The relaxed, easy-going nature of Mallamma and her family is immediately apparent as we sit down to a meal of rice and sambar prepared by Mallamma before the sun has even risen. The quiet conversation between us is peppered by her husband’s animated stories. Gopalappa’s stories are reliably followed by an eruption of laughter from Mallamma and their 18-year-old daughter, Nirmala. In between mouthfuls of rice, Mallamma tells me that she also has a 20-year-old son who lives and studies in Anantapur. She casts a warm smile toward Nirmala as she talks about how happy she is that both of her children have gone for higher education. “I only completed school until sixth class. Having no skills except for housework made my life very hard. Before we started our business, my only option was wage labour.” Lunch complete, Mallamma takes my hand and excitedly leads me out of their meticulously maintained home, eager to show me their ‘hotel’.
Perched on the edge of the village’s busy main road, the “hotel” is a tiny three-walled shack made from loose sheets of corrugated iron and straw mats. Large jars filled with toffee, nut mixes, biscuits and chocolate line the counter and sachets of shampoo hang in long ribbons from the ceiling. In the corner a single gas burner heats an endless supply of sweet milky chai that is served in tiny disposable cups made of impossibly thin plastic. Men come to purchase single cigarettes, which they smoke on the child-sized plastic stools next to the counter before resuming their agriculture work in the nearby fields. Connected to the shop is a small roofed area with stone bench seats along the walls and space for an open fire in the corner. Every morning from 6 am to 11 am Mallamma cooks breakfast over the fire – she is famous throughout the village for her light and fluffy dosas. Mallamma and Gopalappa take turns manning the shop. In the mornings while Mallamma cooks, Gopalappa becomes a restaurant waiter in between serving customers their cigarettes, sweets and shampoo.
Nine years ago, after having recently joined the Anantasakthi women’s Thrift Cooperative, Mallamma took a loan to set up the hotel. Their current lifestyle represents a significant change from what life was like before they started this business. “Before joining the Cooperative we were agricultural wage labourers. It was a very difficult life. We were barely managing to survive. We have five acres of land that we were cultivating, but getting a decent harvest was tough and we were making very little money from it. We could only afford to eat if we worked as labour on other people’s farms as well. We were working very long days”.
It took a while, even after opening their shop before they were completely able to stop wage labour. Now their lives have become significantly more enjoyable. “Much happiness has come from this business. Income is steady now so we have financial security for our future. Many of our problems have gone”.
At breakfast time, watching Mallamma and Gopalappa work together to feed the relentless stream of hungry bellies is like watching a well-choreographed dance. Mallamma swirls the batters onto a hot pan that is precariously balanced over an open fire, flips it once, and tosses it to the side. Instantaneously, Gopalappa scoops it up, flings it on a plate, douses it in groundnut chutney and assigns it to one of the outstretched hands. The last bite hasn’t quite been swallowed before the plate is swept from the customers clutches, rinsed quickly, and loaded up again for the next in line. With only five plates on which to serve so many, this kind of speed is necessary if they are to reach their daily goal of selling one hundred dosas before 11am. It is hard to imagine how selling dosas for Rs. 4, chai for Rs. 3, and sweets for Re. 1 or Rs. 2 each, could provide sufficient income for a family. However, the steady flow of customers handing over a 5-rupee-coin or 10-rupee-note add up to an ample amount for fostering contentment within the family. “Our village is very poor and everybody struggles but we have everything that we need now and we are happy with our life”.
Mallamma’s sister-in-law recently suffered from a severe stroke. She has lost her ability to speak, is too weak to roll over unassisted, and has to be fed through a tube in her nose. She has an 18-year-old son and a sister who have taken on the role of caring for her. The three of them have temporarily moved to Mallamma’s front porch because their own house is not suitable. Seeing her sister-in-law in this state and hearing her frequent groans of discomfort is upsetting and distressing for Mallamma. She cooks meals for everyone and treats her nephew as her own son. “They have been living there for over a week and that they are welcome to stay as long as they need to” she says. The compassion that Mallamma demonstrates in this situation is witnessed on many occasions. When she hears that one of her friends has a fever she cares for her young child for the day so that her friend can rest. When a group of men come to the shop for chai and one of them has no money she serves him a cup for free. She explains “everybody has very little but if we put it all together and help each other, then it is enough”.
Even with very limited shared language, Mallamma, Gopalappa, Nirmala and I are often able to engage in meaningful communication. Late one evening over a feast of millet, egg curry, and carrot and coconut salad we somehow manage to have a dialogue about life philosophies: the beauty of collective living, the detriment of greed to emotional wellbeing and happiness and the importance of family and community. We discover that despite stark cultural differences many of our beliefs are shared. With our bellies and minds nourished, the four of us lay down on the floor together to sleep – each with a small pillow under our head and a blanket to shield us from mosquitos. After the lights are turned out Gopalappa says something that makes Mallamma and Nirmala laugh. I have no idea what he said but their laughter is contagious and I find myself laughing with them. I eventually fall asleep with a smile on my face and tears of laughter drying on my cheeks.