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'Naatamis' People without dreams

DN Sat May 31 2003

Even though they end their task of loading and unloading as evening dawns these downtrodden labourers continue to carry the burden of life when they return to their waiting families.

by Prasad Abu Bakr

Standing on 4th Cross Street in Pettah one cannot fail to observe the busy movements of the "Naatamis", responsible in unloading bags packed with goods from waiting lorries that arrive from miles and miles away out of Colombo.

With their lean taut bodies glistening with sweat and bones quivering under the load they carry, these men who make-up an essential part of Pettah's daily activities has no hope but to look forward to the same gruelling experience as the sun rises the next day.

"What hopes can we have ?", asked Thanga who arrived in the City almost eight years ago, with a family of eight out of which two, a son and daughter already working in an up-country estate, which he says relieves the burden to a certain extent but there are six of us left and the wages we earn are not static, some days it can be high and if bad weather prevails in outstations we hardly make any money at all, he lamented.

Most of these people suffer from poor health, as for lack of nutrition, that they need in relation to the hard work they are involved in. It is not irregular for them to succumb to serious health hazards as tuberculosis or lung cancer owing to their lack in healthy living. As one merchant commented "These people live by the day".

According to him they rarely take their living standards seriously; some of them consume large amounts of alcohol, the cost of which does not withstand their daily earnings which by no means can be considered high, he said. Most shops have its own collection of naatamies employed to carry out its daily loading and unloading purposes.

These regular employees are paid daily wages by these respective "wholesale stores" which employ them in accordance to the volume of work they handle each day. There are others who hang around for work and find it with a stroke of luck. Bernard is one such youth who joined this work force with the help of a friend. Unmarried though he has to support a family of five, with a bedridden father who has worked as a fisherman two unmarried sisters and his mother who upkeeps the family by supplying morning eats to a nearby boutique in the area they live in.

"I try to do the best for my family with the meagre sum I earn for the month together with my mother" said Bernard. 'But with the present conditions of living however much one may earn it is difficult to improve our present living standards' he believes. As for consuming alcohol and smoking he questions, "What else can we do after such long hours of hard work, even the "Loku Mahathayas' take a shot even though they languish in their posh offices but still believe that a tot will cure all ills at the end of the day" said Bernard with his youthful smile.

The major business operations in the wholesale market is dominated by the Tamil community as a singular ethnic group in comparison to others. Can this be held as evidence to the fact that a major part of "naatamis" are also of Tamil origin coming from far, seeking work in a city that probably does not embrace them with the same "gusto" as in their villages of origin, where they have lived in friendly circumstances beside families of other ethnic groups. "This is not necessarily so", thinks Sumane. "Whatever ethnic group we come from we are all poor and hard working with the same goals, to keep our home fires burning and seek a better tomorrow for our children.

None of us here will want to see our children toiling the same way we do, so there is a lot of brotherhood here putting behind petty differences like cast and religion" said Sumane born and living within the city limits all his life.

If one visually removed these workers from the busy streets of Pettah a certain aura would unquestionably disappear along with them, not because of the aesthetics it add to the daily happenings in a city that brews into steaming heights but mostly as they have become an important part of that picture but more, an important part of the operations that have successfully kept Pettah steering ahead unhindered over the years. It is not unusual for us to walk past these human machines without taking a second glance, born into poverty with lack of education, putting up a battle to survive, not only for themselves but also for their families. Most of them hardly have any dreams, probably as they have little time left for themselves to do so but even if they did have the time what kind of dreams can they build their lives upon?

Beyond the daily dust and heat that engulf them bringing down the very spirit one needs to re-fuel ones thoughts that is capable of re-kindling passion in the human soul, can these hard working brothers of our own be considered less fortunate than us? Or can it be that they have been placed in a position they have been pushed into for no fault of theirs?

The trend shows signs of continuing as business is growing under present conditions. There will be a string of "Naatamies" in the future to come. The demands are growing but less and less youth are joining-in. The present lot are a force that have joined many years ago and worked themselves up to nowhere.

There is supposed to be an "Association" in existence but no one showed interest in revealing its whereabouts or the benefits its members are entitled to but on inquiry by individual "naatamis" their grievances were aired in no small way. It is about time that a certain standard of security and a better standard of living is set about to compliment their vast contribution to an area which is vital in today's commercial up-climb.

This is the least, one can expect of society to enlighten the lives of these men without dreams.

Even though they end their task of loading and unloading as evening dawns these downtrodden labourers continue to carry the burden of life when they return to their waiting families.