Why Puttamma doesn’t serve chutney any longer

The way the media hung up on consumptive middle-class issues see it, poor and illiterate voters are not human beings with their own needs, aspirations, demands, desires, troubles, travails, pleasures, pressures, pains.

They are not even people with their own mind.

They are just slothful leeches who suck up our taxes and FBT through freebies and subsidies, and then for a quarter of rum or a 500-rupee note tucked in a booklet, do what those who keyed them up expect them to do.

They are the people who mess up when we go on a holiday on polling day.

All through this election campaign, we have heard ad nauseam the middleclasses angst about good roads, green parks, clear footpaths, about putting Bangalore back on the global IT map again, “connectivity”, and such like. But what have we heard of those lower down the social scale?

What are the issues confronting them? How do they make their decisions? Are they all “notoriously fickle” and uniformly susceptible to blandishments? Who have their “leaders” told them to vote for?

We don’t know because no one is telling us. All everybody seems to be doing is pulling out their calculators to add/subtract/divide Vokkaligas, Lingayats, Kurubas, Dalits, Muslims, Brahmins from election commission numbers, and arriving at cute predictions.

But do the urban poor really vote the way we are told?

Permit me to introduce Puttamma, the lady in the picture above.

She is one of two divine maids we have at our home; Manjula being the other. Both Puttamma and Manjula live on the other side of the railway track, literally and figuratively, in a set of tin and zinc sheet shacks that have been around as long as our brick and mortar “bungalows”.

Neither can read nor write, Manjula can’t even tell the time on the clock, although she was born in the same “posh, up-market” area we call our locality. But Puttamma is the smarter of the two.

After putting neeru to the bagilu, washing the clothes, and sweeping and swabbing the floors in our house and in a couple of others, asthmatic Manjula goes back home and watches TV. Her husband is a tailor who works from home. Manjula rarely cooks and depends on her mother who lives in the same slum they call colony.

Three mornings out of seven, Manjula is absent for one reason or the other. Most times, it is some “meeting” the micro-finance guys have convened, which if they fail to attend they have to pay a fine.

Puttamma, on the other hand, is all enterprise.

She is 34. Her mother, an ayah in a nursing home, too lives near her house. Puttamma is “separated” but has two children. Besides all that Manjula does, Puttamma waters the plants, cuts the fruits and vegetables, cooks and brings meat for the dog, and is generally ever ready to do overtime for a few extra rupees.

All you need to do is call her on her prepaid mobile phone.

Puttamma has a mind.

Everybody in their colony has been told by the local neta to click the button next to the “taavare hoovu” (the lotus) this time because the JDS corporator they voted for recently has screwed them. But Puttamma is going to vote for the “hastha” (palm).

She has been voting hastha in every election since she became eligible and she is going to vote for the hastha once again.

Puttamma will vote for the Congress not because she doesn’t like the BJP. Or because she was taken in by Rahul Gandhi‘s flying visit. Or P. Chidambaram‘s farm loan waiver. Or S.M. Krishna‘s plan to turn Bangalore into “Singapoor”. Or the rice at two rupees a kilo, or the promise of a colour TV in the manifesto.

Puttamma will vote for the Congress not because she hates the back-stabbing of the JDS. Actually, H.D. Kumaraswamy visited their colony when a flash-flood swept a couple of her neighbours a couple of years ago.

Puttamma will vote hastha because the hastha helped her mother: 20 years ago.

Apparently, Puttamma’s mother had a problem with her father’s pension, and a Congress leader helped them secure it. That one small piece of help of some unknown Congresssman a long time ago has earned the eternal gratitude of Puttamma’s family for 20 years running.

Actions like that throw the conventional wisdom out of the window.

At least they do for me.

Now, you might say, only these illiterate bumpkins would be so grateful to a party for 20 years? Well, what if I told you that one of Karnataka’s top academics has been plumping for non-Congress parties excluding BJP because of the scars left on him by the Emergency—and that was 30 years ago?

The point really is that unlike what we are told, voting patterns are not always spur of the moment decisions without rhyme or reason. They have a logic of help, patronage, action, promise, an emotional connect that goes a long way back, which we for whatever reason do not want to see or acknowledge.

The way inflation has become a big story in recent weeks, you would expect Puttamma to be voting with her pocket as the BJP suggests, but she isn’t. And that’s not because she doesn’t feel the pinch.

Nobody feels inflation worse better Puttamma.

Each morning, when Puttamma goes home, unlike Manjula, she doesn’t go into sleep mode. She starts cooking. She makes the dough for aloo gedde bajji (potato bajji) and menisina kayi bajji and baale kaayi bajji and erulli bajji and uddina vade and masala vade.

As the afternoon slips into evening, Puttama pulls out a push-cart, loads the raw materials and the utensils and plates and cups and proceeds to start frying the stuff at a street corner close to her home. Puttamma’s stove is lit from 5 pm to 11 pm.

For five years now, for as little as one rupee a plate of bajji or vade, factory workers, college students and other passersby have been getting a fresh snack fried in front of their eyes—with a spoon or two of chutney.

Two months ago, Puttamma suddenly decided to stop serving chutney.

Reason: the prices of pudina soppu have shot up. For Rs 10, she would get seven kanthes earlier; now each roll costs between Rs 3 and Rs 5. And green chillies, which used to cost Rs 5-10 a kilo, is now Rs 22 a kg. So, rather than hike the price of bajjis and vades, Puttamma took chutney off the plate.

Her customers understood.

Every evening, Puttamma would have a turnover of around Rs 600, of which she would pocket Rs 200, much of which went to repaying loans and sundry debts for procuring the provisions for the next day’s business, which would keep the mobile canteen running.

But disaster struck last month. A liquor shop close to where Puttamma operated her establishment was shut down. That reduced her clientele to a trickle. The drunken big-spenders were gone. Not gone forever, but just shifted base to some other store. Another middle-class myth exploded.

So smart Puttamma decided to do something about it. She decided to open the canteen from morning to evening. She began serving breakfast (idli, vade, baath, coffee, tea), and even introduced a lunch menu (anna-sambaar, boiled eggs, papad, vade).

What she got by working for a few hours in the evening, she now gets by working the whole day. But it isn’t enough.

When the SSLC results came out last, and Puttamma found that her daughter Mamata secured 391 out of 600. Puttamma sought admission in a well-known college. They asked for Rs 11,000 which she didn’t have. She is now trying for admission elsewhere.

Puttamma’s sister’s daughter, you see, is doing engineering. And she wants her daughter to follow.

Puttamma has been putting in Rs 150 in a chit fund for months now. It will mature in a couple of months’ time and fetch her Rs 50,000 so she should be able to afford Mamata’s education. But namma Puttamma has already used that money in advance to secure a house on lease just down the road where she lives.

“My daughter’s growing up, we needed to shift to a better house with a firmer a roof over our head. That’s all we need.”

The pudina and chilly prices may come down, the chutney may be back on the menu, but the roof on the head is what Puttamma will always need.

And that’s what will always keep her driving.