Chinnamma: The Tale Of An Ordinary Indian Woman

Posted on January 10, 2011 in Society

By Sowmya Krishnamurthy:

Dawn 5 am

Chinnamma wakes up. After finishing the routine chore of drawing kolam in front of the house she proceeds to make food for her family. Food just means food. It doesn’t mean breakfast. It doesn’t mean lunch. It doesn’t even mean brunch. When there is a difficult choice to make about which meal to skip, food is just food. She prepares rice & sambar, which is the routine meal of the day. On good days, she makes boiled eggs. On much better days she makes fried appalams.

Early Morning 6 am

She prepares coffee for the family and wakes them up. Three coffees in less than half litre milk. Very less milk. Less coffee. But lots of sugar.  She relishes the coffee before heading out to work.

Morning 6.30 am

She heads out to the neighbourhoods where she cleans the dirty dishes, sweeps & mops the floor and perhaps washes the clothes. She eats the leftovers given from the houses she works.

Before noon 11.30 am

She reaches home to finish the rice and sambar or what’s left of it. She wonders if her husband & daughter had enough, no matter more or less rice is left on any given day. Her daughter works in a garment factory. She is 17.

Afternoon 1 pm

She completes the chores at home and heads back to work. For more cleaning, sweeping, mopping & washing. She has to pick up one or two kids from school in the afternoon after which she heads back to regular work again.

Afternoon 3 pm

More cleaning, sweeping, mopping & washing. Again!

Evening 6 pm

She heads home to prepare dinner for the family. Left over rice from the morning. On good days, idli or dosa. On much better days, chapati with potato curry.

Night 8.30 pm

She has dinner with her family and shops for groceries for the next day. Chinnamma goes to bed.

Pre-breakfast: Milk, coffee powder, sugar. Approx cost: Rs. 15/-

Breakfast: Rice, Dal & vegetables in sambar. Approx cost: Rs. 35/-

Dinner: Idli flour, tomato chutney, coconut chutney. Approx cost: Rs. 40/-

Simple. Courteous. Candid.

Best summarizes this woman who spends less than Rs.100/- for her family’s full day meal. She is unassuming. But that’s not what makes it worth analyzing her life or even having a casual conversation where you do most of the listening.

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them”.

– Ralph Nichols

A simple question like “How long have you been married, Chinnamma?” brings out beautiful snippets about her life that reveals her character. She is not good at math. She thinks she has been married for 25 years. She remembers getting married at 19 when her husband had been 31. But when asked her age, she says “I am 39 years old”.

Do you like what you do for a living, Chinnamma?”

“Not especially. If only I had studied I might have chosen some other profession. But right now, I like the people I work for & their generosity. Also, my husband toils all day long for a meagre income. Why should I complain about my job then?

My mother-in-law thinks we owe her for our whole lives. She would demean me as much possible. I have decided never to do that when my son gets married. In fact, he has all the right to live alone with his wife if he chooses so”.


“It’s better for us to think of our capacity and not lust over other people’s money just because they are rich. What’s ours will stay ours and what’s not will not. I worked hard to build a house but we had to leave town and find work in the city to finish paying off that loan. But two years later I repaid it all and I own my house now”.


“My daughter has been working for 5 years now and she has started saving a portion of her income. Earlier she used to give all of her income for the family. Now I don’t ask her. She should have the right to think about her life and security.”


“My husband is generally not a complainer. Even when I use harsh words he would just keep mum and move away from the fight. So I try not to fight or be harsh at all. He doesn’t drink or have other bad habits. Kids don’t come with one till the end, it is one’s spouse that does and I just wish we would stay this way till the end.


Not every woman in India, especially a working class woman has a husband that doesn’t beat her up and extort money, let alone not drink or have multiple affairs. But most women and men like you and I have better lives. If you are reading this on any device — desktop, laptop, mobile or even a public computer, you are in a much better place than Chinnamma. Yet, how many of us think beyond our capability?

Chinnamma thinks beyond her capability not because she is not educated or falls below the poverty line. But because majority of Indian population doesn’t even come close to reflecting this way, even ones with a good education and the ability to afford a lot more than Chinnamma.

There are a huge number of very literate mother-in-laws and father-in-laws that pester their daughter-in-laws because they were once treated that way. Majority of parents think it is the right of a male child to put his parents’ well being before his own happiness and his family’s. Not all moms are understanding with their own daughter, especially ones that fall below poverty line. It has become human nature to be envious of people having more money than oneself. To lead a happy life, there are no mantras; it’s about a few simple things to be kept in mind.

  • Try not to burden others even if it is your own family
  • Let your kids do what they want — boy or girl
  • Try not to get any loans and live within your means
  • Expect nothing from others but do what you can
  • Identify and appreciate the good things you possess.

These subtle reminders in Chinnamma’s life help her be very content with herself, her family and her life in spite of all the turmoils & turbulence of everyday. The truth is there are many such Chinnammas among us. We just have to look closer and listen better. What’s amazing about such conversations is that they give us a perspective. Of life. Of what’s important. Of how lucky and blessed we are as compared to many others in this world. Of how we can do our part in changing something for the better rather than wasting time whining about anything trivial.

How many Chinnammas have you met so far? Are you one?

Image courtesy.