A Day In The Life Of A Nattami

Nattami’ is the name given to a labourer in Pettah who carries and moves goods to and from shops, often by manually pulling carts loaded with the goods. Photographer Malaka Pathmalal recently ventured into this busy commercial hub to find out how they contribute to the organised chaos that is Pettah. Names have been changed on request of the nattamis.

The nattamis of Pettah run through the small alleyways, with goods packed high onto their carts.

It is early morning. The bustling streets of Pettah are empty, and the only sound one can hear are the fog horns from the harbour, interrupted by the sound of crows following the CMC trucks for easy picking.  

Standing in a small corner shop is an elderly man past the age of 50. He wears a red cap and a white shirt, and waits patiently for a loaf of roast paan. But the bread is not for him. He has already had his breakfast and this is an errand he is running for a customer.  No job is too small, he says, as he limps out of the shop. “Goods are goods, we do whatever we can,” he says, adding ”and I can kill some time until my next job starts.” Red Cap is a nattami, and his job is to move goods around Pettah.  

Red Cap stands in the kade waiting to buy a load of roast paan for his customer. Having sprained his ankle, he can only run small errands for a few days until his foot heals.

When asked about his limp he says that he twisted his ankle carrying some heavy goods down the stairs the previous week, and it had stopped him from getting work for a few days. As a result, he is limited to small deliveries, for the time being at least.

To the uninitiated, nattami are the lifeblood of Pettah, Sri Lanka’s busiest commercial area, where many small shops, textile stores, hardware stores, and other business organisations are centred.

And if goods are what drives Pettah forward, the nattami are what drive the goods. Their job is arguably one of the most important jobs in Pettah, a hub that thrives on business activity. Although they function primarily as a cheap delivery service, the nattamis do so much more ‒ they take on any and all kinds of odd jobs, from a task as simple as buying a loaf of bread for a busy merchant, to something as tedious moving 200 kgs of food from a shop to a delivery truck.

Red Radio. The news can be heard through the speakers as the men meet each other in the morning for a quick chat before getting down to work.

I leave Red Cap and continue down the streets of Pettah to find a cobbler, a merchant, and a nattami. One man holds up a bright red radio in his hands and the morning news leaks out of its small speakers. The sound floats down the alley as the men talk about their lives and family. Red Radio is a nattami, but has completed his quota of work for the morning, and after having breakfast, moves on to his second job as a cobbler. Many of the residents of Pettah have one or more jobs. After suffering a back injury last year, Red Radio only works in the early hours of the morning as a nattami, and spends the rest of the day fixing shoes on the main streets of Pettah.

Red Radio, who hurt his back last year, has had to cut down on nattami work; so after completing his quota for the day, he heads off to his second job as a cobbler.

I follow him to his humble shop to find two guard dogs and a chicken watching the place in his absence. Anyone who approached his little table would get a firm bark from the dog and a cluck from the chicken, who has been given a new coat of red colouring, perhaps to distinguish it from the other chickens that roam the streets of Pettah. Red Radio is welcomed by his pets, and he goes on to feed his dogs and the chicken. With what little he has left, he crosses the street to feed a few kittens. Once his morning chores are done, he goes back to sit at his little table, awaiting anyone who wishes to get their shoes fixed.

At 4th cross street I meet Kanalingam.

I leave Red Radio, and walk down towards 4th Cross Street where, with just enough room for people to just creep past them, one can find the largest concentration of nattamis. And this is where I meet Kanalingam.

Kanalingam is a long-time nattami, and a certified badass. He tells me he was 21 when he started his job ‒ on the 7th of February, 1973. He has not looked back since.

It is hard work, but it is also an honest job. He works some days from as early as 6:00 a.m. and will work until the shops close. Still, all that will get him about LKR 2,500 on a good day, and LKR 500 on a bad one ‒ so though Kanalingam moves around everywhere, he has his own shop, as most nattamis do. Like a lot of the nattamis, he also has a family-like loyalty to his shop, and it’s clear why.

While Kanalingam’s cart gets loaded with goods, I retreat from the heat into a small kadey.

