I watch cookery shows on TV and try recipes; I like to eat non-veg food. As I don’t pay rent or electricity, this money is enough for me.

There are two things which are readily available in Kalyani’s bonda shop in Mandaveli — smiles and savouries. The smiles are free; and the savouries aren’t expensive. And so, the crowds throng her stall. School children, old women, office goers, auto drivers — they all stop by for a bonda, a vadai and a bajji. The three together costs Rs. 6.

“I used to work in a printing press before. But a finger,” she sticks out her right hand, “got caught in the machine. So I came to this business.” “This business” is something her family has been involved in previously; her mother used to run a pakoda shop; but Kalyani decided on bondas. “She didn’t teach me this recipe,” she says, pointing to the covered vessel, in which a colourful mix of vegetables has been sautéed in oil earlier in the afternoon. “I never add water, it will spoil by the evening, isn’t it?” she says, and drops little round balls of vegetables, immersed in batter, into the searing oil. They bob up golden, are rolled over gently, and a few minutes later, transferred to the banana leaf-covered plate — fresh, hot, bondas.

Married when she was 13, and a mother soon after, Kalyani — at 55 — is the grandmother of a “working in an IT company” granddaughter. She didn’t have the luxury of an education though; but at no point during the hour-long conversation does she sound maudlin, and masks everything with a smile.

“I have two sons and three daughters. All married. What I make in this business is my only income. My husband died a few years ago. There, that’s one of my sons,” she points across the road, to the person manning a banana-leaf and coconut shop.

For twenty years now, Kalyani has sold her savouries from the same spot on Mari Street, Mandaveli. While her business has been good, the street itself, she says, has changed. Earlier, there were many small shops; but with the older generation dying, and youngsters banking on education and salaried jobs, there are more empty spaces than stalls. And Kalyani should know, she was born, and raised here. “You know, I’m such a Mandaveli-person, I don’t know my way even around Luz!” And she laughs.

She does not have the time to explore Luz anyway. Her day begins at 8 in the morning, when she washes the vessels and readies the dry batter mix. “At 11 am, I boil and chop the vegetables. When the Zee TV cooking show concludes (at 2 pm), I come here in an auto.” The fare from her house is Rs. 40 each way. She sets up shop around 3 pm, and wraps up at 8:30 pm. “People will come if I stay longer… but I get tired. I’m growing old, you see!”

And so, between 3 p.m. and 8.30 p.m. her customers continuously seek her out. “Enna raasa, ithanaikkuma venum?” she asks a little boy, who opens a palm and shows her two crumpled ten rupee notes. Handing him the right change, and bondas and bajjis folded into a newspaper parcel, she tells me how much she loves cooking.

“I watch cookery shows and try recipes. I like to eat non-veg food.” On working days though, it is tea that sustains her. A big umbrella keeps out sun and rain; but storms keep her at home. “On festivals like Deepavali and Pongal, I don’t set up shop; sales are not very good then.”

Twenty years ago, she sold bondas for Rs. 1; now it’s Rs. 2. Why hasn’t she raised the prices further?

“See, I don’t pay rent or electricity, since I’m on the platform; I don’t have a ‘master’ working for me… it’s only my effort. This money is enough for me. Let them eat well!” And she serves another parcel of savouries with a smile…

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)