During one such winter trips to Kolkata, my parents decided to extend the trip a little down south. My parents always felt intimidated to travel to unknown places. My mother chose South India only because her elder brother lived in erstwhile Madras. North or West India would have been too foreign without any blood relation living there. So on a cold December night, we boarded the Coromondal Express and headed down south.
After spending family time in Madras, my parents, for some unknown reason, decided to visit Rameshwaram. I guess it was the impact of Ramananda Sagar’s Ramayana. On our way back from Rameshwaram we boarded a train and got down at Mandapam station, on the other side of the Ram Setu. We were supposed to take a connecting train to Kanyakumari from there. However, due to some unforeseen reason, we missed the last train. We now had no option but to stay put in Mandapam.
My dad went to look for hotels to stay for the night. The small hamlet had hardly any shops, only a few typical south Indian houses with elaborate rangolis in the front yard. The roads were almost deserted during dusk. After searching the entire place he returned empty-handed. My mother immediately went into a panic mode. The only option left was the station waiting room.
The station was a small one with only one platform. If you have ever watched the movie “Izazzat” starring Naseeruddin and Rekha you would know what I mean. The station was completely deserted, not even a dog or beggar was in sight. The station was very close to the sea, and the sound of sea waves was loudly audible. The waiting room was locked and as the last train had left, so had the stationmaster. My mother used to get tensed very quickly, and this was her first trip, and obviously, she was in no mood for adventure with her small daughter in tow. She almost broke into tears.
Without any alternative place, we decided to sleep on the platform itself. Those were the days when people travelled with hold-alls, beddings and Milton flasks. That was a blessing. Immediately beddings were spread and nice sleeping arrangements were made for all of us. Well, almost all of us.
Even though South India is not very cold during December, yet the proximity of the place to the sea made it quite cold and windy. We were finding it quite difficult to sleep. Apart from the wind hunger was also keeping us awake. The last food we had was the prasadam at Rameshwaram temple almost eight hours back. My dad went in search of food. After almost thirty minutes he returned with a good news. He had found a place where we can eat.
The place was a small shack, almost closed. On entering we found a lady sitting and making something with a white batter. Let me remind my readers this was the time when “mache bhaate” bangali had not yet acquired the taste for idli. Sonali Restaurant in Gariahat came much later. This was the first time we saw idli. Growing up in Gangtok I was well acquainted with momo and thukpa but idli. However, the smell was enticing. My Mom was initially apprehensive but as soon as the first piece of soft idli melted in her mouth there was no stopping her. We gobbled up the idlis as if that was the last food on Earth. The soft idlis and tangy chutney were a new flavour but enough to initiate my life-long romance with South Indian food.
The smell of my first idli follows me even now when I cook idli for breakfast at home. Alas! My idlis never taste that good. The idli we had on that cold December night was not only my first but best as well. I went to many luxurious udupi hotels later but nothing matched the flavour of that idli. Maybe it was hunger or the sheer excitement of tasting a new thing, something was magical about that idli. The idli gratified me so much that after returning to the station I immediately fell asleep. When next morning I woke up I found myself on the train to Kanyakumari. My father must have carried me to the train.