At 3 a.m. every morning, Chellama is ready to get into the van that takes her to the Koyambedu wholesale market. Seven more vendors travel with her. They each pay around Rs.150 for the return journey, to fetch vegetables and fruits. “But that’s not all; at the market, I pay the coolies Rs.60 to bring gunny bags of the produce to the van, and another Rs.10 or Rs.20 on tea. By the time I return at 6.30 a.m., and am ready to start my business, I’ve already spent Rs.230,” says Chellama, briskly totting up accounts.

Chellama is quite skilled at numbers and measures. For nearly 30 years, she’s sold vegetables on the streets of Foreshore Estate, Santhome, and Mylapore (Loganathan Colony). “We came to Chennai when I was pregnant with my son. He’s now 29,” she says, sorting out chillies, and discarding the mouldy ones. In her village — Mahadevimangalam, near Thiruvannamalai — she and her husband were agricultural labourers. “How much we had to work then, just to earn a daily wage of Rs.5! Now, people there get Rs.70 a day, for doing that work.”

Her husband soon found work in the city, as a construction worker. Chellama took to selling vegetables. “I used to go to Thannithurai market, in Mylapore, to buy vegetables. I didn’t have this vandi then,” she says, pointing to the three-wheeled bicycle-cart she uses to go around. “So I carried it all on my head, and went from house to house.” Thirteen years ago, she bought the vandi, and life did become easier — somewhat.

However, when people see her driving the vandi, many of them mockingly call out, “Aiyey, vandi otudhu paaren!” (Look at her driving that vandi). Chellama doesn’t mind it in the least. She just brushes it aside with a “Sollitu poda,” (go ahead and say that) reasoning that if they’re not going to sit her down and give her kanji, they don’t have the right to pass comments on her.

It is, after all, for her kanji, that Chellama, now 60, works for more than 12 hours a day. She’s up well before 3 a.m.; and as soon as she’s returned from Koyambedu, she loads the vegetables on her vandi, and cycles around till 3 p.m., calling out to her regulars by name. Daily, she invests between Rs.2000 and Rs.2500 on just vegetables and fruits. She makes a small profit, one that is sufficient for her. When she runs out of working capital, she’s forced to borrow from moneylenders. “Ladies finger, brinjal, bitter gourd, tomato, and different varieties of greens, I sell them all,” she says, listing at least seven types of greens. “Do you know the irony? The customers will always ask for the one variety you didn’t bring that day!” and she laughs. Customers also have a habit of blaming her for price hikes. “When onions were selling for exorbitant rates, they asked if I had become greedy!” And again, the same innocent laugh…

In reality, her business is not that straightforward. The profit is often tied up with the leftover stock. “Look at this,” she says, pointing to her baskets, still half-filled with vegetables. “Sometimes, it takes three days to realise a profit. There is so much competition.” And then there are unforeseen expenses. Her eyes needed surgery. Padma and Swaminathan (the couple, in whose house she keeps her vandi and sleeps) pitched in for the surgery. “My son and daughter live nearby. (Her husband, an alcoholic, died four years ago). I have dinner with one of them everyday. My daughter does housework. You know, when my son was born, I pulled her out of school, to look after him. Only then, could I go out and sell vegetables. How I wish she was educated!”

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