In Times of Recession “Indians Will Always Survive”

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[Note: This post was originally written earlier this month.]

KARAIKUDI, Tamil Nadu – Karaikudi is the small capital of Tamil Nadu’s Chettinad region, a place renowned for its spicy cooking. Chandra Shekar, below, manages a restaurant here near the bus stand.


Mr. Shekar is from the village of Dindigul, about 100 kilometers south of Karaikudi. His wife is there with their eleven-year-old son, but Mr. Shekar rents a room above the restaurant in Karaikudi to be here for work. He is a former Air Force sergeant and has lived all over India, but now that he is retired and has returned home he can focus on his real passion: Chettinadu-style cooking.

A typical Chettinad vegetarian meal includes a tamarind-flavored vegetable soup, yellow lentil dal, an eggplant curry, and rice, but Mr. Shekar talked about some of the more interesting variations they prepare at his restaurant.

They also serve a spicy tomato and green chili soup (an Indianized gazpacho); creamed spinach and chickpeas stew; and beets stir-fried with ginger and coconut. For an evening snack or dessert, the restaurant makes sweet masala milk: milk boiled with ground-up almonds, broken cashews and pistachios, and sugar.

I asked Mr. Shekar how the economic downturn has affected his business. He brushed the question aside.

“In India it’s no big deal.”

Well, for the rural community where Mr. Shekar lives, maybe this is true. Without a pause he said that for the average person in India who survives on very little the recession isn’t affecting him. Below, a village man bikes through farm land in Bhongir, Andhra Pradesh.


Mr Shekar explained: “Unlike in the west, here a man can survive with just a lungi (the sarong-like waist covering worn above) and a bowl of rice with salt. He washes his clothes at night and wears them again the next day.”

But does he still have a job? A man with this simple lifestyle, yes. Layoffs have certainly hit the subcontinent, but they’re mostly in the software and IT sectors: since Americans and Europeans are buying less, call centers in Bangalore and Hyderabad — those that take orders and troubleshoot technical problems — are being forced to downsize their staffs.

“Of course in those sectors there are job losses,” Mr. Shekar said. “But the average man goes to work and earns enough to eat. The jobs he has — painting a building, serving food, digging trenches — will always be there. He is paid basically nothing, but it is enough. He doesn’t need anything else. This is why Indians will always survive.”

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