The beauty of the Western ghats is unparalleled. The different shades of plush green, the cold chilly wind, the clouds taking a walk with you, the mist shrouding the trees and the gushing sounds of a hidden waterfall somewhere close by. If this picture makes you yearn to take a trip right-away, hold on, this is not all! At the beginning of the ghats, there is a small quaint police station across which a lovely lake and a garden exist. Just across the garden, the aroma of hot vadas frying in hot sizzling oil, wafts towards you and pulls you along towards the ramshackle cart. Hot vadas, spicy chutney and hot milky tea – now we are talking heaven!
Since my childhood, whenever we would climb down the Agumbe ghats to enter hot sultry Mangalore, we would have a customary, compulsory stop at Padiyar mam’s vada stall. Through globalization and commercialization, the stall, which actually is rather a fancy name for a tin pushcart with plastic sheets hung across to prevent the drizzle, remained the same. Rows of cars, bikes and buses would be parked across the already small, winding road. Weary passengers who would climb down to stretch their legs would invariably be drawn towards the stall and the tasty aroma emanating from there.
The USP of the stall though, was without doubt its owner. Mr. Padiyar, who knew each and every customer by name, somehow with great clarity remember where each one’s child was studying or getting married. It somehow made you feel as if you had wandered into an indulgent uncle’s house in your neighborhood.
And the vadas. Exactly the same taste year after year, decade after decade. No expansion of the menu, no fancy improvements of the stall and no HR people. It was a sort of niche place, with only one item which was world class. Whenever we would go, he would en quire about our education, how our parents and far flung relatives were faring, and introduce us whomsoever around was interested in listening to his banter. As a teenager, this used to embarrass me greatly, but not enough to forgo the vadas! I would mutter under my breath as to why he could not just leave me alone. Every single time when we passed the ghats by bus,(which was, I am ashamed to say, was quite often, given the extent of my homesickness!), I remember, I wouldn’t go home, without the vadas sitting comfortably in my stomach.
After my MBBS , I went to Mangalore quite less. Though the trips were less frequent,when we would occasionally pass by for a wedding, a meeting or a conference, we would eagerly look forward to the stall being open. Padiyar maam (mam,which meant uncle in Konkani and kannada) would always remember. It was like homecoming. What was irritating earlier, seemed like warmth later on. He would have ten conversations side by side with different customers, but still manage to remember them all! We got to know that with this tiny business, he had managed to educate his son and daughter, who were in excellent positions. When a patron questioned him as whether he would close down to go and stay with his son, he nixed it aggressively. This is what he loved, he said, and what he would do till the end!
I met him about a fortnight ago, on my way to Manipal. Little did I know that it would be the last time. A week later he was admitted to a hospital in Shimoga with fever and delirium. It was so sad to see him and realize that he was unable to recognize anyone, let alone the thousands of friends he had made over the years. In a span of one week, he deteriorated, was diagnosed to be having a rare disease, and died. It was unbelievable. Someone whom I had seen hale and hearty, and in the pink of health , suddenly disappeared.
I never imagined that I would experience a deep sense of loss about his death. After all, he was not related to me, nor was I in constant touch with him. But feel sad, I did. I could not shake off that heavy feeling through the day. Later on, I happened to see condolence messages on whatssapp and facebook, and realized that so many more must have felt the same about him.
He was an integral part of the travelling experience. Somehow the forest and the landscape feel incomplete without him, the hungry traveler bereft. The eager wait for a few minutes respite, a soul warming snack , and comforting conversation is no more going to happen. Padiyar maam, we miss you. RIP!