Sunday, 5 October 2014


Baby Narayana Iyer (84) Photo: Nila Tamaraa
He is 83-years-old. But to the people living in and around Ulsoor, Bangalore, he will always be — Baby Iyer.

Narayana Iyer, originally from Palakad in Kerala, was born and brought up in Bangalore. Iyer Sr always fondly called his first born "Baby" and the "pet name stuck".

I met Baby Iyer on one of my walkabouts in Ulsoor. Clad in a not-so-white dhoti and half-sleeved white shirt, the octogenarian was frail looking ("But I have no diabetes, cholestrol or any other diseases," he tells me) even as he leaned, for support, on the iron gate of an old-fashioned, old-looking, yellowed with age house. On one side of the gate was tied a poster that announced the availability of Home made products….Catering undertaken for all small functions.

There is something utterly delightful about striking up a conversation with an absolute stranger. And if the stranger happens to be someone like Baby Iyer — a man full of stories — the joy is doubled. So, there I stood — on the narrow road with just a few houses on either side and a 3000-year-old temple at one end — chatting with a man who seemed like he welcomed a ‘willing ear’. We stood there exchanging stories — with no agenda. Bliss!

Baby Narayana Iyer is a caterer of vegetarian meals and manufacturer of homemade products like Sambar podi, chutney podi, Mysore rasam powder, Vangi bath powder, bisi bele bath powder puliyogare, gojju etc. His business was established more than five decades ago. But till today, his business has no name.  Seeing my quizzical expression he laughs a toothless grin and says: “Oh, no name and all, ma. People know me….that’s all.” And yes, people know him. That’s how it has been for the last five decades and more.

Baby Iyer lives in a rented house, the fourth one from the temple. “Oh, I never managed to build my own house," he says. "And now there is no need for one.” His two daughters are married and live in different cities. His wife died four years ago. And his parents, few years before that. His younger brother visits him daily and helps him with the catering business.

Baby Iyer with his brother in front of
his house
Iyer’s forefathers came to Bangalore from Phalakad. His father worked as a clerk in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL)  for a salary of Rs.30 (0.49 US $) per month. Since it was difficult to manage a huge family (of parents, wife and seven children) with the meagre salary, Iyer chipped in by doing odd jobs like cleaning, chopping vegetables and serving at hotels or at various caterers, after school. Once he completed high school, Iyer too joined his father at HAL — “for a salary of Rs.110 (1.79 US$) per month,” he proudly recalls. He would finish work by 4.30 pm, reach home by 4.45, and then he would go out to help his friend who was in the catering business.

“Where you always interested in the business?” I ask.

“Only if a man has 'interest' can he move forward in life, otherwise he is an empty soul,” Iyer says.

His "curious nature" usually saw him straying into the kitchen to "observe" the cooks. These 'observations' gave him the confidence to strike out on his own and after a few years, he began catering for small groups. Before long he became a much sought after caterer for vegetarian food at weddings.  By word of mouth, Iyer became the man people reached out to during marriages and other festivals or "functions". During his hey day he used to undertake catering orders servicing 2000 people or more. “The head cook was paid a princely sum of Rs.15 per day, those days,” he recalls. Today he's cut down on the number and only caters for small functions — "for around 200 people". He now pays a head cook Rs.2000 per day and the “assistant who chops vegetables, around 700 Rs. per day.”
Sambhar podi that
came with special
instructions from
Baby Iyer

Iyer cites "old age" as the reason for not taking up "big catering orders for wedding. Also, for whom should I earn money? For what?” he asks philosophically. Age might have slowed Baby Iyer a wee bit, but it hasn’t stopped him. He still works 20 days a month. And he also sells homemade curry powders or podis from a small outlet opposite the Ulsoor Temple on the main road — again, it is a shop without a name. You just have to ask people to point you to Baby Iyer’s shop and they will. 

You can also buy the curry podis/powders from his house, which is what I did. 100gms of sambhar podi for Rs.40. Packed neatly and handed over to me with advice on how to make sambhar: “Boil the dal nicely,” Iyer says. “Then cook the vegetables. As it is cooking, mix 10-15 gms of the sambhar podi with a pinch of hing in tamarind water and once the vegetables are cooked pour this concoction into it and let it boil nicely. You should be able to smell the flavours of a wonderful sambhar.” I could feel myself salivating already.

We had been talking for over 40 minutes now  — two strangers who had never set eyes on each other before. I could see that his feet were beginning to hurt as he began to lean heavily on the iron gate; but I could also see that he wasn’t keen to end the conversation. It seemed like on that particular day it was the best 40 minutes for both of us. Telling and listening to stories does that to you :)

For homemade curry powders and vegetarian food catering orders for small functions, you can contact: Baby Narayana Iyer; Number: 9880623614