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Indira Gandhi, as we fondly remember was a connoisseur of local arts, craft and culture. She celebrated anything that was truly Indian and ethnic.
So guess where she preferred to eat when she was in Nagpur in the 1970s when she coined that famous motto which reverberated throughout the country? Garibi Hatao!!!
She chose to eat at Nagpur’s first authentic South Indian joint Vishranti Gruha situated on Sitabaldi main road!
May be she had heard that this place was started at the instance of the world famous Scientist C.V. Raman when he too had a brief sojourn in the city (we know she admired and looked up to scientists too.) Or may be she knew that when the Congress party meet was held in Nagpur in the 1940s, veteran Tamil leader Kamraj – also known as Kingmaker, in her case Queen maker, had his daily breakfast parceled from this joint? In fact Balan, present owner of Vishranti Gruha remembers sending parcels to many leading politicians, film stars and other luminaries like Ashok Kumar over the many years it has been in existence.
Which is precisely 95 years ago this year!!!
It was in 1922 that a young C.V. Raman came to Nagpur and was disgusted with the stale, oily ‘wada’ , topped with deadly looking ‘tarri’ he was served at an eatery. He immediately instructed his own cook Rama Iyer, who had accompanied him to begin a small restaurant serving fresh, healthy and athentic south Indian ‘tiffin’ ( as idli, dosa, upma etc. are called) to the good Nagpur folks!
Though Rama Iyer’s heart was in his native village of Kerala he complied with the instructions and began such a restaurant in Mahal first, and then shifted to Sitabaldi.
“Nagpur people had never seen or tasted South Indian food before – not the soft idlis, nor the crisp dosas, pungent sambar or delicious green coconut chutney. (In fact the use of fresh coconut in cooking was a practise not followed at all then – fresh coconut was used for pujas only, dried coconut was used to make gravies… this custom is still there.)
But Nagpurians were, are and will always be discerning Foodies! They ‘gobbled’ up this new food with relish and it grew in popularity real fast.
“Within a decade or so, we used to get so crowded on Sundays and holidays with families coming from all over the city to enjoy our food, that police had to stand on the road and control traffic and stop mobs from rioting.
Our Manager used to stand at the door and allow fixed number in, as the inside people exited.
‘Char nikale, char ko chodo andar’ he would say” remembers Balan with a chuckle.
By the mid 1930s Rama Iyer could not keep away from his home place any longer and handed over Vishranti Gruha to his most trusted employee A.S. Mani Iyer who had come as a teenager to Nagpur to help out ‘uncle’ Rama.
“He first washed dishes, then kept the hotel clean and finally was allowed in the kitchen to learn cooking. He loved it and very soon became an excellent cook! Probably that is why he was chosen as new owner of Vishranti Gruha.” Remembers his son Balan.
The advent of Rava Dosa
As Balan reminisces, there were no electric mixers grinders then. All the rice and urad dal for wada/ idli/ dosa had to be ground by hand on the rotating round south Indian stone grinder. Chutney also had to be made this way, by hand. As was the daily masala for sambar. There were 4 big grinders at which ladies were always busy.
Yet, by 2 p.m. the batter would run out.
“So my father began serving Rawa Dosa after 3 p.m. He had rawa, maida and rice atta soaked for half an hour and then this was used as batter for instant rawa dosa. Nagpurians loved it so much, it became the ‘special dish’!”
Even today, it remains a ‘special’ : crisp, made tastier by slivers of fried onions mixed in the batter, and not blatantly oily at all.
Very modestly priced even today
And guess at how much this dosa or masala dosa is priced at? Just Rs. 60/ !!
Idli Sambar is Rs. 35/ , Chole Bhature Rs. 60/ , Dahiwada Rs. 30/ and Gulab jamun, Keshar bhat ( sheera) or any other sweet – only Rs. 20/
No wonder the place is always crowded and you are obliged to share table with strangers – which no one seems to mind.
You see a lot of people coming in with suitcases towed behind them – they have come to Nagpur for wedding purchases, give interviews etc. and come here for a quick and cheap lunch! (Veg thali with 2-3 sabzis, sambar, rassam, poories, rice and curd papad etc. is only Rs. 100/ )
“My father was not a businessman. All his life he only wore a white ‘veshti’ (shirt) and white dhoti with ‘bhasma’ on his forehead.
He always told us: ‘feeding people is very holy work, they should leave your place feeling content and happy and bless you – not curse you saying ‘ what expensive food!’ ” says Balan, who still follows same principle.
“However cheap the food may be, it is clean, fresh and tasty. People have patronized us so much that my father could bring up his 10 children – 6 sons, 4 daughters – comfortably on his earnings, making everyone professionally qualified. My sister was Headmistress of Saraswati Vidyalaya” says Balan proudly.
He is now close to 75, has only 2 daughters who are both married and out of Nagpur.
“But the family will ensure someone from the next generation takes over. Vishranti Gruha will never close down!”
Owner: Mani Balan
Abhyankar Marg, Variety Sqaure, Sitabuldi, Nagpur