Five women gather in a room in the office of Hasiru Dala to talk of the life spent wastepicking. Chinnapillai (70), Sharada (60) and Aniyamma (58) have been at it for 45 years, Lakshmi (55) for 30 years while Nadtaimma (72) is still at it even after 40 years. Amidst frequent laughter, their individual and collective narratives unfurl over steel glasses of tea brought in by Kamli. Sharada’s daughter Vasanti, acting as Kannada to Tamil translator warns gap-toothed smiling Nadtaimma to stick to the history of wastepicking and not talk of her family history, marriage et al. When Nadtaimma wades in nevertheless to reminiscence about her husband, she is shouted down affectionately by the rest. Nadtaimma takes it sportingly, the smile never leaving her face throughout the discussion. Every now and then, the women bicker like kids about which of them having come first to the city is the sole authority in some detail. Lakshmi, the quietest of the women looks on calmly at the proceedings joining in intermittently while Aniyamma, the most vocal of the lot, jumps up to gesture animatedly to expound a particular point. Chinnapillai is a trifle distracted pointing to a wound below her right knee while Sharada whose face is wrapped in a scarf and is unwell runs out of steam mid-way and lies down on the couch on her daughter Vasanti’s urging. The women present are all related to each other by marriage but Aniyamma remarks, “Even if we aren’t related, we’re all family, everyone is a brother or sister to us as we all stay together.”
Jhupdi is their place of residence, a word that across Tamil and Hindi languages means a hutment/shack, the most basic and informal mode of housing. Accompanying their families, these women made the journey from their homes in Tamil Nadu to Bangalore by bus. Chinnapillai recalls that the bus ticket cost just 50 paise. She had four children before she moved to Bangalore with her husband and other relatives and was around 25-30 years old when she first ventured into the profession of wastepicking. Others like Sharada and Aniyamma were child brides of 13 when they first started.
On arriving in Bangalore, the migrants made their way to a barren stretch near the burial ground called Nayandahalli area. Aniyamma says that her mother-in-law told her that two generations of elders before her had first set up home here using clothes strung out on sticks to serve as shelter. The isolated, lonely place made them reach out to and coax other Tamilians into joining them. Soon, a colony of 62 families sprung up and the cloth gave way to metal and tin sheets till finally cemented blocks became home. Those who could not afford the construction built mud dwellings.
When they first arrived, the proximity to the burial ground made collecting bones (not human bones!) a daily ritual for the families. They were then taken to the sorting ground to dry where a stick would be used to strike the bones with a force so that the bits of flesh and muscle adhering to them fell off. After stray dogs had feasted on the remains, the women would gather the bones to sell them. Whereas earlier bones made their way to farms, now they’re used to make medicines. The women point out that even today, there are bastis (informal settlements) in Bangalore known as bone jhupdis.
The search for waste led the women further afield, covering a radius from Khalasipalya bus stand to Banashankari, Jayanagar, Tilaknagar, Shivajinagar and Goripallya, among others. The last was a Muslim-dominated locality at the time. The travel from place to place would be largely by foot because there were no autorickshaws then. Sharada would take the horse carriage (jhatka). The waste collection expanded from bones called likakari to coal (igler) fallen along railway tracks as well as broken glass and plastic hawaii chappals, which were commonly used back then. Besides railway tracks, coal would also be collected from the embers of firewood discarded on the road by hotels. At least six different areas had to be visited to collect sufficient waste and it was not possible to complete the entire circuit in a day. For instance, it would take a whole week walking nearly 25 km to Dasarahalli, Timbanalli and Hosalli, to collect a sackful of coal. Over time, Vinobha Nagar became the hotspot for waste in the form of rags. Some families would also collect hospital waste, including uniforms comprising trousers and shirts that would be washed for re-use.
Getting water was a major hassle. The women speak of a lake at the site where Urvashi theatre now stands and 3-4 lakes in Lalbagh, whose water was used for bathing and washing. Women had to walk to Lalbagh and Mavalli to fetch water in pots. Drinking water and cooking water were sourced from a different area. With its many bushes, greenery and cacti offering convenient cover, the maidan served as an open toilet. They had to wake up before the men did at 5 am for their daily ablutions. But barring the Shivaji theatre building there was nothing else around so the women didn’t fear any peeping toms.
