Kangi, Kajal, tikli, manipotwali…
Kangi, Kajal, tikli, manipotwali…
Many of Mumbai’s residential bylanes ring out with these lines, as women, carrying a heavy load of odds-and-ends on their heads, are spotted traversing the length and breadth of the city, selling their wares. They are called Manipotwalis. With the onslaught of urbanization, traditional occupations are dying out, but like old habits, they die hard. Faced with this imminent reality, 8 young girls, all daughters of Manipotwalis, embarked on a one-year research endeavour with PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Programme, to study and document the lives and times of Manipotwalis. Personally, through their mothers, they were aware of the trials and tribulations of the occupation. But egged on by an intense desire to record history, the girls decided on a systematic study to write a cohesive but heterogeneous narrative of Manipotwalis.
The research process was an intensive and challenging one. They chose to conduct 29 in-depth interviews. Questions ranged from socio-economic profile of respondents, their early years including marriage and husbands, the how and why of their occupation, their occupational challenges and finally, their dreams and aspirations. Conducting interviews of such a personal nature of women whose every waking moment is preoccupied is next to impossible. They were either not interested or were simply exhausted to spend time on the interviews. However, perseverance helped the girls in securing all 29 interviews.
So what did the girls learn about their mothers? Most of the respondents fell in the 35-44 age groups, while only 4 were in the age group of 20-35. The sampling method used was convenient random sampling. But even so, the girls interpreted that the reason they encountered more middle-aged manipotwalis was probably because fewer women from the younger generation were taking to the traditional occupation. An overwhelming proportion (24 of 29) reported being uneducated and the maximum level of education in the group was 3rd grade. Either their villages didn’t have schools or schools were not meant for girls. In some cases, respondents reported their family being too poor to afford to educate their girls. Most of the women had large families with 6-11 members living together under one roof.
The lack of education seems to have been the single greatest factor propelling them towards this occupation. Their mothers did the same work, and they continued the tradition. They were also married off early, at the ages of 7, 10 or 12. Many of them wrestled with early motherhood, even as they were barely through their teens. Moreover, many found their husbands to be undependable for income and care of the family.
While initially, the prospect of roaming the streets and selling wares, terrified them, they were also happy to help with the family’s finances. Since poverty and tradition had thrown them into this occupation, the going was by no means easy. Many of them had young children who were carried on the hips while the women walked around selling. They often had to travel long distances. Occupational hazards included eye problems, knee pains, and leg problems that hindered walking. Moreover, rickshaws would spot their burden and not serve them. And all this, for a minimum Rs. 100 and a maximum Rs. 400 a day. The income is just enough to feed the family that evening.
The Manipotwalis, while proud of their tradition, are all unanimous in their conviction that their children will not follow in their footsteps. They educate their girls and boys so they can take on work that gives them more income. They are insistent that their children, irrespective of gender, be economically and otherwise, independent. One of them proudly stated, “I am so glad my daughter is studying CA. I would like her to get a well-paying job.”
The systematic documentation effort has instilled in the girls a sense of pride for their mothers and the tradition they come from- a tradition that, in its essence, is hard work, courage, determination and love. They know they owe all of their years of education to their manipotwali mothers.