As evening falls and all the students of the Karyavattom campus of Kerala University leave for the day, Sneha Limbgaomkar rushes to open her wayside eatery on a busy road in Thiruvananthapuram.
Alone, she ties up the tarpaulin sheets, connects the battery bulbs, arranges the benches, stove and gas cylinders. She gets ready to serve customers hot aloo parathas which have become popular for their ginger-garlic-coriander flavour.
Sneha lights the stove, praying that she gets a few customers that evening so she can make at least Rs 100. From 6 to 9.30 pm, this self-sufficient young woman runs the eatery all by herself and then rushes home to write her thesis.
Sneha, 28, is from Maharashtra and is currently a PhD research scholar in the Bio-Informatics department of Kerala University. For the first two years of her research, she had financial assistance through the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF). However, after the time period for the JRF got over, she had no other option but to sustain herself till the time she gets a Senior Research Fellowship.
A year ago, Sneha went against the wishes of her parents to marry Premshankar Mandal, who is from Jharkhand. Premshankar, an engineering graduate who worked in Delhi, resigned his job and decided to live in Kerala with Sneha till the time she finished her PhD. The couple decided to start the eatery as a means to earn a living.
Till August 2017, everything was going smooth for the couple.
“We had a good number of regular customers from Technopark (IT Park) as well as from the university campus. But in August, we had to go to Jharkhand as Premshankar required a surgery. We were in Jharkhand for three months and he did not come back with me to Kerala as he's still unwell. Now I manage everything by myself. I have to do it to earn a living. The number of customers has gone down a lot since we took a three month break,” Sneha says.
It's safe to say that Sneha's day is packed. She works till the evening at her university department and then prepares to cook at the eatery.
“Earlier we used to serve dosas as well as parathas. But since I am alone now and I am preparing to publish a paper for my SRF, I only cook parathas. After I am done with my paper, I will begin selling gulab jamuns, too," she says, with hope.
The going hasn't been easy. After she came back from Jharkhand, she has had to return home empty-handed on many days because of the lack of customers.
However, Sneha remains optimistic.
“I have managed tougher situations in life," she says.
Sneha was working in the Revenue Department of Maharashtra when she cleared the Kerala University entrance and secured the JRF. She believes that though it is difficult to be strong during difficult situations in life, confidence and hard work can bring success.
“Education is the most important thing in my life. To continue my studies, I resigned the government job. I will suffer anything to complete my education. I live here alone, and work till late night, I haven’t paid my house rent for the last three months and my husband is sick. There are lots of things to worry about, but I will complete my education by working hard,” she asserts.
When she was about to start the wayside eatery a year ago, many of her friends asked her if wasn’t she ashamed to do so.
“Many told me it was a shame to start a thattukada (wayside eatery) as I was pursuing my PhD, but I believe that all jobs have their own dignity. Some others encouraged me a lot, so I just took support from whoever gave it to me. We can never change the mentality of others,” she says, smiling. “Many come here to have food, just to support me,” she adds.
Sneha loves cooking and she says she sees it as a means for her to achieve her dreams.
Images: Sreekesh Raveendran Nair