A STORY WITH A SCENT
By, Elizabeth Shilpa Abraham (MACE 2012 passout)
Thirty five year old Hemalatha has been sitting in a comparatively lone corner of Indira Nagar selling flowers for over five years. While the lines on her forehead and the circles around her eyes recite a story of hardship and toil, silver hairs on her scalp have already begun waging a territorial war with the black ones. Sitting on the footpath behind a small rickety table made of wooden planks, on which small heaps of mullai, malli, roja, samanthi and kanakambaram are neatly arranged, she ties those flowers together into beautiful wreaths for the local women to adorn their hair.
Customers appear now and then. A few try to bargain and she smiles and nods in denial. Sometimes a passerby stops to ask for directions, another time a familiar lady comes for a chat. She acknowledges everyone and responds to all, while her fingers continue to work like an oiled machine picking up and tying flowers together into long wreaths called ‘malais.’
“Beauty is the most important parameter of a flower. While buying, you have to choose them as carefully as you select a dress from a textile shop,” she says. Every day, after sending her kids to school and finishing the chores, at around 11 o clock she takes the local train and travels from her house at Perungudi to Parrys, where she gets the flowers for wholesale price. After buying them in small amounts to avoid wastage, she comes to her usual trading location at Indira Nagar at around 3 o clock in the afternoon. Till her husband Premanand, who drives an auto-rickshaw, comes to pick her up at around 7 pm, she works and sells the flowers for a profit of Rs 5 per muzham.
“The malais are measured in units of muzham which is as long as a forearm” she demonstrates using her hand and a completed wreath. “In a day I make around 50 muzhams,” she calculates. Although the job appears easy, it is not very much so for Hemalatha. Five years ago she tripped over a boulder fracturing a leg and undergoing a surgery subsequently. No more able to continue with her previous job as a housemaid, for a while she tried preparing and sending tiffins to men working nearby. Getting the kids ready for school every day during the same time made it unmanageable for her eventually and finally she settled with her flowers. But travelling every day with an ailing leg takes a toll on her. “After sitting and working like this for long hours every day, now my neck, shoulder and waist hurts too,” she says writhing occasionally.
Born and brought up in a migrant Kannadiga family at Salem, she came to Chennai with her husband 17 years ago with new hopes and also expecting her first baby. But the city was not very hospitable towards them. “We got disillusioned very soon,” she remembers. Sealing them as ‘outsiders,’ owners hesitated to rent out or sell their houses to them. Goons bullied them for money and nobody took their side. Native drivers even today don’t allow her husband to park his auto rickshaw in any of the auto bays.
Recently a house owner at Indira Nagar complained to the police that Hemalatha’s business near his house was a ‘disgrace!’ “The police have demanded me to move at least a 100 times by now! They trouble me in lot many ways. But if we start running, we will continue it for our entire life. So pointing out that this is a public road and not anyone’s private property, I continue to fight back,” she fumes.
In between the talks, a partially blind man, lanky and shabby, approaches begging. She pauses for a while and pulls out a little cotton pouch from beneath the table. While the man waits patiently with his head bowed, she opens it and hands him over a few coins from her day’s collection. While he walks away after joining his shivering hands as a gesture of gratitude, she sighs, “the city is not kind to people like him and me!”
Wading ahead through the adversities thrown at her, Hemalatha, a Class 5 drop-out, manages to educate her children, realizing its value. “I don’t want my children to suffer and I will ensure that they graduate and get a good job, no matter whatever it takes,” her voice echoes valor.
She agrees that her job is vulnerable to losses. Certain days fetch her profit up to Rs 150, while some others end up dull. Festival seasons, especially Vinayaka Chathurthi celebrated with much pomp and vigor, bring her good profits, but only after backbreaking work that stretches through day and night. “But now I’m more satisfied than ever before,” she shimmers. “I don’t have to take orders from anyone. I do my own business and accept whatever comes to me, be it profit or loss,” her eyes gleam with a sense of independence and she thanks God for strengthening her every time to keep going.
It strikes seven in the evening and the temple bells start ringing in rhythm and harmony. “I need to offer this at the Ganpathi Kovil,” she mumbles and inspects the remaining flowers. Finally selecting a bunch of yellow samanthis from among the little heaps, she gets up, aligns her sari folds that had fallen away and walks hurriedly towards the shrine a few yards away.