The heat of the midday sun dissipates, fanned by a gentle breeze under the vast tamarind tree on the Cumbum-Theni road in southern Tamil Nadu. Fifty-two-year-old N Rani is sitting on a worn plastic chair in the shade and enjoying the brief respite from the heat inside her stuffy tiny shack by the roadside. “Joshua,” she calls out. An incongruous companion appears by her side silently. Joshua is an eight-year-old goat, raised by Rani since he was a kid. Joshua follows Rani everywhere she goes, and although his feet aren’t white as snow, he is, according to Rani, the perfect companion.
“When I go to bathe, I must tell him – Joshua, Amma (mother) is going for a bath, you must stay inside the house until I come back,” Rani said through laughter, patting the goat on the head. “Once I forgot to tell him that and he roamed all over the place, went to the store nearby and to the police station looking for me,” she added with a giggle.
Rani picked up Joshua at a butcher’s store when she went to buy meat eight years ago by which time she had already been widowed for four years. She was glad for the company. Overwhelmed by the silent unconditional love showered on her by Joshua, Rani gradually increased her flock – now Jeeva, a year-old goat and Sangeetha, a six-month old kid also follow her around, just as Joshua does.
“Life will be very tough without Joshua and these two,” said Rani as she smiled indulgently at her flock. “They cannot live without me and I cannot live without them.”
Rani is unable to work and depends on her truck driver son Senthil Kumar for an income. Senthil comes to town once a month and gives her 1000 rupees for expenses. She struggles to her feet and is out of breath rapidly, a condition that does not allow her to work, she said. A squatter for many years, she is thankful not to have to pay rent for the leaky roof she lives under. “It is very tough to manage,” she explained. “There is no one to help when I fall ill. I feel embarrassed to ask my son because he has his own family to take care of. I don’t want to be a burden. Sometimes he brings some food around and it’s a feast that day.”
The Tamil Nadu government offers a sum of 1000 rupees a month for destitute widows who have no other source of income. Rani said she has applied for it but not received any response yet. “I am unable to go to the Collector’s office often enough to follow it up,” she said.
Rani is not alone in her miseries. Older women in Tamil Nadu are increasingly feeling stranded; without social security of any sort they are forced to work to earn their keep as their children and husbands abandon them. A disconnect between the state and these women means that they battle all odds to survive in the harsh rural and urban jungles of Tamil Nadu.
Rani may have her goats but P Lakshmi of Kumaran Nagar, a slum in urban Trichy, has not even a pet to love. Among the last Burmese refugees of the 1950s, Lakshmi’s family settled in Perambalur, knowing only how to work the land. “Adhu vaanam paartha bhoomi (It is a land that looks to the sky),” explained Lakshmi. “No rain meant no crop. Agriculture was not sustainable so we eventually moved to Trichy in search of a job in the big city,” she said. Six decades later, she is all alone, her husband dead for 30 years and her three children of no help to her. “My only son fought with me and left home years ago,” she said. “I don’t know where he is. My two daughters are also housemaids, in extreme poverty themselves. Sometimes they send me a small bowl of sambar (gravy). Otherwise I just eat what I get,” she said.
As per the fourth District Level Health and Facilities Survey, the most recent such survey conducted by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, in 2012-13, 51.3% of women above the age of 60 years in Tamil Nadu are either widowed, divorced or separated, meaning over half of the senior citizen female population is fending for themselves. This figure comes down to 23.7% of women in the age group of 55-59 years. In the 50-54 years age group, this figure slides further to 19.1%. Another 13.5% is added to this within the 45-49 years age group.
Lakshmi is sick. Lung disease plagues her and she does not have the strength to go to the government hospital for frequent check-ups or to buy her pills. Even if she was accompanied by someone, she would have to walk for at least a kilometre and a half to catch a bus, an impossible task for her. “I just lie down when it gets really bad,” she said. “Some neighbour will eventually drop in when they don’t see me around for a while and they are kind enough to give me some food then,” she added.
A younger, bolder version of Lakshmi lives nearby inside Kumaran Nagar. Thirty-three-year-old T Rajeshwari, a housemaid, is braving her fate. Married 12 years ago, Rajeshwari was settling in to a happy pregnancy when her husband suddenly abandoned her. She was seven months pregnant and distraught. “I started working as a housemaid then,” she told The Wire. “My parents are asking me to get married again, but I won’t. I want to bring my daughter up to be a well-educated woman who won’t be treated the way I was,” she said with determination.
Demand for universal free healthcare
Fity-five-year-old N Rajamani from Kumaran Nagar wheezes as she speaks. Rajamani says it is bad enough that she has no one to care for her – her husband died a few years ago due to an illness and neither of her two sons cares for her. What is worse is that she is struggling to repay a 50,000-rupee loan taken to fund her heart surgery three years ago.
“I pawned some jewellery and took a loan from a private moneylender for the heart surgery,” she said. “How can I possibly repay it on the 2000 rupees I earn a month?”
Rajamani had to go to the government hospital in Chennai for the surgery. She had no attender to look after her while at the hospital following the surgery. Despite the Tamil Nadu government subsidising surgeries for the poor and offering free medical insurance, bills still run up and these pinch the pockets of people like Rajamani the most. “I am supposed to go back to Chennai for a follow up check-up,” she said, “I don’t even have the money for the bus fare. I haven’t gone in three years now.”
With political parties putting social media backend teams in place to go all out to woo the youth, the poor and elderly are being overlooked. “Women in India experience much worse suffering, humiliation and slavery in all spheres than even the untouchables,” once said Periyar, the founder of the Dravidian movement. His political protégés, though, appear to have forgotten.
Sandhya Ravishankar is a Chennai-based journalist. She tweets at @sandhyaravishan.