Coffee at Mani’s Cafe

So here I was in Sri Rangam, which is a busy little temple town in the district of Tiruchirapally in Tamil Nadu, and that also, happens to be my hometown. I had come to visit my grand parents & my mom who was camping there and guess what- it was turning into an impromptu mini reunion! Suddenly there were aunts & uncles & cousins and it felt like the good old times when we would gather during summer holidays or during someone’s wedding…lots of people, lots of noise, lots of food & lots of fun…so well, one of the days my dad has a brilliant idea- that we all go out to have breakfast. We all set out, at 7:45AM, an unearthly hour in Pune, but there, we were already late. If you have been to Sri Rangam, you would know we have narrow streets lined with little shops & pavements brimming over with hawkers & the roads a mumble jumble of people hurrying towards the temple and bicycles tinkling away & cycle rickshaws & the odd honking autorickshaw, all bustling & bursting in & around the huge temple complex of Lord Ranganatha. If you were lucky, you could meet the temple elephant ambling away slowly, probably taking a walk? I remember I used to be thrilled when I caught sight of him…Now on one such street, just beyond the Raja Gopuram, was Mani’s café, a little place which you would have totally missed had you not known it was there…

Have you ever been to Tamil Nadu? Well the men usually wear a lungi or a veshti ( essentially a dhoti) which is worn folded by half so that its sort of like an above-the-knee wrap around – which I think is quite the appropriate garment for the sticky heat of that state. The veshti is always white, worn usually with a crisp white shirt.We south Indians revere all things fair & white.Well one such veshti clad man waved us into an interior chamber at Mani’s (probably the owner, I don’t know) and we somehow managed to save ourselves from the waiters rushing hither & thither juggling their plates of masala dosai & jugs of sambar, & plonked ourselves at two tables…with benches instead of chairs.. One of the men came forward immediately ( he had a folded crisp white towel that hung on one side of his shoulder – which gave one the feeling of military like efficiency & also that here was a man of importance.) He reeled off the menu with a casual confidence that comes of repeating it for probably the fiftieth time that morning – “inniki enna kidaikkum?” “idli-vada-idiappam-dosai-puri masala-pongal” (yes, my mouth was secretly watering) We all gave our own orders , and before we knew it, our leafy plates were laid out before us. Food here was served the traditional tamil way, that is on plantain leaves – trust me, it’s a lot of fun, if you know how to ( my brother still doesn’t) And just think about it- it’s a brilliant cost & time saving mechanism – since it does away with crockery completely & therefore someone to wash them, besides being supremely eco friendly- nature’s very own disposable plates! One of my cousins, who like myself, is a pretext for a tamilian, whispered urgently into my ear “they don’t have plates here! ” & I had the smug satisfaction of telling her this is how it is…
Our orders came in one by one..I had asked for a masala dosai. I was just about to bite into it when one of the Sambar juggling waiters came & poured a torrent of sambar right on top of my dosa! Before I could protest at this, in comes another guy to pour chutney right on top of the sambar- so now I had this soggy dosa-sambar-chutney mix topped with my irritation – apparently they didn’t believe in bowls in this place. But still, soggy or not, my dosai was beckoning to me & soon I was tucking into it with gusto, as were all the others. Between seconds & extra helpings we soon finished & the famous filter coffee was ordered. Coffee is the staple beverage in South India & if you were a non coffee drinker, like me, well, you could get looks ranging from astonishment to bewilderment to the kind of look one gives to a neighbour whose girl has run away to marry, O Lord, a North Indian 🙂 –- pity? Yes that’s what it is, I think…Anyway, the coffee is had in a davara-tumbler – davara being a cylindrical katori with a flat rim, and a tumbler being , of course a tumbler. The steaming hot coffee is then poured back & forth from davara to tumbler till the time it cools down a bit & the coffee becomes light & frothy, & sipped slowly while chanting our thanks to the gods for this manna from heaven. Now Mani’s Café had an innovation to add to this- they gave us black coffee in the tumbler, which was tilted upside down in the davara, while the davara itself had the milk separately in it!! Probably to give us a feeling of having made good with our colonial upbringing…

Soon, this too was over & we were ready to go. Or rather, they were ready to let us go – it was a busy place, & not really one where you could dawdle over your cup of coffee with a book… we decided to move. Breakfast was over, & chatting & laughing & squinting in the sun, we left for home.

Its amazing how you never really see things when they are all around you. Actually you never see things until they are not there for you to see…and then they are suddenly so clear. Srirangam & Tamilian traditions were all somewhat of a drag for me till the time I married a North Indian (yes, I was the one, though I didn’t run away 🙂 ) I somehow see both with new eyes today, in fact , I feel I am really only seeing them, now. Its only when you go away, that you have perspective. And only then you realize what it is you had up close. I remember wondering briefly about having an identity crisis marrying a Lucknowite, but surprise, surprise, I think am more Tamilian now than I ever was before….Yes, I might still look uncomfortable with flowers in my short hair, and I might still prefer chai over filter coffee, But I most definitely believe that chilled curd rice with pickled raw mango is the best thing in the world……hmmmm…

Street Outside theRaja Gopuram, further in is Mani's Cafe

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6 thoughts on “Coffee at Mani’s Cafe

  1. I agree… being around strong willed Lucknowites usually makes people wilt under pressure 😛

    You have held up remarkably well I must say !

    My lasting memory of Sri Rangam is that of the sprawling temple…hopefully we will go together the next time you make the trip…

  2. gosh 🙂 a full account of breakfast in mani’s cafe 🙂 queer to relate the actual experience of eating there to your account of it 🙂 and the last part about curd rice and mango pickle 🙂 man there is nothing that can equal that for a tammu:) jus had it :)..here is appa’s comment
    there are better hotels in srirangam over mani’s cafe.
    U can try venkatesa bhavan next time:)Keera vadai is the speciality.it offers tiffin for limited period during the day.there is always huge rush.happy eating!:)

  3. that was my comment 🙂 forgot to enter my name. inspired by u,jeeju and kanna i am gonna start updating my blog like a good gal from the 27th (exams get over on 26th :))

    1. Well yeah , seeing the no of smileys in the comment, i kind of guesses whose it was! Did chitappa also read this? I will surely remember his recommendation! All the best for your exams…

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