A spotlight on India’s women breadwinners who #ChooseToChallenge tough streets

This Women’s Day 2021, we talk to the breadwinners who have carved their own niche in the name of both street cred and strength

Aleyamma John, fishmonger, Thiruvananthapuram

Balancing the large aluminium vessel heavy with fresh fish on her head is a skill Aleyamma John has perfected over 45 years.

“At 26, I began selling fish door-to-door to make ends meet. After my husband, John, fell ill, it is my earning that helped raise my three daughters and son. My husband was a fisherman and we had our own boat and nets. But all that was sold to meet his medical expenses,” she says.

In a chequered kaili lungi, long blouse and a thorthu thrown over her shoulder, Aleyamma is a picture of resilience. Her weatherbeaten face is wreathed in smiles as she pulls out a smaller aluminium container from the large one she keeps the fish in, turns it over and sits on it to talk about life.

Hailing from a fishing community at Vettukadu, Aleyamma recalls her mother walking from the beachside village to the city, 10 kilometres away, every day. “Many women in my generation followed in their footsteps. Rain or shine, we had to reach the city and back again. No buses would permit us to travel with our wicker baskets of fish.” The day still starts early with Aleyamma making her way to the Vettukadu or Vizhinjam, near Kovalam, to buy the catch of the day. But now, she and two others take an autorickshaw to the city and then walk to the homes of their regular customers. Each of them has a route, and they sell the fish and clean it for the buyer.

“Earlier, we used to go to the Karamana river at Edapazhanji and have a bath after we were done for the day. Nowadays kind householders permit us to use the washroom on their premises and also store the fish in an icebox. In the evening, we sit by the roadside at Vazhuthacaud to sell the fish. That is when officer-goers stop by.” Aleyamma is grateful that she was able to get her children educated and married. Her son and one son-in-law is in West Asia. “One grandson studies engineering and another works for a company in Technopark. My children are better off than where we started from. I keep reminding them that they must save for a rainy day.”

Alankrita Narula, paratha seller, Delhi

Every morning, Alankrita Narula would slip out of her city-girl clothes and into a salwar kameez. She would be up at 6 am, cooking, so she could head out on to the street by 9.30 am to set up her thela (cart), calledBalaji Paranthe, in a market near her apartment building in Delhi’s Dwarka.

After spending 13 years in advertising, Alankrita decided to quit to follow her passion. It is a cliché, she says, that rolls off the tongue easier than what it takes on ground — where pushing the cart, standing next to the fire, and working in sun and rain until 5.30 pm is not easy.

She began in January 2020, mostly feeding daily wagers, Uber drivers, electricians and plumbers. “In the beginning I thought of just serving aaloo ke parathe with dahi and pickle. I priced it at ₹50. In a couple of days I realised that people want a meal, and that ₹50 is too much for someone who barely earns ₹200 a day,” she says. She brought her prices down to ₹20, and introduced a vegetable.

Her family was nervous about how she would manage on the road, but Alankrita says she has never faced a security problem. The only problem she has is from people who came by in big cars and who bargain.

“I do think I am privileged, so sometimes I wonder whether I should be out on the street. For someone else it may not be a choice, and it does make me feel a little guilty to eat into someone else’s street food business.”

Elardini Gautami, vegetable vendor, Hyderabad

Thirty-eight-year-old Elardini Gautami does no’t know to read or write. However, her determination to educate her daughters drives her to work hard. Her day begins at 6 am when she heads to a vegetable wholesale market with her husband on his two-wheeler. Once she is back, she arranges them in a push cart and off she goes. Elardini says, “My husband is a painter. I used to work as a part-time domestic help. The earning wasn’t sufficient. Especially after my daughter passed her Class X we realised it would be tough for us to send her to college.”

Elardini (in yellow saree) selling vegetables to a customer in her  

“I don’t want my daughters to end up as domestic help. Pushing the cart around is not easy but then I have to do it to run my home and earn enough to pay my daughters’ fees.”

Elardini’s elder daughter is in college and the younger one is in Class VIII. Elardini is satisfied that her daughters do well. “I send them to a private school and want them to be able to speak in English.” She admits that her work is challenging. “When my body doesn’t allow me to push the cart, I find a convenient and safe spot and sell from there. I cannot drink much water because there are no toilets. It results in headaches and body pain. Making a living from the road is a battle, but I will take it up for my daughters.”

Raji Muthuraj, bhajji seller, Kochi

Raji Muthuraj arrives at her pushcart, parked in Vyttila, Kochi, in an autorickshaw. She and her husband Muthuraj have the supplies for the day with them. Loaded in the three-wheeler are a gas cylinder and stove, various containers filled with batter and sliced onions for vada, boiled eggs for bhajji, potato mix for bonda, raw banana and chilli for fritters, and water, oil and milk for tea, besides utensils. They arrive at 3 pm to get ready for rush hour that starts at 4 pm. By the time they get home it is 10 pm.

An adjective Raji frequently uses is “super” — the vada is super, as is the tea and the crisp egg bhajji. Cheerful with a ready smile, Raji is popular among regulars, most of whom have been buying from her for the 10 years they have been at Vyttila. “Ever since we started, 20 years ago, I have been constantly by my husband’s side — day or night, rain or shine. There is no other way to do this work,” she says.

She is the heart of the business, which has helped them raise and educate their four children – three girls and a boy; besides getting two of those girls married. She looks after the family’s finances deciding on the investments, usually chit funds, big purchases such as the television and payment of EMIs too.

“The last year has been very tough for us financially, like it has been for everybody else. The first 50 days of lockdown, business came to a standstill. We are behind on the payment of some of our chit fund investments,” she says, adding, “We bought land [near Vyttila] and built our house without a housing loan, with the money we earned,” she says. The money also goes into travelling with family to places such as Tirupati, Madurai or Kaniyakumari. “Only two things mattered in the end — the food we ate and the places we saw!”

With inputs from Sunalini Mathew, Saraswathy Nagarajan, Shilpa Nair Anand and Prabalika M Borah

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