Queen of Waste | Profiling one of the few female kabadiwallas in Chennai

This post was written by Sinduja Raja, one of our research interns.

She sits on the broken bed and tells me to come sit beside her. She is all smiles and laughter, her teeth glistening as she laughs at something her brother asks me, a little embarrassed at the audience. She tells me she’s forty, a fact that I find hard to believe and when I tell her that, she laughs even more. She tells me about how she has been doing this job since she was ten years old, how her brothers and her used to run around and collect waste from houses for the shop owner who gave them a place to stay when they moved from Tirunelveli to Chennai. She talks to me a little reluctantly when her brother is there, later informing me that she was inhibited because she didn’t want to offend him by misspeaking. Once he leaves, however, I have one of the best two hour conversations I’ve had till date, with the first woman owner of a kabadiwalla shop I met on the field, Mangai Akka.

Mangai Akka, who became the owner of Chellathai Waste Paper Mart in 2006, talks to me about how juggling the shop and her home has been quite the difficult task for her. By the time she sends off her eldest son and her younger girls to college, she says it’s really late for her to open the shop. This is something that she refuses to compromise on, even though her children are old enough to take care of themselves. To her, the children come first. Widowed at the young age of 24, Mangai Akka tells me her only ambition in life is to make sure her children have the best of everything and that they don’t lack for anything.

This ambition is what has driven her to work in the business all these years. Apart from this, she has also undertaken a fund business and has recently opened a grocery store. This store, unlike Chellathai Waste Paper Mart which is the same name that is used for all the other paper marts that her brothers run (they have four in total and all in Zone 13), is called Mangai Maligai Kadai (Mangai Grocery Store). This is a source of pride and comfort for Mangai Akka. Unlike the kabadiwalla shop, that ties her down to her brother’s identity, this new grocery store is solely hers.  When asked if it didn’t worry her to enter into a completely new business, she tells me that she just decided to get into it and give it a shot anyway. Because of this, her day begins at three in the morning - to go pick up fruits and vegetables from Koyambedu, rush to the grocery store in Medavakkam to stock it up, rush back home to Sholinganallur to send her kids off and then rush to Chellathai Waste Paper Mart where she stays till seven in the evening.
Another problem she faces is with regard to mobility. Mangai Akka finds it hard to go pick up materials from houses that are far away from the shop. She not only attributes this difficulty to the fact that she doesn’t drive a tricycle, she also subtly tells me about how she doesn’t know what kind of people have called her to pick up waste and she doesn’t want to be put in an uncomfortable situation. . She does, however, use the tricycle by just pushing it around to go pick up waste in the area.  She’s helped out in this endeavour by her brother, who helps her pick up waste if she can’t. Through all these years, all the men in her life have been big pillars of strength to her. After her husband’s death, her two younger brothers have continuously pushed their sister to achieve more. Even now, Mangai Akka talks about how her brother thinks she could be more ambitious with respect to the business. “He keeps telling me that there are so many out there who do so much more, especially with picking up waste, but I’m satisfied with what I have. Anything that keeps me away from my children is something I wouldn’t want to do. They’re the most important.” Development plans she has for the business include hiring somebody who could help her around with the shop. Her son, who is the apple of her eye, plans to take over the business from her after he’s done with his final year of engineering the following year. Mangai Akka is the proudest mother hen of her children. Every time she speaks about them, there is a proud gleam in her eyes, her smile is wider and her face glows. 

She also talks to me about how proud of her work she is. Anything that provides you a living, she says, is something that needs to be respected. When her son once came to her about how his friends were making fun of him about the profession his mother was in, she told him to look at the people who were not as lucky as them and to know that no work should be belittled. When she goes to meet the dealers to collect payment for a load of a paper or plastic, she is met with respect and esteem. A small part of this is because of the fact that she is “Arul’s elder sister” (Arul, her brother. Bills always come addressed to her as “Arul Akka”) but is to a big part because she turns in profits that many other men kabadiwalla owners don’t. All this, she says, provides her with immense pride about the profession she is in. However, towards the end, she also talks about how even now she doesn’t truly feel like the owner of Chellathai Waste Paper Mart, because she is constantly under the name and protection of her brothers. Her new grocery shop, on the other hand, helps her overcome this feeling. 

Forty minutes into our conversation, Mangai Akka tells me, “Did I tell you my name is actually Mangayarkarasi?” When I let her know that I love the fact that her name sounds like the name of a 70s Tamil movie heroine, she laughs and says, “I used to hate it, you know? Everybody used to make fun of me by calling me Arasi (queen) and asking me ‘queen of what?’ Then I began to retort with ‘queen of everything’ and I started loving my name after that.” 

That is exactly what I thought as my conversation with her came to a close. 

- Written by Sinduja Raja