They call her Koodotharakaarathi Maria – Maria the sorceress. Sometimes she’s Maria the wife of Thoma the smuggler. Or Maria the sister of Vettu Mathai, an infamous goonda back in the day who retired peacefully after three months in jail. But to me, she’s Maria the feminist icon of modern-day Alappuzha.
Kerala has a great deal of toddy shops, one of which is run by Maria. Located a few kilometers away from Alappuzha town along the banks of the Pamba river, Matha toddy shop seems like every other – save for the sixty-seven-year-old woman that runs it. The toddy shop was set up back in the fifties by her father, long before the word ‘toddy’ was painted on any board in Kerala, when Maria was just a baby.
“I lived across the paddy field when I was a child, but I grew up in this shaap for sure,” she says. It’s easy to believe her, for the wooden benches and desks aligned neatly along the bricked, unpainted walls have iron nails with rust as old as her.
But when I go into the kitchen, I am surprised to see cemented walls and grilled windows. Smoke rises from the firewood stoves, but it is the aroma of Kerala spices that fill the air. It passes through the kitchen, the dining area and flies through the thatched roof into the sky.
In the thirty-two years she has owned this shop, after the passing of her husband (who died in Tamil Nadu, a state I don’t even know, she says with surprising pride), Maria hasn’t kept a help. Making the batter for appam, cleaning the prawns and lobsters, dicing the beef and mutton, cleaning up the banana leaves after customers – she does it all on her own.
She points out that she learnt to slice onions and catch karemeen even before she could spell. The sole exception is that of her son, Thoma (named after his notorious father), who taps toddy for the shop. “Kallu chetthal is an art I couldn’t conquer – I’ve always wanted to, but there’s always been some kind of obstacle” she says. When asked if her father or her son were ever one of those obstacles, she smiles and wipes her knife on her thorthu.
Her day starts with a quick prayer in front of the portraits of Jesus Christ and her father, which are placed on the countertop next to the stoves. She likes to look at them as she cooks. Her years of expertise do show on the banana leaf in front of me – in the perfectly peppered beef roast, the crispy black karemeen pollichathu, the steaming appams and the golden-brown prawn fry.
Her menu doesn’t have much, but whatever it does have is great on the tongue. Despite the delicious food and out-of-this-world toddy, not many people visit this shop. Maria has a few regulars, some of whom are too regular – it is the wives of these too-regulars that have given her the name koodotharakaarathi.
She, however, is not very pleased with these customers. If a fight breaks out, Maria has to wield her knife to get the accused to back up – “just swish it in front of those half-conscious fools and watch them lose their balance. Can’t even see straight and they want to attack each other”.
If one is too drunk to get home, Maria has to call an auto rickshaw to get them home. If one doesn’t pay, Maria has to wield her trusted weapon once again as a warning. She laughs as she tells me, “Mole, a knife is like a woman – it should be taken out of the kitchen – and only then will men respect and fear it!”
Her peak time is between one and three, when most of the labourers come in for lunch. If she’s lucky, a tour guide she knows from church, along with two or three foreigners also come in at around the same time. When such a situation arises, Maria serves them food on steel plates as the locals look on. She also makes sure to greet them with a “Welcome to Alappuzha, nice to meet you”, secretly thanking Mohanlal and Jagathy for it.
She watches every single customer leave, sometimes with a small package of leftovers for their family and then walks back home across the paddy field. She lives alone.
Her sister-in-law visits her once in a while and so does Vettu Mathai. But otherwise, Maria is alone. Women in church don’t associate with her and the only time her neighbor has set foot in her house was when Thoma Sr. died.
The parish priest too, advised her to stop the shop and join the coir co-operative in Alappuzha. Her son asked her move in with him. But Maria loves what she does and that’s what she will do for as long as she can. So, when I ask her what it feels like to be a woman in a man’s world, she simply smiles and wipes her knife on her thorthu.
Featured Image Credits – Toddy Shop by Koshy Koshy via Flickr