Humans of Insti – Sharavati Lady Guards

Edited by Jai Santhoshi S.

Design by Reshma

Sujatha Akka

My name is Sujatha, I am 35 years old, and I have been working at IIT-M for more than ten years. Currently, I’m working as one of the lady guards at Sharavathi hostel. My life has been full of obstacles, from growing up with financial difficulties to having to provide for my children single-handedly since I was just a teenager. 

I am from Hyderabad. My father passed away very early in my childhood, and my mother had to take care of my three children and me. It was not a comfortable life, and I did not know any luxuries. When I was young, I married and moved to Chennai with my husband. I remember crying a lot during the first week at Chennai because I did not understand Tamil, and I used to ask him to take me back to my home. Now, I resonate entirely with the saying “Vazhavaikum Chennai” (Chennai nurtures those who come to live here). In fact, I don’t even feel like going to Hyderabad anymore.

My husband worked at IIT-M, so we resided in the staff quarters. After a couple of years, my husband passed away. I was devastated and had no clue how to run a family. We were struggling both financially and otherwise. My children were very young then – my son was a year old, and my daughter was three months old. I also had to support my mother, who was living with us. My relatives cut me off entirely and did not offer me any kind of support. Up until then, my husband had taken care of everything. I barely went out, and I hadn’t even seen a 10 rupee note. The most important thing to me was taking care of my two children and keeping them happy. I wanted to provide my children with quality education to prevent them from suffering as I did. I had to also start working to feed my family. One of the professors at IIT-M helped me find work here. IIT-M professors and students have been the ones who have helped me most in life. I owe everything I have today to them. As a widowed woman, I had to face many challenges, and they took care of me like I was their family. 

Initially, I worked in the gardens and at professors’ houses. My mother took care of the children while I worked. Then I started working at Sharavathi Hostel. If I had the early morning shift, I would wake up at 3 AM, cook for my children and come here to duty at 5 AM. I used to fall asleep standing sometimes because I used to be very tired. My friends used to catch me sleeping during my night shift on the CCTV and make fun of me. After my shift got over, I usually pick my children up from school, drop them at tuitions, and help them with their studies. Both of them studied in Kendriya Vidyalaya, IIT Chennai. Now, my daughter is working after completing her B. Tech. My son finished M. Com and is currently looking for work.

I have always been inspired by how students here studied, and this has always motivated me to invest in my children’s education. Being around students let me take my mind off other troubles. Students, especially girls, have left their hometowns, their parents and everything familiar to study here. That gave me a lot of courage. I love witnessing the strong female friendships in the hostel – there’s no jealousy amongst them, and they support each other unconditionally. I have learnt so much from these students, and they have always been an immense source of moral support to me. I learnt Tamil mostly from them and can understand many other languages. I find it really difficult now without the students. I miss them a lot. I hope the COVID-19 situation gets better quickly, so the campus is alive again.

Even though I haven’t ventured out into the city much, I am very thankful to Chennai because I was able to make a livelihood for my children and me here. To date, I’ve never gone to the beach. IIT-M has been my whole world and my bread and butter. I like the campus a lot because it is quiet and peaceful. Everyone here is very loving, and there is positivity in the air. One of my favourite events is Hostel Night. Throughout the year, the students would have been studying very hard, and this one night, all of them relax and have fun. There is a sense of community and bonding that I particularly like. Everyone, workers and students alike, will get good food and I enjoy that! 

Sometimes I wonder why God put me through this severe punishment, but I am grateful that I have been able to overcome these difficulties. I have had one lifelong dream – I have wanted my life story to be published as a book. I talk about my experiences a lot, and I wish someone would write about my lived reality. If you had come here in real life, I would have been able to share so many more stories!

Muthumala Akka

I’ve heard so many things about Sujatha. Before working as a guard, she worked in the garden, and she was very young. I’ve heard that she used to have her child tied on her back as she did garden work and babysit her children simultaneously. That made me respect her a lot. I have had to go through my share of difficulties in life, but Sujatha has gone through so much more. When I joined Sharavathi Hostel, I was much older than Sujatha, so I have been in awe of her perseverance through life’s hurdles.

I am 44 years old now, and I never imagined I would be working at IIT-M. I grew up in Chennai. I had an early marriage, so I was not able to pursue higher studies after my schooling. My native place is Karaikudi, but Chennai has always been my home. I have two daughters – the older one is 24, and the younger one is 22. The older one did her B. Tech, and the younger one did BCA and is currently working at Cognizant.

Until my older daughter started her first year of college, I didn’t work because my husband managed the finances. When he lost his job, we faced debt issues, and I had to start working. At first, I found work in the Electronics Section at Big Bazaar. Then I worked in the accountancy division of a small private firm. At that time, I wasn’t this outspoken, and that job gave me a lot of confidence. I underwent training and learnt how to file most kinds of taxes. I have taught B. Com and M. Com students how to use Tally (an accounting software). My employer used to say I had entered the job knowing nothing but my difficulties made me pick up all the skills. I’ve done the accounts on Tally for well-established hospitals in Chennai, which is huge for me, given my background. I had to quit that job due to some family problems, and shortly after that, my older daughter got married. I saw a newspaper ad for this job and decided to apply. 

When I was younger, I remember crossing IIT-M many times, and I had a classmate who studied here and moved to Dubai later. I didn’t have any knowledge about the place beyond that. I was very scared when I first entered the campus. It took me a month to understand the atmosphere inside. The dense forest also overwhelmed me. The night shift was even scarier, so initially, I did a trial for a week with only the morning shift. I’ve been working here for three and a half years now. I have to admit IIT-M has been a very safe space for me, especially as a woman. I’m scared of snakes and scorpions but nothing else! After finishing my shift at 10-10:30 PM, I do not fear walking to the gate because students are always around. I live outside the campus, so my only problem has been having to cycle to campus in recent times because there’s no public transport. Otherwise, I have absolutely no qualms about working here!

I like Holi celebrations because all the students are colourful and have a lot of fun playing. I particularly remember this one Holi when I was at Sabarmati, and there was a very grand celebration. Ice-cream days at Sarayu and Barbecue nights are all things I enjoy a lot. My pastime now is my phone. I forward whatever I like to everyone. My friends make fun of me and ask me why I’m copying whatever anyone puts as their WhatsApp status! I also like reading books, and my favourite author is Balakumaran. I like Kannadasan’s work as well. I enjoy listening to music, especially Ilayaraja.

I feel like the students here are my children. I’m very chatty, so I talk to everyone. Even if I don’t know their language, I’ll speak with my haphazard English. I have no language barriers and get along with all the students. But I think some of them are scared of me because of my brawny voice, and I’m also strict with them about small things like locking their cycle or making entries in the late register. 

During the first lockdown in 2020, so many people I knew lost their jobs. Even my husband lost his job in a private company. But at IIT-M, we were asked to work only 15 days a month and were provided accommodation and meals. We also had a salary hike, and this was a huge deal for us. I will never forget this in my life. It reduced my mental stress to such a large extent because, at that point, there was a lot of fear about Covid-19; we didn’t fully understand what was going on, and there was so much uncertainty. Being cooped up in the house was detrimental to my mental health as well. My job almost felt like a foreign vacation! IIT-M also made sure all of us workers got vaccinated, so I am very grateful for that. Working here has been a blessing for me. There have been so many days I’ve come to work crying, but once I’m here, all my worries disappear when I see the students!

Note: The interviews were conducted by phone in Tamil. This article is a loose translation of the conversation.

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