On a warm March evening, the thinnai (porch) in Rama Srinivasan’s house is a welcome strip of velvety shade. “This house is perhaps 100 years old. When we rented it out, 44 years ago, all the houses on the street were similar. But now, this is the only one here (on Bazaar lane, Mylapore) with a thinnai and mitham (courtyard).”

We’re seated on the breezy thinnai. “I retired as a teacher, after teaching Tamil for 28 years,” says the 64-year-old Rama. “Before that, I was a kindergarten teacher. The principal of the Punjab Association who watched me teaching children, told me that I handled classes well, and should get a qualification to teach higher classes. So, after marriage and two children, I passed M.A, B.Ed., and became a higher secondary Tamil teacher in Adarsh.”

Rama loves Tamil. “I am passionate about the subject; it has a special flavour. I enjoyed teaching Kamba Ramayanam and Silappadikkaram, besides grammar.” Her voice is her asset, says Rama, adding that, when she taught the Ramayanam, the principal used to sit in her class. “Silappadikkaram is a superb story! I’d be happy to tell you the whole tale right now!” she smiles.

When she taught, Rama did not believe in shop-bought preparatory notes. But her manner of coaching ensured that several of her students secured State ranks. After she retired in 2005, Rama began Tamil tuitions, often taking the first bus, so that she could start the lesson at 6.30 a.m.

“My day starts very early. I draw kolams — voluntarily — outside three temples nearby. At 5.30 a.m., I start walking to the bus stop, and sometimes, I wake up my students for the tuition.”

Not one to waste time, Rama spends the afternoons with her grandson, and in her spare time, weaves wire baskets. “I learnt this when I worked in kindergarten. Besides the regular knot, I can make Sivankannu, nellikai and biscuit knots. The nellikai knot is especially good; the basket is sturdy, and no gaps are visible.” During Navaratri, her bags are popular as giveaways.

In the evenings, Rama sits on the thinnai, with the colourful wire bundles and weaves baskets. “Sometimes, passers-by ask me to teach them, and I always oblige.” The narrow street fills up with the happy sounds of gully cricket and the scratch of brooms, as women sweep and draw kolams.

“During Diwali, I get busy with orders for snacks,” Rama says. “I make Diwali marundhu, besides some sweets and savouries. My badushas turn out well, and so does mixture,” she smiles.

Grateful for her education — she completed her degrees by correspondence, and also went on to do her B.A in Hindi — which gave her a livelihood, Rama says she’s contented now as her son and daughter are well settled in life. She fondly recalls her husband, who was a great support to her. “He was my right hand. He accompanied me when I went to the temple every morning, and even cooked, when I went to school,” she reminisces.

Red bananas and kola maavu are hawked in the street, while Rama’s grandson, riding a bicycle around the mitham, calls her. Wooden pillars support the sloping, tiled roof; sunshine and sea breeze pour in through the square opening. “It never gets very hot here, even in summer!” Rama smiles, as I leave the cool refuge, and walk into the dusty street, past the temples, which I’m told, draw more crowds now than they did, 44-years ago…

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