Sathyamoorthy drives a vehicle that’s so big and strong it can pluck a bus out of the mire and shift a load of concrete slabs, as if they were just toys. Standing next to his parked vehicle — an Escorts hydraulic crane — in a quiet lane in Mylapore, 27-year-old Sathyamoorthy tells me how he came to own it.

“In my village, Ranganathapuram, in Villupuram district, casuarina trees are the main source of income; their trunks are used as poles and for scaffolding. But now, metal pipes are being used in their place and the demand is down. Agricultural work also took a hit because of insufficient rain; people who once easily made Rs. 400 a day are now happy to get half that amount.” And so, with little work, and nobody to guide him, Sathyamoorthy took up a contractor’s offer and moved to Andhra Pradesh, where he worked a hydraulic crane, and learnt how to maintain it. When that business went bust, he returned home, and two years ago, made his way to Chennai.

In the city, Sathyamoorthy initially worked as a crane operator, and earned between Rs. 8,000 and Rs.9,000 a month. But when he got married, last year, that money didn’t go far, and he decided to buy his own crane. “Six months ago, I bought this vandi second-hand, for Rs. 7 lakh. To raise money, we pledged some jewellery; the rest is a loan from a finance company.”

Cleaning the crane with a paintbrush, to remove fallen flowers and leaves, Sathyamoorthy tells me that the crane is rented out for a minimum of two hours per day. “The rate is Rs. 400 an hour, plus a bata of Rs. 100.” But work is not always a certainty, although he usually gets approximately 20 to 25 jobs a month. “Unloading pavement stones, E.B. transformer work, pulling out cars and buses, and removing fallen trees during the monsoon — these are some of the things that I do. See that hook over there?” he points to the farthest iron hook in the hydraulic arm. “That can lift 3 tonnes. The last one, closest to the cabin, can lift 12 tonnes.”

Climbing into the cabin — whose floor is a maze of tangled stout ropes and iron chains — he shows me the levers that work the crane. “The engine is somewhat similar to a tractor, only the crane has a hydraulic system.” And despite its enormous dimensions, the crane, he says, can easily be manoeuvred (though it has no steering wheel), and can turn even into side-streets, just as long as there’s a nine-foot clearance. “The only problem is, we can only drive this after 10 p.m. in the night; in the daytime, it needs police permission. And finding a space big enough to park it is a headache.” It should be, because it takes up the space of three cars…

Maintaining the vehicle is not simple either. A set of tyres — which he recently changed — cost as much as Rs. 55,000; the hydraulic oil (120 litres) comes to nearly Rs. 20,000. The sheer size also makes something as straightforward as fixing a puncture complicated. “Look, there are 32 bolts on the tyre; you need a jack with 10-tonne capacity, and the help of one more person to do the job! And it takes up a whole day.” But Sathyamoorthy is happy with his lot: he’s largely accepting of the ups and downs of business (this month, he says, has been dull), and has decided to stick it out in Chennai. “In this job,” he says, “you don’t get that frustrated ‘why am I doing this job?’ feeling. You can do so many things that people can’t, isn’t it?”

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