Three paatis recall what life was like in their heydays.

Name: Sarasamma

Age: Around 80

Now: She lives alone in a one-roomed house opposite Valankulam. She sweeps and cleans in some bungalows nearby to feed herself. Her meals mostly consist of ration rice and wild greens she gathers herself.

Then: The palm groves of the village of Murugampalayam in Tirupur were the haunt for young Sarasamma and her friends. As a little girl, she hop-skipped about the mullu kaadu like a billy goat. On ruthlessly hot afternoons when not a soul stepped out, the girls sneaked into a thottam for a feast of nungu. Sarasamma was their leader. Using a towel she filched from home to be used as a grip, she would climb the tree in no time. She would yank down bunches of palm fruit as her friends waited below anxiously. “I would call out ‘odunga di odunga!’ as I slid down the tree and we would run to a safe spot and devour the day’s steal,” laughs Sarasamma.

Sarasamma doesn’t remember her age. “I must be around 80,” she says. Swimming lessons in a well with a hollow surakkai tied around her waist, grazing her father’s goats with a towel wrapped around her head like a thalappa, delicious ragi kazhi with keerai or kollu chutney for breakfast…Sarasamma says her childhood was the best period of her life.

“I came to Coimbatore after my marriage,” she says. Her swimming lessons once saved her life. She fell into the Valankulam when she was walking by the bund. “I couldn’t move. One of my legs got stuck in muck.” Soon, a small crowd gathered around the spot. “Is she dead? Sarasamma!” called out a man. There was no sign of her. The crowd gasped when they saw Sarasamma emerge from the water unharmed. “I propelled myself using my hands and one leg,” she says. From then on, the ‘woman who survived’ became well-known in Valankulam.

Name: Muthammal

Age: 103

Now: Muthammal is 103 years old. She shares a room with five elderly women in a shelter for the homeless run by the Corporation and maintained by the Malarum Vizhigal Samooga Nala Sangam. Every morning, she walks to a tea shop close by for the day’s quota of tea and vadai. She repeats the exercise in the evening. Of her monthly senior citizen’s pension of Rs.1000, Muthammal spends Rs.900 this way.

Then: Muthammal was born in Kangeyam. Her father worked for a village munsif. She lost her mother when she was born and was raised by her grandmother. “She sold idlis at home and I helped her in the kitchen,” she says. Muthammal soon mastered cooking — she decided to earn her living using the skills she acquired from her grandmother. She worked as a maid in four households. Muthammal doesn’t remember much of her past. But there’s one day she will never forget — it’s the day she got her hand tattooed. Pointing to the intricate green designs, she says, “This will come with me to my grave.”

Name: Janaki Ammal

Age: 90

Now: Janaki Ammal is Muthammal’s roommate at the shelter. Shuttled from one son’s place to another after her husband’s death, the 90-year-old was finally abandoned by her children. Though advised to take them to court, she flatly refused to do so.

Then: Janaki Ammal worked in a firecracker unit in Sivakasi in her twenties. Her job was to stick wrappers around the kuruvi vedi. She would start for work at dawn with lunch in a thooku vaali. She had to be in office by 6 a.m. Janaki Ammal will never forget the lonely stretch of road that she and her friends took to go to work. “A man once followed me on my way back home. He asked me to elope with him!” she laughs.

Life was good for a woman who worked, says Janaki Ammal. “We could do things we liked. My friends and I would watch Sivaji movies on paydays,” she recalls. “Everything changed when thaatha married me,” she smiles. “His name was Subbaiah. He was tall, thin and dark.” Janaki Ammal wore a parrot-green sari for her wedding. “Three days later, we took a train to Coimbatore,” she says.

A goldsmith, her husband had a heart of gold, recalls Janaki Ammal. “He would buy my favourite pacca vadai from Kadai Veedhi,” she says. “The things he did…he once bought me a rose-coloured sari with green border. He gave it to me and said, ‘here, wear it.’”