At around 2:00 p.m., I decide to escape the afternoon heat by moving into a small kadey that serves tea on 4th Cross Street, where most nattamis seek a reprieve from the sun while they wait for goods to be unloaded from or loaded onto their carts.

The carts themselves cost LKR 100 to rent for a day, since most of the nattamis live in Pettah they rent them daily. “If I did own one, I would have no place to keep it overnight,” one of them tells me. “And then the kudu kaareyo will steal it and sell it, or sell the parts.”

Raja couldn’t speak Sinhala, but when the other nattamis communicated my request to photograph him, he agreed.

As we wait for the tea, I see many more nattamis who work in the area. Raja, who is 54, comes into the shop to take a small break. Raja doesn’t speak much, but is happy to have his picture taken.

Another nattami sits with us. No one stays here long; they have their tea and quickly head back to work.

While we speak to the shopkeeper of the tea shop, another man walks in. He is old, but like most people who live in Pettah, lean and muscular because of the heavy labour required by his work. I notice he is barefoot, and his feet are swollen. This appears to be a common ailment among many of the people who call Pettah home. With poor working conditions and open garbage being handled in Pettah, it is also normal to see workers who don’t own appropriate footwear walk around with their feet wrapped up in plastic or sili sili bags.

One of the many perils of working in Pettah is posed by the sewage that spills onto the street; without adequate protection, one could very easily get their feet infected.

Soon after tea, I leave the comfort of the kadey to find Kanalingam packing and counting his parcels. If he counts wrong, he would have to double back to the shop, which would cost him time and money.

Kanalingam does a final check before he heads towards the drop off point for the goods.

With all his goods packed high, he slowly picks up his cart and begins to pull. Like a giant snail, he creeps towards Main Street, gradually building momentum. After he turns into the street, however, Kanalingam sheds all similarities to a snail. Bobbing and weaving through the traffic of Pettah, it is here you see nattamis at their best. Watching the traffic and pedestrians simultaneously, he crosses and moves along the road. Kanalingam reads the language of the vehicle horns, the sirens, the yells and shouts, and interprets them guide his movement, safely and effortlessly crossing five-way intersections.

Kanalingam slowly heads towards the main road. One more photo in the calm, before the storm of noise and traffic swallows him whole.

I  follow Kanalingam through the city into a part of Pettah we had never seen before, a cross between a car park and depot station for goods and products. Through some strange intuition, he finds the lorry into which he needs to unload this wares.

Keeping close to him, I am able to dodge and weave through traffic. If not done with the aid of a nattami, I would have very likely been run over.

Kanalingam reaches his destination (or rather, that of the goods he is transporting): a lorry heading to Anuradhapura.

Kanalingam starts counting. “four, five, six…” his eyes widen for a second as he exclaims “Aiyo!’’ to indicate that he has made a mistake. “I forgot something,” he explains, and quickly disappears into the crowd, leaving us and his cart in the middle of a parking lot. And yet, within minutes, he returns with a large sack of rice on this shoulder, and dropping it onto the lorry, he says, “seven, that’s all of it.”

A small hold-up occurs when some of the goods fall off on to the road. The nattamis or even other workers will quickly pick up the goods and place them back on to the cart. Everyone helps each other out here in Pettah.

On our way back, Kanalingam says his next job is on the other side of Pettah, and that I most likely won’t be able to keep up with him when he is moving an empty cart, leading to a parting of ways.   

Kanalingam takes more goods across town. This is the last I see of him before we part ways. He surveys the street before he himself walks into the middle of the traffic, then disappears into it.

Kanalingam isn’t a one off case: his story is like that of many other nattamis who work in Pettah or call it their home. They are honest men doing honest work, and are the unacknowledged backbone of a city that does not give them the credit they deserve. In a world of DHL, UPS, and other courier services, they not only hold on tight to an age-old, difficult and thankless profession, but have carved out a market that nothing or no one can replace. They are the lifeblood of this part of the city, and it’s impossible to imagine a Pettah without them.  

Related Articles