Occupation – Sweeper
It’s almost six in the morning and the day is just waking up to the first rays of the sun. There is a refreshing nip in the air and the only sound to be heard on a deserted stretch of a road near Museum junction is the rhythmic swish of a broom. Thankamma Velamma, a sweeper with the city Corporation, attached to the Nanthancode ward, briskly sweeps up copious amounts of litter into neat piles. “I love the city in the mornings. So quiet, so peaceful… so beautiful. I usually sweep the area around Cliff House. Today, I’m substituting for a colleague who is on leave and have been working since 4.30 a.m. I have already swept clean the by-lane adjacent to Mascot Hotel,” says Thankamma who is dressed in a regulation dark blue sari and green blouse, her grey hair tied back into a neat bun and her enormous nose ring flashing. A thorthu is draped around her neck. “I’ll wrap the thorthu around my head later on. It will be 1 p.m. or so when I finish work and the thorthu will protect me from the heat and absorb sweat too,” explains Thankamma as she pauses to flex her shoulders. “You have to flex the shoulder and your arms ever so often to relive the strain. They get fatigued when sweeping for long periods of time,” she says.
Thankfully, because of the tall broom, she doesn’t have to bend too much. “The broom is one which I made myself out of eerkal [ribs of coconut fronds] and bamboo held together by bits of coir and string. We get money from the Corporation to buy the necessary material and then we make it ourselves. Actually, you can tell the difference between a competent sweeper and an inefficient one on the basis of how often they replace their brooms! A good broom in the hands of a hard worker would last only about two to three months,” explains the grandmother of two, with a laugh.
Thankamma, who lives near Chengalchoola, has been a sweeper for the past 26 years and is the sole bread-winner of the family. “I was born in the city. My father is originally from Colachel and settled here after he married my mother, a native of the city. My husband, Ganesan, was a farmer/labourer back in our native place and now he doesn’t get much work here – or rather he doesn’t go for work,” she mutters with a long-suffering sigh as she resumes sweeping.
The piles of litter will soon be carted off in a trolley by one of her colleagues, a waste picker, and then – as per the Corporation’s new guidelines on waste management – will ‘be burnt at source’. “I am very particular about doing my best. These days, due to the dry weather, there are a lot of fallen leaves too, in addition to the usual paper and plastic rubbish. And we also have to now contend with household garbage carelessly thrown on the roads. It bothers me not because I have to clean it but because it shows poor civic sense. People should realise that it’s their city too,” says Thankamma.