The Unheard Voices of Kannagi Nagar

By Arnabjit Sur

While talking with one of her neighbors near her one-room house in Kannagi Nagar, Selva, a 51-year-old housewife says she reminisces her previous house in Neelankarai, which was much bigger than the one she presently resides in. Selva’s unemployed husband, meanwhile, lays on the floor of the house while watching a reality show on television.

Situated near waterlogged spaces and congested buildings , lack of sanitation, issues regarding accumulating garbage and an upsurge in mosquitoes are only some of the problems that Selvi and her family has to brave every day.

Sam, her 33-year-old, works in a mechanical engineering company in Perungudi. “He receives a meagre salary of 15,000 and is the only breadwinner of the family,” Selvi said adding that he also has to look after his wife and two children with the amount. A plastic poster bearing “Sam Computers” providing services like Xerox and printing is displayed in front of the house which she says “is run by her son on a part-time basis,”.

Despite appealing to the government several times over the abysmal living conditions that she and her fellow residents are forced to live in, it has fell on deaf ears. “It becomes very difficult when guests arrive as we can’t accommodate them in this small room”.  Filled to the brim with items like stove, cupboard and chairs, the space inside the house becomes too narrow to even stand. “We have to put up with what we have been given as this is what we have” she quips.

When asked about the locality being infamous for crimes, she said that her part of the area doesn’t witness major killings that are usually reported out of Kannagi Nagar in general. “Criminal activities up till now haven’t become an issue for me,” Selva said.

Walking further down the street, there are some residents like Jayalakshmi who seem to present a rather toned down image of the area, devoid of the notorious activities it is famous for. For Jayalakshmi, another resident, and it’s been only a year since she arrived here from a slum colony in Chambur in Mumbai after getting married. Mother to a son and a daughter, both studying at a nearby government school, she speaks fluent Hindi in contrast to native Tamils largely populating the area. “My house in Mumbai was much more spacious than this one which is way smaller,” she says, showing her match boxed size one room flat similar to the one of Selva.

The water crisis that has gripped Chennai is one of the major problems faced by her with the basic resource becoming a prized possession. “The water supply only comes once in six days becoming difficult for us meet our daily requirements,” Jayalakshmi said adding that she didn’t have any major issue with the area other than that.

Her husband, a petrol pump employee, runs the family expenses and according to her, things are financially going well.

She, at the same time, issued a caveat, saying that people shouldn’t get into a fight with anyone here as things can take a disastrous turn at times. “I don’t know much about the infamous murders Kannagi Nagar is known for as I don’t go out of the house much but you don’t want to indulge in a tiff with fellow residents here,” Jayalakshmi said.

The youth of Kannagi Nagar, similarly, shone some light on the underlying aspirations of the youth, which, for lack of basic infrastructure and amenities, have been left unfulfilled and unadorned. Sitting on a small charpoy near his house while talking to his uncle, 17-year-old Dhanush Kumar says that he along with his friends need a football ground in the locality. “We aren’t able to play the sport as there is a lack of infrastructure and proper facilities,” says Kumar. A student of Thoraipakkum Government School, he dreams of joining the military someday in future.“I wish there were more professional colleges in the vicinity so that the youngsters of this locality could have better access to education,” he added.

Jayalakshmi , besides her children , inside her house in  Kannagi Nagar

His father, a corporation bus driver, is the sole breadwinner of the family, with his twin sisters studying at nearby government schools while his mother being a housewife. A pink-colored three-room concrete structure is what he has called home since being born. “It has developed leaks and cracks at various places due to recurrent rains and shoddy infrastructure,” Kumar says. Adding that he hasn’t yet come under the influence of drugs and alcohol, Kumar says that such illicit activities are a norm among the youth at Kannagi Nagar. In contrast to Jayalakshmi, who has moved in recently, there are some who attempt to move into newer places , having procured jobs in IT and software firms , enabling them to shift accommodations. Overseeing the white-washing being undertaken by workers in his house, 23 – year-old Prabhakaran Kumar says he’s renting out the last of his three houses in the area and moving out to Mettupakkam which he calls “a better area”.

Kumar, an engineering graduate, has been staying at Kannagi Nagar since 2001 and has seen the area evolve in both positive and negative ways. “18 years back the situation was difficult was lack of roadways and transportation for the residents, while the crime rates were also high,” Kumar said. Now the situation has improved comparatively with police frequently patrolling around the area, according to him.

Training to be a coach in Australian strength and conditioning, Kumar rues the inherent bias that employers have against youngsters and residents of locality when offering jobs. “The bank employees” he says “usually don’t sanction loans when they realize that the applicant is from Kanaggi Nagar”.