Pappathi twitches her eyebrow for a brief moment when asked her age. She takes a moment to answer, adding that she is preoccupied with other things. One can overlook her slow response, considering at 74, she has to look after her 6-member all women family while living in a makeshift house by the roadside in Kerala's Thrissur district.
A Dalit and a widow, Pappathi has to worry about feeding her family members besides fighting with her neighbours to be able to live there and worry about keeping her granddaughters safe.
But, this is only one part of the problem. Her granddaughters are not safe, and one minor was assaulted four months ago. Though Pappathi filed a POCSO case, the four accused roam around freely, making Pappathi fearful for the safety of her family.
Pappathi's plight was brought to light by Asianet News and for a while, it seemed like there might be some help at hand for these women living by the roadside in Athani for years. The news channel had reported about Pappathi's desperate pleas to government officials to be granted land to build a house. She had been promised by a collector that she will receive help from the government. But every time the process is initiated, it gets stalled at the Panchayat office level.
Pappathi belongs to the Paraya community, once considered untouchable. She used to live in Wayanad and was widowed 15-years-ago.
After her husband's death, she made a living selling lottery tickets. At that time she received news that her older daughter and son-in-law had abandoned their children in Tamil Nadu. Unable to bear the thought of her five granddaughters being left alone, despite her own impoverished condition, Pappathi took the children under her wings.
With her 36-year-old younger daughter Sindhu and her five young grand-daughters, Pappathi moved to Thrissur where she began living in a make-shift house in the unoccupied land. Now at 74, Pappathi is the only earning member of the family and spends her nights standing guard so that her grand-daughters are safe from the prying eyes of strangers. "Last night, some people threw stones at our house. When I rushed to see who it was, I saw few men running away. I spent the rest of the night holding on to a knife in case they come back," Pappathy told TNM.
Around four months ago, the family's worst fear came true when a group of four men- all autorickshaw drivers- assaulted one of the minor sisters. A stone's throw away from their make-shift house is an autorickshaw stand. Narrating the incident, the girls' aunt Sindhu says,
"We have a few dogs in the house to ensure that we remain safe. One day, while I was away and the girls were alone at home, the four men got into an argument with her over the dogs. The men tried to the dogs away, alleging that we have let them loose. The men pushed the girl on her chest, tore the sleeve of her shirt and assaulted her. Once I was back, we went straight to the Commissioner's office and filed a written complaint."
But, the four accused went into hiding and later obtained bail from the court. The case is still pending.
Apathy from locals
Living in a 'poromboke' land (agricultural land without title), the family has been at the receiving end of their neighbours' resentment. While the family was allowed to draw water from the wells in the neighbouring houses years ago, they are now barred from doing so, the family alleges. When asked, the locals either shied away from commenting, dismissing the family as "living by the roadside" or accused them of being immoral.
An autorickshaw driver, on condition of anonymity, accused the women of showering abuses on the people without any provocation. "They are not the kind of people we want to speak to, that's just it. This Sindhu used to run a small hotel outside their house and some people fell ill because they ran the place with no hygiene whatsoever. We forced them to shut shop," he said.
Looking at her granddaughters, Pappathi remarks: "I have to constantly fight with the people so that my children can sleep safely at night. We all stand guard whether the other is taking a bath, for there is no door. Officials came here and promised help like they always do, but can we just sit around expecting them to help? I am back to selling lotteries by the road."
In true VIP fashion, the same day, Wadakkanchery MLA Anil Akkara rushed to meet the family and told the media that he has given directions to the panchayat office to speed up the proceedings to give the family a plot of land. Thrissur District Collector Kowsigan too visited the family and assured that their problems will be solved within a few days. Reporters and television cameras flooded their house, the roof of which, is covered with a blue sheet to prevent the rain water from entering the house. Activists followed.
But in a few days, Pappathi found herself back on the street selling lottery tickets and battling the same issues. Asked about the assurances they were given by the officials, 20-year-old Sharmila, the second of the five grand-daughters, remarked, "The MLA made a huge fuss about visiting us, declaring that he would help us. But he didn't even enter our house despite us asking him to. Maybe he thought it was too dirty for him to step foot in. Politicians only know the way to our house ahead of elections."
At the time of publishing, District Collector Kowsigan was unavailable for comment.