CHENNAI: The first time Chinnamma was on a ship was more than five decades ago when she was all of 17 years. Little did she then realise that 18 years of life as a bonded labourer in a foreign land lay at the end of that journey. Sporting a rugged green colour saree and large rimmed glasses, 70-year-old Chinnamma, who prefers to be called Indu, enthusiastically narrates her story at the entrance of her current home, the shelter for homeless at Ibrahim Salai near Fort St George.
“My mother died young and my father married another woman,” recalls Chinamma in fluent Hindi, which she learnt during her years in Kuwait. “I was the eldest among four. They were hell bent on marrying me off and when I resisted, they abused me.” After many such days, Chinamma ran away from home near the Marina beach and sat sobbing on the Napier’s bridge. A car stopped and a woman stepped out. “What happened,” she asked, and I told her my story. “She asked if I wanted work. I was naive. Someone offered me shelter and I went with them,” she recalled. Only much later did she realise that the woman and her male friend were agents involved in sending domestic workers to the Gulf countries. After getting into the car, Chinnamma was taken to a two-room shanty where she spent the night sleeping. The next day she was taken to a dockyard and boarded a ship which was already occupied by about 20 young girls and a few tough looking men.
“I remember one of the women asked the agent what exactly he was doing. He turned around with his eyes red and yelled at her to shut up. I panicked and kept quiet,” she says. The ship sailed to Mumbai where she was given a new passport and visa. “It was funny, I was 17, but my passport had 40 as my age. Same with other girls, but we were bullied and asked to shut up,” she says, now with a smile. The next day, she flew to Kuwait.
Chinnamma soon discovered that she was sold as a bonded labourer to a Kuwaiti household, where she eventually did domestic chores for 18 long years. Of the promised 6,000 dirhams, half was taken by her agent and the rest she would send to her family. “I hardly had anything left in my hand. I used to live in one small room, and slept on the floor. I would hardly get 10 minutes as break, for that too I had to sometimes use the washroom as an excuse. They did not like it if I sat on their floor during work time,” she says.
She was allowed to return home only after a period of three years. Even then, the agent held back three months of her salary so that she would not run away. When Chinnamma finally returned home after 18 years when her ‘contract’ ended, she discovered that her father and siblings had exhausted all the money that she sent back home. “I was helpless, but I had to take care of my father. After his death, I moved to this shelter.”
Now, she lives at the shelter, left with nothing but painful memories. “I am worried now, because I have been asked to find another place in a month. I don’t know where to go,” she laments. She says the persons in-charge of the shelter says she is not ‘qualified’ to stay there for much longer since she has some distant relatives.