There was a time when the ground beneath her wrinkled bare feet was her bed beside a beautiful pond and not filled with the garbage she now rifles through to eke out a living.
At 82, Thankamma’s strength is diminished, yet, she refuses to give in to old age. Her thin frame and easy smile are a familiar sight as she goes about garbage dumps in the Jagathy area of Thiruvananthapuram. One of these spots was once a thriving pond filled with fish.
“Look at this mess,” Thankamma said, standing barefoot on the land that was once a pond. “People throw waste without a thought, without regret. I collect the plastic, clean and dry it. Later, I sell it to agents.”
Although it is painful, she returns to this spot – Thamarakulam, or lotus pond – because she spent several nights here with her husband soon after their wedding. Here, her rag-picking is a futile, limited attempt to clean-up the area.
“It was so beautiful. We did not have much food in the house back then. When we were starving, we come here to fish. There were lot of fish… He would catch the fish and I would make a fire and cook it. We would have dinner here and sometimes sleep below the trees near the pond. I cannot leave this place; his memories are here,” she says.
With urbanization, the pond no longer exists, but in a large area near the pond that no longer exists, the Thiruvananthapuram City Corporation has placed aerobic bins and the area in general has turned into a garbage dump.
Thankamma had four children, but none except her daughter are alive today. She now lives with her daughter and her family a short walk from the lotus pond. “They have not asked me to work, but I am used to earning my own living. Earlier, I used labour elsewhere, but now this (rag-picking) is all I can do. I want to live with my own earnings until my death. That is my wish,” she says with a toothless smile.
Going through other people’s trash, she wonders how they have so much to throw away. Referring to the pond, she says,
“It’s all gone, people just dirty this place.”
Asked if the garbage doesn’t take a toll on her health, she simply says, “I have to earn a living. Some time ago I had some sickness, may because I work here.” She walks away with the plastic bottles she collected.
All Photos : Sreekesh Raveendran Nair