Idli for a prefix may not be a delectable thought. But the legendary Idli Rappayi of Thrissur in Kerala (also known as Theetta Rappayi) is one exception. For, the man with a gargantuan appetite was a fixture on Thrissur's eatery circuit for many years till he died at the age of 67, on December 9, 2006. And, he munched towards the moniker, literally.
Idli Rappayi at once denoted an insatiable urge for everything eatable and the unenviable pride of place he enjoyed in the city's eateries. Several eatery owners considered Rappayi an augury of good luck and happily fed him for the good times he would bring. Eleven years after his death, some of them still keep Rappayi's pictures at their restaurants.
He used to turn up at New Gopi Cafe, Thrissur, with an innocent smile that contradicted his appearance. He would occupy a chair at the four-seat table, remembers restaurant owner Gopi.
Rappayi would down four dosas and a vessel full of sambar, just starters to his breakfast. The legendary Rappayi would then go to the quarters of the Jubilee Mission Hospital, where most of the households would have saved a portion of their breakfast for their beloved helper.
Rappayi ate as much as 75 idlis for breakfast with a bucket of sambar and chutney. His mammoth physique had the ability to digest all of it before noon and make room for the heaps of rice and cooked vegetables he would take for lunch! Physicians diagnosed him with Polyphagia or Hyperphagia, a defect in the hypothalamus which blocked his 'enough' sensation.
Years after Rappayi's death due to diabetes and hypertension, his companions remember him and his fondness for 'idlis.'
“Speak of Rappayi, then speak of idli-sambar! I grew up with Rappayi and I am proud to have fed him almost every day since we met each other,” Nandakumar, owner of Thrissur's famous Bharath restaurant, said. Bharath was Rappayi's everyday lunch destination.
This stupendous gastronome was a strict vegetarian and a chronic bachelor. “Once when some of us asked him about getting married, he burst into laughter and asked how much we knew of the struggles of satisfying one stomach?” For Nandakumar and his three brothers, Rappayi's time was their restaurant's vintage era, when Nawab Rajendran, renowned social activist and journalist, Rappayi, and several writers gathered around their tables and chatted for hours over innumerable plates of masala dosa, vada, and coffee. “I still remember when Rappayi caught hold of Rajendran and the latter collapsed on the ground,” Nandakumar said.
Some restaurants included Rappayi in their logo and some others mourned for days when he died. Hotel Arunima, behind the monumental Puthenpalli (Dolours Basilica, Thrissur) had hung a framed, garlanded photograph on their wall for 11 years after his death. David Chacko, the owner of Hotel Arunima, remembers Rappayi as a 'porotta lover'. “Rappayettan would come here in the evenings and eat as much as seven porottas (Malabari paratha) and sambar. I was a young man during his heydays. He sold his teabags to us and had stomach-full of porottas in return. Currency was never a mode of transaction for him, it was always food for barter. Whoever loved him offered him food with affection. Whoever sought his help offered him food and those who cheated him offered him food for compromise,” David Chacko said.
Rappayi hailed from a deprived family in Kizhakkumpattukara, Thrissur. As the eldest of the six children of Kuriappen–Thaanda couple, Rappayi joined his father's tailoring job at a young age. He knit teabags and used to filter dust-tea in restaurants.
It is through his teabags that Rappayi established a rapport with all restaurants in the city. He helped the doctors of Jubilee Mission Hospital, Thrissur, by running errands.
Rappayi was a picky eater at home where his two brothers, three sisters and their spouses went for daily-wage jobs. “It is when he started appearing on newspapers that we realized Rappayiettan's skill. He used to collect newspaper cuttings featuring himself and make a file of it. Our mother and I looked after him during old age. Rappayiettan was a healthy man and we do not know anything about his social life,” Philomina, Rappayi's youngest sister, says.
Rappayi had 'good contacts' in the police department too. The khaki shirt that Rappayi was always seen was given to him by the late NI David, a deputy superintendent of police. Rappayi was David's companion. So, friends jocularly said he always had a shadow police cover.
Rappayi also had a Limca Book of World records entry to his credit — for having eaten the most number of idlis at a time. Another close associate of Rappayi is HS Adenwalla, a senior cleft surgeon at the Jubilee Mission Hospital. He was Rappayi's doctor, friend and sponsor.
He was laid to rest at Lourde Church, Thrissur, where a special coffin and a tomb was custom-built to hold the man.
For those who knew him well, Rappayi was an innocent, covetous kid trapped inside an enormous body.
New Gopi Cafe's owner Gopi remembers the very first 'all you can eat' buffet at Hotel Lucia, Thrissur. Rappayi had then polished off 25 kg of food including rice, vegetables and desserts and said at the end with a burp that he was still hungry.
And, here is the mystery: Rappayi's siblings said they had never seen him eating more than five idlis at a time.