Madurai's Hotel Dhanalakshmi tells a tale of the indomitable spirit of a family that defied all odds to create a life of dignity and respect.
At the Viraganur roundabout — one of the busiest junctions in Madurai — 40-year-old Manimaran sits proudly amid the fragrant aromas and sizzling dishes of Hotel Dhanalakshmi.
Customers from different walks of life savour the delectable dishes he offers, unaware of the arduous journey he had to undertake to reach this point.
Rewind a few years and Manimaran’s life was a stark contrast. He was a bonded labourer, toiling away in a brick kiln, alongside his wife, mother, and three children.
“I was born in a family that struggled to make ends meet. I worked in estates when I was just 10 years old, in rice mills, and even did fencing work. Despite the nature of these jobs, I was happy,” he begins.
His life took a significant turn when the financial burden of his sister’s marriage pushed his father to seek advances from a brick kiln owner in Thiruparankundram.
“Initially, my father worked in the brick kiln for two years. After he passed away, I had to take over,” he shares.
For four long years since his father’s passing, a vicious cycle of debt and exploitation bound them to the clutches of their callous employer.
“For cutting 1,000 bricks, we were paid ₹250, 25 paise per brick. Along with me, my family toiled hard day and night. But the debt only kept increasing,” he shares, his voice tinged with the bitterness of the past.
The rains were their worst enemy, as damaged bricks meant they wouldn’t get paid, which in turn meant an accumulation of debt.
Manimaran’s eyes fill with pain as he narrates how his children used to juggle between school and work at the brick kiln. “The owner used to ask, ‘What are they going to do by going to school?’,” he recalls.
After a long day at school, they would take up heavy loads of stones and tarps to protect the bricks during rainy nights.
While they yearned to play, study, and enjoy their childhood, their days were filled with gruelling work.
“I am from the Scheduled Caste. We were trapped in a world where we had to face verbal abuse every day, caste-based discrimination, and were denied even the most basic human rights. There was no electricity or medical facility. There was no fair wages, dignity, or safety,” Manimaran says.
The turning point came when Manimaran resolved to break free from this oppressive cycle.
“The work was back-breaking and the wages were pitiful. I decided to fight for my rights and those of my fellow workers. I organised workers to demand better pay. However, the owners responded with more abuse, casteist slurs, and threats,” he recalls.
In a pivotal moment, the abuse became unbearable. Manimaran escaped the kiln, seeking aid from the Madurai-based Society for Community Organisation Trust (SoCO), a group dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating bonded labourers.
There, he found the support he needed to approach the State Human Rights Commission and file a petition.
With the government’s intervention, this brave step led to the eventual release of Manimaran and his family from bondage in 2016.
“The day we received the release certificate, I felt a mix of relief and hope. It was as if a heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders and I knew that I had a chance to rewrite my destiny,” he says.
Starting from scratch, they began their journey to rebuild their lives.
With the financial assistance they received from the government — three cents of land and financial aid of ₹60,000 — Manimaran ventured into the catering business.
Drawing inspiration from his father’s culinary skills, Manimaran developed his own talent and became a master of various dishes, from traditional Chettinad cuisine to delectable Chinese and continental delicacies.
“My father was a wonderful cook. He used to prepare mouthwatering Karuvadu kuzhambu. As a child, I used to help him and enjoyed cooking. His kai pakuvam just stuck with me,” he affectionately says.
However, the path to liberation was fraught with challenges and their struggles were far from over.
Caste-based discrimination haunted him even in his catering business. “People wouldn’t give us food orders because of our caste. However, we started getting orders from relatives and friends,” he says, sharing how his perseverance and love for cooking surpassed all hurdles.
In 2022, he established his own hotel, Dhanalakshmi. Named after the pillar of strength in his life — his wife — the hotel is not just a culinary establishment, it is a living testament to their enduring love and partnership of 20 years.
As Manimaran talks about Dhanalakshmi, it becomes apparent that her presence is his driving force. “She is my everything,” he declares, a smile spreading across his face.
“During the case, I was not afraid because of her. She said, ‘Don’t be scared. We will go to the Collector’s office if they try to harm you.’ Her courage gave me the strength to stand tall. Without her, I would be broken,” he says.
Their journey has been one of shared struggles and triumphs, making their bond even stronger.
“We have a six-month age difference and are like friends. Having long, heartfelt conversations and discussions on political issues is how we love spending our time. What we hope for is an equitable world for our children,” Manimaran shares.
Together, they have seen poverty and faced the brunt of social discrimination. These shared experiences have taught them empathy, which they pass on to their children.
“Our children are now in college,” he beams with pride.
His children’s education is a testament to his belief in the power of knowledge to create change. “Study well till you can help others,” he tells them.
“They shouldn’t just think just about our family, but lift others up,” Manimaran says, emphasising the importance of instilling kindness and generosity in their children.
His eldest son is in his third year of college, pursuing a degree in English Literature. “He helps me manage the store after college hours,” Manimaran shares. His second child is pursuing a degree in Botany, while the youngest is in Class 11, still nurturing dreams for her future.
Today, in Hotel Dhanalakshmi, an unspoken code of compassion and respect reigns supreme. The caste barriers that once loomed large, fade into insignificance and everyone works side by side, as equals.
Manimaran shares his unwavering philosophy with those who work beside him, “Eat whenever you feel hungry. Work comes next. I know the hardship of toiling in fear and hunger.”
His commitment to uplifting others is palpable. His every action speaks of a man on a mission to heal wounds, to ensure that nobody else has to endure the agony he once faced.
“To the people I work with, I always tell them, there’s no mudhalali (boss). You are working hard, I pay you for that. The trouble I went through in a feudal system shouldn’t be faced by those working with me,” asserts Manimaran.
Reflecting on their transformation, Manimaran underscores the role of the government and NGOs in his journey to freedom.
“I am indebted to the government, the NGOs, and all the sirs and madams who were involved,” he says, with heartfelt gratitude.
Last year, in a milestone instance of justice, the individual responsible for subjecting Manimaran and his family to bonded labour was brought to account for his actions by advocate M Raja.
“This will now set precedence for holding perpetrators accountable. ‘Vere yarum kashta pada matange (No one else will suffer)’,” he says, hopeful.
As he looks forward, he aims to pass on this light of hope to others, guiding them through the darkest of times and helping them rise.
“I didn’t have anyone to guide me, but there are people, like those from the government and NGOs who lifted me up and showed me the world. Now, I have to return the favour to those in need, right? Till I die, that’s my aim,” he says, with an unwavering resolve.
As Manimaran goes back into the kitchen, the clattering of utensils becomes a symphony of emancipation, each clang symbolising the shackles of bonded labour falling to the ground.