Twenty years ago, 60-year- old Rani Perumal, a native of Chennai was thrown out, mercilessly, on the road, by her daughter. She did not want her mother in her life anymore. Her married daughter, with children, was having an affair. She was cast away because her mother objected to her wayward life. With nowhere to go, she wandered the roads like a ‘mad woman’ before she settled down to mending shoes, the profession of her dead husband. Her life is full of hardships and unending pain. She weeps. But her tears never washed away her grief. Shail profiles the cobbler woman of Chennai, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
‘One knows where the shoe hurts.’ ~ Portuguese proverb
She sat outside the Income Tax Office building symbolising the irony of life. People who walked inside the building to declare their income, all who worked there – the auditors and staff alike dealt with money, while the woman who sat on a large strip of billboard paper on the pavement struggled to make ends meet.
Handling a profession that I had mostly seen men work at, I wondered what made her sit there mending shoes, day after day.
Pain, anger, hurt was grit on her face even before I approached her.
I gave her my son’s shoes for mending. And then, slowly as she began her work I initiated a conversation.
Have you been here for long?
“For the past 20 years.”
How come you took up this profession? Usually, men tend to do this work?
“My husband was a cobbler. After he died I took up his work.”
Do people hesitate to come to you because you are a woman?
She looked up at me, as if I belonged to some conservative era. “No, they come to me. I earn around 200-300 rupees per day when the business is good.”
What about your family?
It was as if I had poked her because right then, she looked up at me, her eyes moistened and the needle that she stitching the shoe with pierced her finger.
“Now look, I got hurt,” saying this she took a small plastic box of quicklime, which she apparently used for her betel leaves and put a little on her hurt finger. Before I could utter anything else she took a box of adhesive used to stick leather and applied it over the quicklime treated finger.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked her, shockingly.
“How else will the bleeding stop?” She asked me instead.
Twenty years ago, 60-year- old Rani Perumal, a native of Chennai was thrown mercilessly on the road by her daughter, who did not want her in her life anymore. With nowhere to go, she wandered the roads like a ‘mad woman’ before she could settle down to the current job.
“I never worked before…” her voice quivered. She added, “I stayed at home and looked after my house and family. Who knew all this was written for me!”
But, why did her daughter throw her out?
“Because she was having an affair despite being married and having children and I did not like it.”
I did not know what to say. Where do you live now?
“I live some distance away. But, with this leg, I cannot walk.”
It was then that I looked at her leg. It was swollen, looked like elephantiasis to me.
“I come in an auto every day. I spend for it. I haven’t been able to pay the rent for the house for the past three months.”
What about your food?
“How can I cook like this? I sit here till 4 in the evening and then go home. I buy my food every day. On some days, someone is kind and gives me food.”
If you do not cook then what do you do after you go home?
“I sit and cry,” saying this she burst into tears.
I did not know what to do. I looked around. I saw a tiny picture of Jesus where she was seated. “Don’t worry,” I said, “Yesu (Jesus) will take care of you.”
She wiped her eyes with the end of her saree and said, “I don’t even know you and yet you are trying to comfort me. That evil daughter of mine, I brought her up with so much affection and look what she did? I even got her elder daughter married some years back. That granddaughter of mine visits me sometimes. I haven’t seen my daughter’s face for the past ten years. The younger granddaughter of mine is working in Seth’s house.”
How old is she?
“She is 25-year- old. God only knows how safe she is. She never comes to see me.”
So Paati Ma (grandmother), when your husband was alive, what did you like doing? “I used to visit temples, watch movies.”
Movies? Which actors did you like?
“MGR, Sivaji and Gemini Ganesan, all of them. But MGR I liked the best. I still vote for his party.”
You just mentioned that you used to visit temples and, your husband’s name is Perumal. So, was your husband a Hindu and you are a Christian?
“No. No. I am a Hindu.”
“After I was kicked out of the house I had nowhere to go. A church promised help if I attended their sermons every Sunday so I started going there.”
So, did you get help?
“I got free food every Sunday. So, I continue going there. And they said, they will change my name one of these days.”
My son’s shoes were mended. I asked her how much I had to pay and gave her the money.
“If you have any old saree or something do give me,” she pleaded, as I stood up, ready to leave.
“Deepavali is coming. Had my husband been alive he would have got me two sarees and matching blouse pieces.” Tears started streaming down her face again.
Her courage was inspiring but at the same time, the suffering that she had been through made me question my blessed existence.
I prayed that Perumal and Yesu take care of this octogenarian.
Pix by the author.
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