Raymond Hosie knows every nook and corner of Chennai. His knowledge comes from cycling, everyday, from Saidapet station — where he parks his bicycle — to his clients’ homes, to clean their fridge, air conditioner and fans. 'I worked as an apprentice in Spencer’s a/c department, back in 1972. My stipend was Rs. 80. I was only 17 when I joined — but I was big and tall, and they took me in.' It was Raymond’s mother who got him the job there — she was with Spencer’s laundry, and they cleaned, mostly, clothes from Connemara hotel. Spencer, he says, was a wonderful store; the cakes and cool drinks were fantastic, and the furniture, very strong. 'Even if a husband and wife fought, nothing would break!' he laughs.
After fifteen years at Spencer, Raymond went to Connemara hotel on work – this time, as the a/c plant operator. And in his spare time, he cycled around the city, cleaning fridges, air-conditioners, fans, and sometimes, the entire house. Back then, fridges weren’t frost-free; and the job took longer, as the ice had to be defrosted. 'But the quality was very good. You bought a fridge then for Rs. 6,000 or Rs. 8,000. It had a resale value, of about Rs. 3,000. Now, the fridges are fancy, they’re expensive; when you try to resell it, nobody wants it!'
Raymond has similar thoughts about split air-conditioners, and speaks fondly about window units. Were they better, I ask him. 'Not better, they were the best!' he says. But today, stores hard-sell split air conditioners and they also promote them as a necessity. 'But I won’t agree; I think a/cs are a luxury,' he says, with conviction.
Personally, Raymond has seen little luxury in life. His father was in the army, but quit when he took ill; his mother worked at the laundry. 'Poor family,' he says simply, and speaks without any grudge even about the bad luck that has plagued him. 'This eye,' he points to his right one, 'was injured by a cracker one Diwali. I was offered a glass eye in its place, but I declined.' He has also met a lot of important people, and worked in some of their homes, but none of it really impacted his life.
And so his life continues to be one of hard work. Living in Guduvanchery, Raymond leaves home early every morning, and cycles to the station. 'From there, I take a train to Saidapet. There, I have another bicycle parked. With that, I cycle everywhere in the city — Kandanchavadi, Kilpauk, Ambattur — and work. I go home by the last train, at 10.30 p.m. You know, I only have one bad habit,' he says softly, and pauses. 'I drink tea.'
It is tea, he admits, that keeps him going. In the morning, he asks his wife for a cup of tea, and leaves home right after; when he worked at Connemara, the staff used to get him tea in a flask; and if clients offer him tea, he does not refuse it. 'But tea itself costs Rs.11 for a cup. How do alcohol drinkers manage to support their expensive addiction,' he wonders, explaining that he has never indulged in anything but regular meals unless it’s a birthday, and never splurged on a tour, because he would not want to come back and discover he’s short of money for the next meal...
Raymond is, today, a grandfather twice over. His daughters have a child each. 'Sweet ones,' he says of his grandchildren, extending the ‘ee’ in affection. 'Right now, I have no debts. I’m old, a little poor, but I’m happy,' he says, before getting back to cleaning the fridge.
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)