There’s a lamppost in front of our house in Madurai I have had many memorable conversations with. I share a special relationship with that streetlight. For several years, till I finished school, we had no electricity at home. When we did get power in 2006, it was for the 8x8 foot house that we were staying in at that time. A single room, shared by five of us. It drew me even closer to that streetlight.
We changed homes often in my childhood graduating from a hut to a mud house, to a rented room, to the 20x20 foot home we are now in. One that my parents put together brick by brick over 12 years. Yes, they hired a mason but poured their own hard labour into it and we moved into that house even as it was still being built. All our homes have been close to or within the arc of that lamppost. I read the books of Che Guevara, Napoleon, Sujatha, and others, seated in the circle of its light.Even now, that same streetlight is witness to this piece of writing.
Thanks to Corona, I could enjoy many good days with my mother after a long time. Ever since I had bought my first camera in 2013, I spent less and less time at home. I was of another mindset during my school days, and again, developed a totally different attitude after acquiring my camera. But in this pandemic period and the Covid lockdowns, I found myself for months at home with my mother. Never before had I got to spend so much time with her.
I have no memory of amma sitting in one place, ever. She was always doing some work or the other. But after she developed arthritis a few years ago, her movements became very restricted. This had a deep impact on me. I had never seen my mother this way.
It also worried her a lot. “Look at my condition at this age, who will look after my children now?” Whenever she says: “Just make my legs normal again, Kumar,” I feel guilty. I guess I have not taken good care of her.
There is so much to say about my mother. The fact that I became a photographer, the people I get to meet, my achievements – behind each and everything, I see my parents’ backbreaking labour. Especially my mother’s; her contribution is far greater.Amma used to get up at 3 a.m. and leave home to sell fish. She would wake me up at that ungodly hour and ask me to study. That was a tough job for her. Until she left, I used to sit under the streetlight and read. Once she was out of sight, I went back to sleep. Many times, that streetlight has been a witness to my life’s events.
My mother has thrice attempted to take her own life. It’s no ordinary thing that she survived all three times.
There is one incident I would like to share. When I was a toddler, my mother tried to hang herself. Just then, I wept very loudly. Hearing my wails, the neighbours came running to see what had happened. They found my mother hanging and rescued her. Some say her tongue was sticking out when they did. “If you had not cried, nobody would have come to save me” she says even now.
I’ve heard stories of many mothers – like my own – who have tried to kill themselves. Yet, somehow, they gather courage and stay alive for the sake of their children. Whenever my mother talks about this subject, she gets all teary-eyed.
Once, she had gone to transplant rice in a neighbouring village. She tied a thooli , (a cloth cradle for babies), on a nearby tree and made me sleep in it. My father came there, beat up my mother and threw me off the cradle. I fell quite some distance away on the muddy borders of the green fields, and it appeared as if my breathing had stopped.My mother did her best to bring me back to consciousness. But she couldn’t. My chithi , mother’s younger sister, held me upside down, and whacked me on my back. Immediately, they tell me, I started breathing and crying. Whenever amma recalls this incident, it sends a chill down her spine. She says I literally rose from the dead.
When I was two years old, my mother moved from labouring in the fields to selling fish. And that became and remains her main source of income. I have become an earning member in my family only this last one year. Until then, my mother was the sole breadwinner of our household. Even after she got arthritis, she used to swallow pills and carry on selling fish. She was always very hard-working.
My mother’s name is Thirumaayi. The villagers call her Kuppi. I’m usually addressed as Kuppi’s son. Weeding, harvesting rice, digging canals: this was the sort of work she got for years. When my grandfather took a piece of land on lease, she single-handedly prepared the field by spreading manure on it. To this day, I have never seen anyone do such strenuous work as my mother. My ammayi (grandmother) used to comment that hard work has become synonymous with amma . How can anyone do so much backbreaking labour, I used to wonder.
I notice that in general, daily wagers and labourers do a lot of work – especially women. My grandmother had 7 children including my mother – 5 girls and 2 boys. My mother is the eldest. My grandfather was a drunkard, capable of selling his own house and spending the proceeds on alcohol. My grandmother did everything: she made a living, got her children married, and took care of her grandchildren as well.
I see the same dedication towards work in my mother. When my chithi wanted to marry the man she loved, amma boldly went ahead and helped her with the wedding. One time, when we still lived in a hut, it suddenly caught fire, my mother grabbed hold of me, my younger brother and sister and rescued us. She has always been fearless. Only mothers can think of their children first, even when their own lives are at stake.
She used to cook paniyaaram (dumplings that can be sweet or savoury) on a firewood stove, outside the house. People would drift around; kids would ask to eat. “Share with everybody first,” she would always say. And I would handout fistfuls to the neighbourhood children.
Her concern for others reflected in many ways. Every time I start my motorbike, she says: “Even if you get hurt, that’s okay, but don't maim anybody else please...”
My father never once asked her if she had eaten. They have never gone to a movie together, nor to a temple. She's always worked. And she would tell me, “If not for you, I would have died a long time ago.”
After I bought a camera, the women I meet when I go in search of my stories, always say “I live for the sake of my children.” I know now, at age 30, that this is absolutely true.
