S. Vinod Kumar
On a quiet street in Besant Nagar, where pink bougainvillea climbs over trees, and dogs snooze in dust cradles, Vinod Kumar talks about his childhood. “Our village, Eklaspuram, near Vaniyambadi, is a kugramam. There’s only one elementary school there. My brother and I went to the high school in town. Back then, the family circumstances were difficult; my father had died, and mother used to weave coconut frond thatches for a living. So even while studying, we helped out, reaping paddy, and we got paddy grains in return for the labour.”
Financial constraints also meant Vinod had to earn his school staples. “I used to plait coconut fronds for Re.1, to buy pens and pencils!” Vinod reminisces. Was just Re.1 worth the effort, I ask him. “Of course! Re.1 was good money. When I made Rs.10, I could buy vegetables in the sandhai (weekly market) for the week, and sometimes, treat myself to vadai or pori!” But in just a decade, the cost of living has risen sharply, says the 25-year-old. “Today, in Chennai, when I go shopping with Rs.500, I only get back small change!”
Vinod moved to Chennai in 2004, when he was no longer able to pursue his education. “I harboured dreams of becoming a policeman. I even joined the NCC in Std 8. But my mother couldn’t afford my schooling. So I came here, and took up a job at the Eden restaurant, where my uncle works as the kitchen supervisor. Initially, I washed dishes; now, I deliver the food and am also in charge of the house-keeping,” he says.
Dressed in a black shirt and blue jeans, with a small stud adorning his left ear, Vinod says he’s happy to work hard and ensure a secure future for his three-year-old son. “My day typically begins at 4 a.m., when I deliver 240 milk packets. It brings home a few thousand rupees”. He quips that it also doubles as his fitness regime, as many of the apartments don’t have a lift. “Climbing stairs carrying the milk tub is as good as a gym workout!” he laughs.
The eight-hour work at the restaurant is divided over two shifts, and Vinod drives the company motorbike to deliver food around Besant Nagar, Adyar and Tiruvanmiyur.
Years ago, Vinod was keen on becoming a chef – he says he’s a dab hand at making biriyani, although at Eden, his favourite dish is penne pasta – but for now, he’s satisfied with work. “When I came to Chennai, I didn’t know my way around the city. I learnt it on the job. My family joined me a year ago; they used to live with my mother, but travelling to visit them got too tiring and expensive,” says Vinod, adding that the restaurant owners have been very supportive.
When he’s not working, Vinod spends time with his son, taking him to the beach or the children’s park. “He likes to see the snakes there. I hardly go to the cinema now, but before I got married, I’ve watched three movies in a single day!” Vinod’s priority now is to get his son admitted into a good school. “I tried a few, but they all ask for a big donation. Even the application form is Rs. 200! Right now, a regular customer at the restaurant is helping us get him admitted into a Montessori school here,” he says, with hope. “Nobody in my family has studied much, so I want my son Kamalesh to study. I wish he becomes a doctor!”
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)