As the bus approached Adyar, the sun was beating down on us mercilessly. Looking forward to the cool comfort of an auto, we were disappointed when eight of us managed to cram ourselves into a share-auto, the insides of which were nothing less than an oven. As we moved towards Kannagi Nagar in Thoraipakkam, we were really shaken up by the condition of the roads (pun intended). The roads were full of pitfalls and potholes. We laughed it off comparing ourselves to the participants of Takeshi’s Castle. Little did we know that our laughter would not last long! The first thing I noticed when I got down from the auto was the heat and the fact that I was in the middle of nowhere. Some bus trudged along with a large number of people hanging on to it for dear life. There were rows of houses that looked identically miserable. We walked down a road with houses lined on either side. These houses were government quarters provided to the victims of Tsunami. There were many children: malnourished, dusty, eager, and naked, and with bright eyes. They looked more beautiful to me than the chubby children I see in Pizza Hut or Mayajaal.
As we progressed, the unhygienic living conditions were blatant. There were swarms of flies over everything and everybody. There was a vegetable shop full of vegetables that were clouded over by flies. An old lady of about 75 years of age sat peacefully amidst these flies. A little boy was eating Idlis, from a plate which was infested with flies. Some children relieved themselves in the open. There was human excrement on either side of the road. We spoke to an old lady who told us of the whereabouts of the girls we were planning to meet. Near her sat a one-year old baby kicking up dust and digging the dirt. The baby had a nonchalant look on its face. When I tried to pat its head it put its tongue out and gave me a look that did not mean anything. I had a vague feeling that the baby had some health problem which was not being noticed. However, we had to move away from there. I noticed several girl children who were not clad properly. I thought how unsafe it was for these children to move about in such a condition. There were possibilities of abuse and infection.
We entered the house of Imelda whose 6-month old baby Jennifer caught our attention immediately. The baby was the loveliest little thing. It had bright eyes, very small toes and fingers, a fluffy head and a charming smile. It was a very playful and agile baby. It uttered some really delightful gurgles and coos. Our excitement did not last. We understood that the baby had a problem in its right leg. Its right foot was bent at the ankle and required treatment. The mother tried to make the baby wear the special shoes meant for the purpose of correcting the foot. The baby began to cry after a minute of wearing these shoes. We could see the pain and discomfort on its face. So she removed the shoes and I lifted the baby and pacified it back to smiling and gurgling.
I and my friend Gitanjali moved towards another house where we were to meet two more girls.
At Amudha’s small one-room kitchen house we met Amudha and her friend Devi. We first apologized for interrupting with their daily chores. As we began a conversation with them, I noticed that there was no electricity in the house. I remembered that Imelda’s house had electricity. To begin with, we spoke to Amudha and Devi for about an hour.
Devi had come to Kannagi Nagar after the Tsunami. During the Tsunami, she had managed to quickly grab the suitcase that contained some jewelry and sarees and ran for safety, in knee-deep water along with her kinsfolk. The only difference between others and her had been that she was 9-months pregnant. Devi recollected her parents who lived in Poonamallee. She told me that she had two younger sisters and one younger brother, yet to be married. Her own marriage happened to Sivaprakasam when she was hardly 18 years old. It was an arranged marriage unlike Amudha’s. Devi has studied till 6th standard. I asked her why she stopped education after that. She said that her father was a drunkard who beat her mother up everyday. So they moved to her grandparents’ house for safety. Their education was stopped once they went to a newer location.
Devi’s marriage had been an important occasion. Her father-in-law and mother-in-law were not alive. She has four sisters-in-law, one of whom lives at Kannagi Nagar. She had left her child behind with this sister-in-law in order to converse with us. During Devi’s marriage her sisters-in-law demanded that she bring a dowry of 6 sovereigns in gold, a cot and a bureau. Devi’s parents being poor, had managed to give her 4 sovereigns in gold and they promised that the cot and bureau would be delivered later (which they never managed).
To this day, the four sisters-in-law fight with Devi for this reason. Devi’s husband tactfully remains silent while his sisters indulge in verbal abuse of the girl. She retorts to them by saying that she is one who would wear the 6 sovereigns and that she could do with just 4 sovereigns worth jewels. If need be, she shall obtain more. As an extension of this anger, her sister-in-law refuses to share electricity with Devi’s house, though Devi pays for it. She fights with Devi and demands that the fan should be switched on only at certain times of the day and so on. Devi being a quiet girl, the fights do not extend beyond verbal exchanges.
Devi’s husband brings home Rs. 2100 or so p.m. This amount varies with the availability of work. They do not have any recreation except watching TV at another girl Metti’s house. As they live quite far away from the city, they do not go out to a movie or a temple, which they used to do until they lived in the city. Devi’s life is peaceful except for her cantankerous sisters-in-law who trouble her. Her child Sandhya is a big-eyed and weak child. I asked her if the child ate properly. Devi claimed that she fed the child with Cerelac but the child did not eat properly.
Devi’s daily routine consisted of waking up, sending her husband to work, and waiting for corporation water which was available at certain times in the day. Once she brought home the required amount of water, she bathed the child, cooked and fed the child. Her husband ate his lunch outside. She spent her time watching TV at Metti’s place and gossiping with the other girls in the block. When he came home in the evening they ate a simple meal and slept on the floor. It was an uneventful life.
With memories of their older lives with kith and kin, these girls are living like exiles. They do not have anyone to reach out to with their problems, except to each other. They hope to go back to the city and to tolerable living conditions.
When I asked Devi, if she would educate her child, she said, “Yes, Certainly! Only I have turned out to be like this. She must do really well.” There was hope and happiness in her eyes. No complaints.