Minnal Kodai, her name means ‘a streak of lightning’, had a harsh and brutal life. Orphaned at the age of 10, she worked as a maid from childhood. Marriage brought no respite. Frail in body, fierce in spirit, she became a flower-fruit- and-vegetable seller. Barely making two ends meet, she educated her two children. Shail profiles her oral history, one of the millions of people, whose life is wasted on the streets of a city, unsung and unwept. Here’s an exclusive report in her weekly column, as we celebrate our Independence Day, for Different Truths.
“Obstacles are necessary for success because in selling, as in all careers of importance, victory comes only after many struggles and countless defeats.” ~ Og Mandino, Inspirational, Self-help author.
Name: Minnal Kodai
Age: 61 years
Profession: Flower, vegetable and fruit vendor
Place of Business: No fixed place. In housing localities
I met Minnal Kodai when I moved from Madurai to Chennai some time back. She had come asking for space in my house. A place to stay.
“I will work for free Amma” she said. “Just give me some place to stay in your backyard. I will do all the housework, any work you ask me to do for free. Please, Amma.”
She had come selling flowers and fruits to the housing locality in which I lived. Since I had moved in recently, she had approached me. Of course, I had to refuse because I did not need her services since a maid had already been engaged to work during the day.
She was crestfallen because she was hoping that the ‘new Amma’ would be of help to her. Fortunately for me, she did not take it too much to heart and kept coming every week to sell vegetables, fruits and flowers.
It was during the course of one such business interaction that I asked her about her life ad times. She looked sickly but I never imagined that she had so much grit in her. Nor did I even imagine that she would have gone through so much in life.
She was orphaned at the age of 10 and moved in with her relatives, who were daily wage labourers themselves. She moved with them wherever they went, working outside, in homes and the like. When she reached her twenties she could not bear the torture of working so much and so hard, so she ran away to her village where she had lived with her parents when they were alive. Relatives there got her married and she landed back in the city with her husband. Her husband worked as helper in a water can providing company barely managing to make ends meet. Despite not having had the opportunity to study she was sharp enough to remember the houses where her relatives had made her work when she was in her teens. With her earnings as a maid she now began supporting her growing family which by now had increased from two to four.
“Why don’t you buy this keerai (palak, spinach) Amma? It is very fresh.” Her voice brought me back to the present.
We take life for granted so many times. Most of us have a maid or two working for us at home. Have we ever pondered as to why our maids are slogging it out, washing dishes, cleaning in so many houses just to see that they get two/three meals a day or/and their children are able to get an education that they probably did not get?
Minnal Amma’s daughter managed to study till the 12th standard. After that, there wasn’t enough money to fund her education. Minnal Amma’s son, the older child was able to get a diploma in catering. In between her working as a maid and earning her living as a vegetable vendor were the years when she was deprived of her job of working in houses. The people whose house she worked in for so many years shifted to another city and the other houses she worked in afterwards did not have very trusting and kind employers like the ones earlier. In the meanwhile, a malnutritioned body craved for rest and healthy food. Not getting both she fell sick often and had to stop working as maid.
But, an empty stomach never stops rumbling, always reminding one of the food that one needs but is never able to get. Somebody introduced her to selling flowers and that’s how she branched off into selling fruits and vegetables in a mobile basket.
When I told her that she had a beautiful name which, by the way means ‘streak of lightning’ she smiled shyly.
“Amma” she said, “you are the only one who has said this. Others always make fun of my name.”
“God has been kind, Amma,” she continued. “Even though I am yet to marry my daughter off, even though I fall sick sometimes, I am at least able to earn my living.”
When I heard her say that, I was moved. What a sense of gratitude she had even in her suffering. How many of us can claim to have that kind of attitude even if we are better off than her?
“Amma, you know what people say? They tell me that because I sell the flowers that they offer to their Gods, my needs shall always be taken care of.”
My eyes moistened. I hurriedly asked her permission to take a picture of her.
A flower-vegetable vendor taught me a beautiful lesson on gratitude.
Pix by Vinod Naraen
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