FOOTLOOSE SOMA BASU and A.SHRIKUMAR take a look at the world hidden away under the Albert Victor Bridge, Madura Coats Bridge among others in the Temple city

“Beware of anti-social elements.” Everybody proffers the same advice when we share our story idea about the life of the city’s homeless under Madurai’s old and new bridges.

Kallachiamma is not what we expected. She sits with her friends of decades, Kaliamma and Pappathi, under the iconic 127-year-old Albert Victor Bridge over the Vaigai. The crawl space under the arch is shaded and breezy. At night, 70 to 80-odd people will shelter here. Now at noon, she is surrounded by her belongings – a bag of clothing, a rope cot, few steel vessels and water-filled plastic pots.

Vehicles of all shapes and sizes rumble overhead, releasing wisps of dust on our heads. Their honks echo at an unbearable pitch.

Kallachiamma’s son brings her bajjis and between bites, she says, “I have lived here since my childhood. Our hut stood there.” She points to the debris. “During the recent Maamadurai Potruvum, more than 40 huts lining the sides of the arch were demolished by the authorities,” she says, matter of fact.

The people -- mostly ragpickers, beggars, dhobis, roadside labourers, vendors, loaders and other daily wagers -- shifted to the roadside. Some live with their families, some have been abandoned by their families. They share their shelter under the AV Bridge, just as they share each other’s grief.

Washerwoman Kaliswari says, “Ever since my son was murdered, I have been alone. This is my only place of refuge.” Kalliamma, 60, is a ragpicker. Once she calls it a day, the bridge is her home. “I have seen the bridge and the river even as a seven-year-old kid. This is a marvellous structure and the name of the Vellaikara durai who built this is written there,” she says. We move closer to read the plaque she has pointed to, painted over with ads: “Foundation stone of this bridge was laid by Viceroy Earl of Dufferin on 8th December, 1886.”

Karthik has dropped out of school at 15 and helps his father by ironing. “I earn around Rs.200 each day,” he says. Pappathi’s husband was a Corporation employee and she lives on his monthly pension of Rs.3,000. Others envy her because she doesn’t have to work. Kallachi paati, even at 75, has to make a living by selling steamed patani and sundal at Rs. 5 a packet. She coaxes us to buy some while entertaining us with stories of her childhood. “The Vaigai was full of water those days and I caught fish from the river in my sari pallu, watching the Englishmen come and go in horse carts!”

There is the faint smell of urine in the air, horses and tractors strut in the dry bed, and a herd of buffaloes bathe in water thick with excrement and rotting litter. The pollution doesn’t seem to matter to the people who live here in full view of pedestrians and traffic on the road that passes under the bridge. Some of them find food in temples, some beg, some cook. Others simply wander the streets. Many times the hungry share the road with dogs, cats and pigs also looking for food. The homeless aren’t the criminals. The system is.

Along the bund road, half a kilometre away, is the Kalpalam constructed 15 years ago. The traffic sends vibrations to the ground underneath. The slabs are concrete. An elderly woman is taking a blissful siesta amidst the chaos. The smell of dried fish mingles with the hot afternoon air. A man begs from his wheelchair. There are men moping around half-drunk or lying on the ground, presumably under the influence of drugs. Boozy brawls must be the order of the night here.

We stop by a cart selling Kambankool, the poor man’s porridge. Cut onions, salted chillies, mango pickle and a range of vaththals are the side dishes. “One tumbler for 10 Rupees. Venuma?” asks Ranjitham, who runs the stall from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. “I live in Sellur. But business is brisk for us under the Kalpalam. I make a decent income of Rs.300 per day,” she says.

The bridge is an inn for tired labourers and a market for cycle and watch repair shops and road-side mechanics. It also doubles up as an auto stand and truck parking lot. Shahul Hamid, repairing cycles in the same place for 25 years, says, “Even before the bridge came up, I used to run my shop on the side of the causeway. Thrice the floods came. Each time we returned to the same spot once the waters receded.”

From a tender coconut seller to a lady with her son selling second-hand garments, an entire community roughs it out daily beneath the motorway flyover, thrumming with matadors, autorickshaws, lorries, cycle carts, bicycles and motorbikes. The buzz here is in stark contrast to the Madura Coats Bridge that connects Simmakal with Karimedu.

Wading through the bustling Meenakshi Bazar, we enter the Tamil Sangam Road, where a decorated pandal is erected for the Pathala Mariamman Temple festival. “This used to be the main thoroughfare for reaching the western part of the city. But, once the bridge was built, the street lost its vibrancy,” rues P. Mariappan, running a kirana shop for over 50 years. Though located in a thickly populated residential pocket, the area under the bridge has become a parking lot for trucks and taxis and Mariappan’s business has dipped.

Far away, at the southern end of the city, is the Muthu Bridge, also called the ‘Madura College Palam’, which houses a mini village under it. This is ‘Subramaniapuram’, complete with vibrant market, hurrying men and women, and playing children. Active saw mills dot one side of the bridge. Vegetable vendors cry out their prices. The Karuppusamy temple bell rings aloud. We walk past a huge open drain. The railway track cuts across. “The Rameswaram Express passes through here,” says an elderly man catching up with us. College students, housewives, thaathaa-paatis and young boys and girls all jump, hop, and cross over the railway line.

Seldom do we peep under our massive concrete symbols of modern India. While it is always a fight for time and speed over the bridge, under the bridge it is a fight for survival for the homeless, the jobless and the hopeless. But as Pandiammal said, “When you live down here, you make things work. You have to for yourself.”

PHOTOS: S. James and A. Shrikumar