in three lion-watching suits as part of the package’). Impressive.

Of course, it’s a tad more likely that the man is actually claiming to be a specialist in safari suits as well as other, lesser suits. Disappointing, yes, but that got me thinking about that slowly vanishing sartorial staple of the 70s and 80s in India — the safari suit. There was a time when the safari suit was an absolute must-have for the middle-class man of substance — the government official, the businessman, the school principal. Certainly they were a staple of our movie wardrobes. Every man-about-town owned one — I’m certain there’s a yellowing picture of my dad as a dapper 20-something MBA grad wearing one somewhere in the Family Chest of Bad Fashion Decisions (alongside the one of the tiger-print shirts). Every up-and-comer aspired to one.

Usually all in grey (various shades thereof) or in that awful shade of dark brown that was so popular for bell-bottoms, it was the all-body precursor of the cargo shorts (and you kids thought you were the first to come up with the idea that having a gazillion meaningless pockets was somehow cool). It also always had to be worn a couple of sizes too small — if your paunch wasn’t pressing comfortably against the middle button pre-lunch and actively struggling to break free post-lunch, you weren’t wearing it right (in fact, it is said that many a slim and willowy gentleman felt unworthy of the safari suit given his woefully inadequate mid-section. That resulted in the first and only instance in recorded history of the production of faux-paunches by a company in Bombay. They shut down following a lengthy legal battle with Bappi da who claimed the paunches were modeled on his). And finally, the safari suit was meant for longevity — the older and, of course, tighter your safari suit was, the greater its street cred in the halls of the government office you worked in.

Over the years, however, the star of the safari suit has waned. It’s become something of a joke amongst the chic set — it’s uncool, it’s only for the hopelessly fashion-challenged, they cry. But still the safari suit lingers, and not only in photo albums (right beside the bouffants and the long sideburns). In true old-school Indian style (where you never give up on anything, however patently it’s past its sell-by date, e.g. Lata Mangeshkar), a stubborn set of stuck-in-the-70s gentlemen hold on to their safari suits, whipping it out of the mothballs for that fancy family do or that important meeting. And presumably, if and when these valiant suits do give way, the gentlemen drop by to see Executive Men’s Tailor, Specialist in Safari and Suits. Because in other parts of the world, the safari suit may have become an almost-forgotten fad to be fondly remembered and even celebrated; in India, where the past and the present co-exist in (fairly) peaceful togetherness, it lives on proudly, as do the theyil kadais that specialise in them.

(PS: Would love to know the origins of the safari suit — any ideas? Does it have anything whatsoever to do with actual safaris? Did it evolve from the Shikari Shambu suits colonial-types wore while hunting in barbarian lands?)

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