The households to which my mother used to sell fish, had cups and medals won by the children of those families, on display. My mother said she wished her children too would bring home trophies. But then I had only ‘fail marks’ in my English papers to show her. That day she was furious and upset with me. “I pay the fees for a private school, and you fail in English,” she said angrily.
Her anger was the seed for my determination to succeed in something. That first breakthrough came in football. I waited for two years to get into the school team in a sport that I truly loved. And in my very first game with our team, we won the cup in a tournament. That day, with so much pride, I came home and handed the cup to her.
Football also helped with my studies. It was on a sports quota that I joined and obtained a degree from an engineering college in Hosur. Though, of course, I would abandon engineering for photography. But simply put, whatever I am today, is because of my mother.
I used to go to the market with her as a child, longing to eat the paruthipaal paniyaaram ” (sweet dumplings made of cotton seed milk and jaggery) that she used to buy for me.
Those sleepless nights filled with mosquito bites, on the roadside platform as we waited for fresh fish to arrive at the market – and waking up early in the morning to buy fish, seem overwhelming now. But it was quite normal back then. We had to sell every last gram of fish to make a tiny profit.
Mother would buy 5 kilograms of fish at the Madurai Karimedu fish market. That included the weight of the ice packed around them. So by the time she carried that load on her head in a basket hawking fish on the streets of Madurai as a small vendor, she would lose 1 kilo with the melting of the ice.
When she started out in this line 25 years ago, she earned not more than 50 rupees a day, net. Later that became 200-300 rupees. In this time, she moved from being a roving vendor to working from a roadside fish stall that is her own. Now, she has a monthly income of close to 12,000 rupees – working all 30 days of every month.
When I was big enough, I understood that she would invest 1,000 rupees daily in buying the fish on weekdays at Karimedu, whatever she got for that sum. Weekends saw her best sales, so she would risk an investment of 2,000 rupees. Now, she invests 1,500 rupees daily and 5-6,000 rupees on weekends. But amma only makes a small profit because she is very generous. She never stints on the weight and ends up giving more to her customers.
The cash my mother spends on buying fish at Karimedu comes from a moneylender who she has to repay the next day. If she borrows 1,500 rupees each weekday, as she does, she has to repay him 1,600 rupees after 24 hours – that is: a flat rate of 100 rupees a day. Since most transactions are settled the same week, this hides the fact that in annual terms, the interest on this loan exceeds an insane 2,400 per cent.
If she borrows 5,000 rupees from him for her weekend purchase of fish, she has to return him 5,200 rupees on Monday. In either case, weekday or weekend loan, every additional day of delay adds another 100 rupees to her burden. The weekend loan works out to an annual rate of interest of 730 per cent.My visits to the fish market gave me a chance to hear a lot of stories. Some filled me with awe. The stories I heard in football matches, the ones I heard when accompanying my father to catch fish in the irrigation canals, all these small excursions kindled within me an interest in cinema and the visual. It was with the weekly pocket money that my mother gave me that I bought those books of Che Guevara, Napoleon and Sujatha that drew me closer to that lamppost.
At some stage, my father too changed for the better and began to earn something. Working in various daily wage jobs, he also raised goats. Earlier, he earned 500 rupees a week. Then he went to work in hotels and restaurants. Now he earns about 250 a day. In 2008, under the Chief Minister’s housing insurance scheme, my parents borrowed money and started building the house we now live in. It is in Jawaharlal Puram, once a village on the outskirts of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, now a suburb swallowed by the expanding city.It took 12 long years for my parents to construct our residence, facing many challenges along the way. My father used to save little by little, working in garment dyeing factories, hotels, grazing cattle, and so on. With the help of their savings they put me and my two siblings through school and also built the house brick by brick. Our home, for which they sacrificed so much, is a symbol of their perseverance.
When my mother developed some problems with her uterus, she underwent a surgery in a government hospital. It cost us 30,000 rupees. I was still an undergraduate and could not help her financially. The nurse assigned to amma did not take good care of her. When my family thought of admitting her in a better hospital, I was not in a position to support them. But that situation started to change as soon as I joined PARI.
PARI helped even with the expenses of a surgery my brother had to have. I could give amma the monthly income I got as a salary. When I got many prizes – like the Vikatan Award – it gave hope to my mother that her son was finally up to something good. My father still used to pull my leg, saying: “You may win awards, but are you able to bring some decent money home?”
He was right. Even though I started shooting photographs in 2008, using mobile phones borrowed from my uncle and friends, I stopped depending on my family for monetary support only in 2014. Until then I had done odd jobs like cleaning vessels in hotels, serving food in wedding functions and other events, and more.
It has taken me 10 years to bring some decent money to my mother. We have faced many challenges in the last decade. My sister too fell sick. With her and my mother taking turns falling ill, the hospital became our second home. Amma has suffered even more problems with her uterus. But today things are far better. I now believe I can do something for my mother and father. The stories I document as a photojournalist on the labouring classes – those are inspired by seeing and sharing their lives. Their perseverance is my learning. The lamppost remains my illumination.