Karaththa Selvam – the cart monarch of Pettah | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Karaththa Selvam – the cart monarch of Pettah

8 December, 2019
THE JOB: A cart puller pulls a cart loaded with goods in one of the lanes in Pettah
THE JOB: A cart puller pulls a cart loaded with goods in one of the lanes in Pettah

Pettah is a mosaic of human movement and heavy motor traffic complete with pedestrians. Street vendors scream and buyers throng the pavements under the scorching sun. Labourers known as Natamis or cart pullers sweat and toil with over 50 kg heavy sacks on their backs, some pulling two-wheeled carts towering loads of goods, uttering an occasional slang.

Every morning, I come to office through the Pettah market, across the bustling Gas Works Junction. When I reach Gas Works Junction around 7 am, I spot a middle aged man clad in a sarong and a dirty shirt laden with grease, walking hurriedly pulling carts here and there adjusting them and keeping in line on the pavement. Often I see him handing the carts one by one to cart pullers. This is an every day scene at Gas Works Street.

So, I decided to have a chat with this interesting person. Last week, I got the opportunity to meet him at Gas Works (Gas Paha) Junction, to learn about his life and times.

He is Selvam Kumar fondly called Karaththa Selvam, a 52-year-old hardworking individual. I asked him to pose for a photograph in the mild morning sun with his vast array of carts, anchored neatly alongside Central Road on Gas Works Street where his ‘cart park’ is located.

This is the story of Karaththa Rassawa (cart job). It was first introduced to Sri Lanka from India. Nadar a word derived from the Tamil language means a person who collects and sells trashy iron items, old newspapers and empty bottles, who first introduced the carts to the Pettah market probably in 1950.

Karaththa Rassawa comes from generation to generation. “My mother, Dasamma first did this job. Bogawanthalawa in the Nuwara Eliya district was her birth place. She came to Gas Works Junction, Pettah, and got this cart job from one of the Nadars. One may wonder how a woman could do this male dominated job. Yes, of course, she could. My mother did this job until her last breath. I inherited it from her, as a 12 year old boy,” recalls Selvam holding one of his carts on the pavement.

“My mother said the cart rental for a day was Re 1 those days. Since then rentals have gone up, and today it is Rs.100. Everything has changed in Colombo now, but one thing remains static. It is this cart pulled by the Natamis,” says Selvam adding that even though the city of Colombo is transformed in many ways the way of life of carts and cart pullers have never changed.

It is said that when the carts were first introduced to Colombo in 1950, only about 20 carts were available in the entire city. At that time, the carts were owned by the Nadars.

“Those days all the carts were fixed on iron tires. Later I remember all tires were non-pneumatic. Thereafter, light vehicle tires were fixed, and it was I who improved that. Today, all the carts are pulled by tires. I have a group of technicians under me to repair the carts,” says Selvam.

Now, Selvam owns around 1,500 pulling carts and is dedicated to develop his job. Looking at him, no one would identify him as a business proprietor. Clad in a dirty sarong and faded shirt, he looks like another cart puller. Indeed, he is a simple man.

I inquired why he wears dirty clothes, and he responded. “The job of pulling a cart involves hard-work, but is easily accessible to a poor but physically fit person in the Pettah.

Those who choose this job are not only from Colombo, but also from various cities elsewhere. Whether they are Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, is not a problem to me. All of them work with me. The common issue is they are born with poverty and illiteracy. When I work with such a group, there is no need to think about my dress and I have to adjust to their lifestyle.”

Selvam has a single room at Gas Works Junction. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have anything to sell, but is filled with iron rims and tires and a few framed pictures of Gods on the wall. “I sleep for only three hours a day, from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m, at which time I deliver the carts to the Natamis in the Pettah market.

There are many who come to me in search of a job. My first priority is delivering carts to people before I think of my food or dress,” he says.

“I don’t know how to explain it… perhaps it is my destiny. Hundreds depend on this job, I want to help them all. There is joy and satisfaction in helping them though I also get an income,” Selvam laughed.

There are around 500 cart pulling Natamis in the Pettah market. A few people do the job as a livelihood, to look after their families. However, sadly, there are some drug and liquor addicts who seek a daily income for the ‘fix.’ They all come to Selvam to rent a cart.

The cart job starts at 1a.m. First the cart is given without rent money. After their duty, Natamis return the cart with the rental of Rs.100. Another group engaged in the day turn wait to get their carts around 7 am.

The wholesale business starts around 9 a.m. in the Pettah. If the buyers order the goods from wholesale traders, they can’t load the goods in front of the shop as lorries are parked in specific parks a little distance away from the shop. So, the heavy load of goods is carried by the Natamis who transport them in carts. “It is not easy to pull the heavy cart load by a human figure, the Natami, but they do,” Selvam said.

“They spend little money on food. Normally they have two or three Parata rotis and a cup of tea for breakfast. In the past, the cart pullers usually had food made with Uludu flour, so they had strength to pull the loaded carts. Today, most of them consume parata roti made with wheat flour. So, do they have the energy? However, if these people drop out of this job for even a day, it would perhaps cost millions of rupees in losses for the traders of Pettah. People tend to look at them with disdain, but it is sad that no one appreciates the service they render to society,” he says.

But the times, along with the economics of Pettah, are changing. And the role of the cart puller is being affected accordingly. With many of the warehouses and factories moving out of Pettah, and more and more roads opening up to allow better access for vehicles, the role of the cart puller is becoming less crucial. The profession still hangs on, but cart pullers today are becoming a dying breed.

“We don’t know how long we can continue this business. But, hundreds of poor hard-working cart pullers depend on these two-wheeled carts,” Selvam said, finally, with a question mark on the uncertain future ahead of him. Who knows, delivery robots could automate the entire delivery process in a couple of decades, making the Natamis an extinct species.