METRO PLUS

Ye who SLEEP tonight...

Cold comfort: Hamalis and others huddle together near the City Market flyover at the end of yet another long day.

Cold comfort: Hamalis and others huddle together near the City Market flyover at the end of yet another long day.  

WHEN YOU snuggle deeper into that soft blanket, Rathnamma and her three children huddle by St. Anthony's Church near Frazer Town Circle, burrowing into their pitiful belongings to ward off the biting cold that robs them of their repose. Rathnamma, who hails from a village near Kolar Gold Fields, says she has been camping here for a week in search of a job. Having found none, the family has been begging. The oldest child, Raju, is 13.

"Some people allowed me to sleep outside the shrine. I don't know how long I will be able to live on the street like this. I am very worried. I don't know how I will cope in this severe cold. We haven't had a proper meal and I haven't been able to sleep at all."

Cashing in on the cold: Nasser displays his business acumen by supplying very welcome coffee and tea at this unearthly hour.

Cashing in on the cold: Nasser displays his business acumen by supplying very welcome coffee and tea at this unearthly hour.  

Another family, this time comprising Raja and his six-year-old son Bhaskar, crouch before a bonfire near a vegetable shop on Tannery Road. The fire attracts others seeking a bit of warmth. Raja is the watchman for the shop. He puts in 12 hours from 10 in the night, for which he gets Rs. 10. Unlike Rathnamma, he has a home nearby. But he gets so lonely during his night shift he gets his son to sit with him sometimes.

"It gets quite tough after 3 a.m.," says George, who also has to watch over a shop. The cold gets so harsh that none of them can even drop off even for a couple of minutes. "This year is worse than last year," he grumbles.

Sixty-year-old Kannan, spotted near Richmond Road, is a ragpicker who once had a home in Ulsoor. At this unearthly hour, he is hopefully looking out for the good Samaritans who sometimes come at night and distribute blankets and food parcels to the homeless. Often, those who sleep in exhaustion don't even realise till morning that some angels have come and gone.

However, Chandra, whose home is the pavement, says there are those who steal these blankets from the beneficiaries.

The median below the flyover at City Market is a gigantic "bedroom" for coolies who slog all day at the market. Their baskets often double as pillows while comfort and company is provided by scores of dogs. Worn-out gunny bags serve the purpose of blankets. Their day begins at 3 a.m. when the auctioning of vegetables commences. Sudhakar, another homeless denizen, is sleeping under the flyover with his two children. Drought has driven him from Raichur where his fields are lying fallow. "I am looking for a job in Bommanahalli. I may be able to earn Rs. 100 a day if I get the job. I can work till summer and go back to Raichur after earning some money."

Teenagers Mahboob and Rizwan, who work in the vegetable wholesale market as coolies for Rs.50 a day, have got used to sleeping here. "Our dogs protect us and give us company. Sometimes some people give us blankets, otherwise we use gunny bags to overcome the cold."

Raja, a watchman, sometimes gets his six-year-old son Bhaskar to give him company when it gets lonely.

Raja, a watchman, sometimes gets his six-year-old son Bhaskar to give him company when it gets lonely.  

We come across an autorickshaw parked on Gundopanath Street near the market. The driver is fast asleep on the passengers' seat. We are told the vehicle is his home.

Slightly more protected in flannel overcoats and balaclavas are beat constables C. Krishnaiah and Chikkamadaiah of City Market Police Station on their rounds. They shiver in the cold even as they dutifully sign the beat register.

Behind the market, a number of coolies are sprawled on their vegetable carts. Sixty-year-old Parvathamma sits in front of a wholesale fruits shop, with her belongings neatly arranged in a makeshift space fenced with tyres and ropes. She has been homeless and living in the area for more than four decades. Her husband used to work for Binny Mills and now she has no one to care for her. She earns her livelihood by keeping watch on shops at night time, while during the day she buys fruits in small quantities and sells them for a minuscule profit. Her night duty pays her Rs.20 and her daytime entrepreneurship Rs. 30. "It is so cold I'm not able to sleep at all," she says.

Another heartbreaking story is that of 15-year-old Ashok of Karaikudi. He was lured by a lorry owner who told him he would get a job with a borewell company and was made to work for eight months without pay. When Ashok asked for his money, he was abandoned near Tumkur. He managed to find his way to the fruit market. Occasionally he finds some work, which fetches him maybe Rs.20 or Rs.30. It has been a year since he left home.

Parvathamma, who scrapes together a living guarding shops and selling tiny quantities of fruit, has been homeless for over four decades.

Parvathamma, who scrapes together a living guarding shops and selling tiny quantities of fruit, has been homeless for over four decades.  

There are others who have to sleep out in the open. Mahesh from Mysore has brought a lorryload of maize from Tamil Nadu. He and his hamalis are waiting for the market to open to participate in the auction. Seena from Villapuram, sipping a hot cup of coffee, is waiting for the coriander auction. The coffee is supplied by an enterprising Keralite, Nasser, who has a large container of tea too.

And there are those like Mohan, walking homewards on West of Chord Road to Yeshwanthpur where he resides. He works in a factory and transport is provided only to work and not back. It will take him an hour or so to get to the warmth of his home, he says, pulling at his thin sweater.

As we head homewards, we wonder whether the ragpicker Kannan did find the good-hearted people quietly going about their work, gifting blankets and food to those who need them the most.

And we think about another set of fine people who found their way to a baby boy born in a Bethlehem stable this night over 2,000 years ago...

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