After breakfast, they’d set out for their waste collection rounds but even if exhausted, the women could barely rest a moment before turning to the sorting of the waste, which was spread out in an enclosed area at JC Road, then surrounded by empty plots as buildings had yet to come up there. The waste of the week would then be carried to the dealers. The load was so heavy that it took four men to lift and place it on their heads. It was unproductive to compress the waste. The other alternative was that the dealers would come to the ground directly but this meant a cut of 5 paise from the sale price. The rates were 50 paise per kilo of bones or fifteen rupees for a tin of them. A tin of coal would fetch two-and-a-half rupees. Only coal was sold by volume, the rest by the kilo. Iron filings would sell at rupees two-and-a-half per kilo, cotton for one rupee a kilo. White paper received a then princely sum of three rupees while the newspaper rate was 50 paise as was the mixed paper used for art and craft including brown paper.
The daily schedule lasted from 5am-5pm during which the women would take a break three times a day to sip tea bought from a vendor for 15-22 paise. There was no coffee powder so they’d make do with chukku coffee that was more like a herbal concoction (kasai) made from jaggery and dhania (coriander seeds). A man would come around vending it for 3-6 paise, which later rose to 10 paise. They all recall that an anna coin with a hole in its centre would be enough to buy aarkasu, murkasu, coconut barfi and a puffed rice ball. But their perennial go-to indulgence was and remains tobacco and betel leaf, bought in a bunch of five for ten rupees. A beaming Nadtaimma shows off her betel leaves tucked in at her waist saying, “We’ll miss our meals but can’t do without these!” Vasanti chimes in that their addiction is rooted in their traditional belief that betel leaves can cure anything of a snake bite to worm infestation. Nadtaaimma and the others declare that having lived a long life and with their children grown-up and doing well, they feel it’s okay to chew tobacco despite the attendant health risks.
Aniyamma mentions that most of their menfolk earned from cutting the iron and their hands were hewn rough by the arduous work. But Vasanti’s mother, Sharada was the sole earning member in her family. Her husband took care of the kids when she was away. Unlike the rest, she made sure that none of her three children ever went for waste-picking. Aniyamma says there was a Godrej cupboard factory behind their homes so children would be sent with a magnet to ferret out iron filings scattered on the ground. Some did it without a magnet. Aniyamma does not recall how old her children were when they started collecting plastic. “Who knows?” she remarks, “They were studying and growing up.” Aniyamma’s eldest daughter was 9-10 years old when she started cooking.
Barring Aniyamma, who delivered three of her six children in a hospital, all the rest had their children at home. Three old women in their community, long deceased, acting as midwives. In their words, “We were given a drink made of drumstick leaves in water. Then we’d feel a pain in our lower back and whoosh the kid would come out.” Aniyamma mentions a doctor being available at the church and Chinnapillai remembers the doctor would charge two rupees for treating the children. While they’ve all taken their children to a doctor they all opted for self-medication for themselves – popping calcium pills for aches and pains and Anacin for headaches. But Vasanti points out, “Despite the dirt, we all lived in we hardly ever fell ill. It’s only in recent times that it’s become more frequent.”
The women would always share food. If they got five rupees, they’d cook a kilo of what was called Rangoon rice – very white in colour, it had to be cooked and eaten immediately before it turned soggy – add another kilo of mutton to it and throw in some greens that grew all around and make a meal of it. Ration cards when they did come – the year cannot be recalled – provided wheat, Rangoon rice, ragi and kerosene. Children were fed puffed rice sweetened with jaggery, which they slurped up.
None of the women can give the rates of groceries as these were bought by the menfolk. Kerosene that was priced at 75 paise a litre provided fuel for cooking and children would read under the light of a kerosene lantern. Vasanti’s father once gifted Aniyamma the Bhagvad Gita and the children had to read one para daily. The school books had to be bought and were procured from Tamil Nadu as well. The white and green uniform also did not come free and cost a whopping Rs. 130.
