I AM... Introducing a weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is

I am... A. Kasi

Age: 60

Occupation: Grilled corn and raw mango vendor

One cool, windy evening, Kasi stands behind his mobile corn-stall at the Marina. “I’ve been here, for the last forty years, selling corn, raw mango, pineapple and cucumber,” he says. “I came to Chennai when I was 20. My mother had cancer, so we sold our agricultural land and bought her from Vedhandhavadi (our native village, near Thiruvannamalai) to Stanley Hospital, for treatment. It was then that I took up this business, paying Rs. 110 to buy the stall. How much things have changed in these 40 years! My house rent then was Rs.12, today it is Rs. 2,500; roasted corn was sold for 30 paise, and I sold nearly 300 pieces a day, so brisk the business was. Today, corn sells for Rs. 20; in the weekends, I take home maybe Rs. 1,000; other days, it’s Rs.100 to Rs. 300. See how few people come here?”

Just then, two kids run up to Kasi. “Anna, give me raw mango, no chilli,” they clamour. “But I’m happy with my business,” Kasi says, handing over the finely sliced arcs of yellow-green mango; he puts the ten rupee note into the plastic money box, after pressing it to his eyes. “I have no regrets, except, maybe, I wish I had studied. I quit in class II. I wanted to educate my children, but my daughters refused. My son though holds an M.Com degree with a good job; his wife runs a provision store.”

Back in his village, Kasi used to cultivate paddy, groundnuts and spinach. “I still visit it, but my life now revolves around the beach. Home, behind the DGP’s office, is a ten-minute walk. My wife too has a shop on the beach. We come here at four in the evening; we go home at 10.30 p.m. When I started out here, there used to be rowdies who would say Rendu cholam kodu da, and walk away with it. Now, there are policemen round the clock; it’s much safer. The beach is also clean, though earlier there were more plants. We also have toilets now,” he says.

“My shop has always been here, behind the Gandhi statue,” he adds. “If I don’t come for a few days, people ask “where is Kasi’s shop?” During the tsunami, business took a beating. We were safe, but the beach was out-of-bounds for a week. And the sand had turned black, it had to be cleaned; people stayed away for a long time.

“Summer is good business; rains however mean no sales. But in any case, we manage; I don’t believe in loans, that only enslaves you. First, I sold in the light of a gada lamp, then a petromax bulb; now it is tube-light; life goes on,” he says and rotates the handle of the corn-toaster. A spray of orange sparks fly out. They glow briefly, in the dim evening light, before fading into the sands of the Marina.