The women agree that they never had to purchase sarees, which cost Rs. 150. They received them as gifts or in barter. Chinnapillai mentions that her husband would buy her clothes from the city market. Aniyamma admits that then and now, she loves to dress up. Growing up, she never wore the mini and maxi, but always wore sarees with blouses, unlike her elders who did away with the blouse altogether. Nadtaimma recalls wearing the half-saree at some point. Aniyamma reminds her how Vasanti’s father forbade her from adorning her hair with flowers. Seeing her, he’d told the then married Nadtaimma caustically that if she dared roam around like that, she’d end up eloping with some other man! Nadtaimma agrees with this version as does Vasanti. But Nadtaimma insists she didn’t mind and to this day does not wear flowers in her hair.
The monsoons made living and work conditions absolute hell. Being a low-lying area, the rains would bring the drain water right into their homes. Sharada says they had to cup their hands and throw the water out manually. There was no question of getting any sleep at night. Hence, children would be sent to the only dry space in the area – the temple. Sharada’s daughter Vasanti shudders as she recalls the large size of the worms crawling everywhere, which sometimes entered the ears of sleeping children. Kerosene would be poured into the ear or a safety pin inserted to coax the worm out. The stench was unbearable even otherwise and the rains made it worse. Vasanti laughs as she says that it kept the landlord away and politicos coming to canvas for votes would arrive with noses and mouths fully covered. But living and growing up there made residents immune to the stink. Many years later, it was Vasanti’s father who gave up his home to allow the construction of a proper drain pipe and cover. It was his efforts again that brought electricity to the area when Vasanti was in class 5. Today, while 110 houses are now registered under the Slum Board, there are nearly 200 sprawled across the area.
None has any memories of the Freedom movement but etched in their individual and collective psyche are the language riots in 1991 when anti-Tamil violence broke out in Karnataka. Says Aniyamma, “There was this area where we were all women residents, when the rioters came we fought a pitched battle using whatever we could lay our hands on like stray implements and chilli powder.” She goes on to add that it was only Tamil versus Kannadiga sentiment that fuelled riots and the area has never seen anti-Muslim hate crimes. Festivals like Diwali and Pongal are celebrated as is the Urahabba, for the local devi (goddess), for which each household contributes INR 1000. However, they feel it’s more politicised now. They miss the community feeling of years ago, the contribution at that time was only ten rupees. Despite prodding, the women steer clear of speaking on the issue of the rowdy gangs only going so far as to admit that they do operate in their areas.
Sharada suddenly begins to weep, “When my children were infants, I’d pump breast milk into two bottles before setting out for the day’s rounds. So much care I took of my children and my son was murdered.” As she’s unable to speak further, Vasanti elaborates on his tragic death to road rage: “Five people just stood and watched. We were metres away. If only someone had run and informed us, his life could’ve been saved. He died on the road.” As Sharada’s eyes brim with tears, the eyes of the rest of the women in the room also turn moist in unspoken solidarity.
The women concur that there’s been an overall downtrend in income over the past decade. Where they once earned a minimum of INR 1000-1500 on a weekly basis, the last two years, in particular, has seen a steep decline. For instance, the rate per carton has dropped to three to four rupees from the earlier twelve rupees.
Chinnapillai is now too old at seventy years to go out waste picking so she earns her living by cleaning shops in the market and hopes to be eligible for the State’s old-age pension. But Nadtaimma and others contend that the postman takes a cut of INR 50 for delivering pension money. Sharada is looking for financial aid and shelter in Chennai where her daughter awaits a lung transplant. Aniyamma continues to enjoy dressing up. Nadtaimma raises her eyes upwards and brings the palms of her hands together in thanks to the deity for all that she has got even as she continues in the profession forty years after she first stepped into it. Lakshmi speaks quietly of starting at the age of ten picking iron filings and lapses into silence.
And then they’re gone. But the emptied room still throbs with their energetic presence, shed and unshed tears and gales of laughter. The bald eagle that just a while ago was the cynosure of all eyes is still perched on the tree across the road. They felt blessed they’d said, seeing it as an auspicious sighting. If only the city considered them so as well.