‘SCHOOL’S DECLARED Saturday as Untouchability Awareness Day,’ announces Elder Daughter at the dinner table, ‘and at a Special Assembly, the school behans are going to talk to us about themselves. I mean, that’s so weird.’
Father—reluctantly—looks up from his pork vindaloo to play the sage. ‘Untouchability, for starters, is politically incorrect, I think,’ replies he. ‘We say Dalit nowadays.’
‘As long as the school buses run on Saturday,’ adds Mother, her expression glum because certain that they won’t, ‘and I don’t have to spend an entire holiday dropping and picking you up.’
On Saturday at dinner, Elder Daughter is pale and distraught and can’t look at any food. ‘This morning, Karishmaben—she’s the one who helps the dumber KG kids in the loo and everything—spoke to us about herself. She belongs to the Valmiki caste. They are shit-lifters, she said. That is what her family has been doing for generations for a living. For years she used to carry baskets of other people’s shit on her head. How can you continue to eat while I’m telling you all this?’
Four months ago, on another planet some eight hundred kilometres away from New Delhi, Devji to his mother:
‘Ma, I don’t want to go to school today. Or ever again.’
‘Wonderful. Follow in the footsteps of your illustrious sister. Remain with her in this cesspit wallowing up to your neck in the shit of others till merciful Death pushes your head in.’
The conversation between mother and child takes place in the mother tongue, at six in the morning on a monsoon day in 2016, in the village of Petwada.
Heena the sister butts in. ‘Don’t force him, Ma. At least the shit at home is our daily bread. In school, it’s that of his horrid classmates.’
‘You’re a girl. Shit is your element. You keep your head out of this.’
‘He’s not even bright. And that stupid school will fill him up with even more of it.’
That stupid school is two kilometres away. But that twenty-five minute walk to it is fraught; it feels like crossing a minefield in which each exploding bomb tears off and pulverises, not the head or a limb but the child’s spirit, his self-esteem; and at the end of that walk awaits him his routine school day.
‘Nothing doing,’ retorts Mainaben the mother. ‘You are going. Even if all that you learn in ten years is to write your name in shit.’ In more contempt than sorrow, she jerks her head towards an insensate, alcoholic heap in the corner. ‘I don’t want you to end up like your father.’
In response, Amritbhai ceases to be insensate. He sighs, rolls over, sighs again, sits up and demands sleepily in his stupor, ‘And what is wrong with the father? All he wants on this wonderful day is some tea.’
It is a wonderful day—though the family would be hard-pressed to understand why. A red-letter day it is, being the one hundred-and-fortieth anniversary of the foundation of the first brick sewerage system in the country—far away from Petwada though, some fifteen hundred kilometres to the east in Calcutta. 1876. What a year. Unknown to Mainaben and her kin, several other special anniversaries are virtually round the corner, to be celebrated, if they so wish, with the fanfare of a Hindu festival, each marking the day on which, over the decades, modern sewerage hobbled, at the Hindu rate of movement, closer and closer to their village. 1881, Bombay, eight hundred kilometres to the west-south-west. 1892, Delhi, a full thousand to the north. And 1938, Hyderabad, six hundred to the south. If God is kind—but He’s always kind!—if God is kinder—then perhaps in the lifetime of Devji’s children’s children’s children, that toilet and its pipes, that marvel of an ensemble, will rise from some vicinal city on a fabled eagle’s wings and land with a divine clang and clatter at the foot of the statue of Gandhi, there in the centre of Petwada. They would worship it too, of course.
A contented silence while the family breakfasts. Devji is about to speak, to take up again with his fearsome mother the matter of his proposed truancy; he is silenced however by a look from Heena. Breakfast for all is black tea, gur and the dried- up, hard-as-slate rotis left over from the wages of the day before.
‘We know why you don’t want to go to school today.’ Mainaben’s voice is kinder now. ‘You want to wear your new dark glasses and roam around and show off in the neighbourhood all day.’ She peers into the tin pan to gauge the amount of tea left. ‘You get ready now. Then you put on those glasses and go to school and Heena’ll accompany you to Bavla Mod and take them back from you there. We don’t want you wearing them where they’ll cause trouble.’
‘But trouble is more welcome than shit,’ burps and chuckles Amritbhai into his tin mug.
‘Yes, trouble is more welcome than shit!’ exults Devji, delighted at his mother’s munificence, ‘Heenadidi and Ma are our experts on trouble, our leaders in trouble!’
The family leads lives—as a bewildered Elder Daughter comes to learn in the weeks that follow—that would be a little tricky to explain to the outside world. Their existence is circumscribed, governed and defined by the excrement of others. They carry human shit on their heads from Point A— more accurately, from Points A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, A6 and A7—to Point B and that is how they make a living. Difficult to explain. That that too is living.
Precisely speaking, it is the mother who carries the shit of others on her head. Even more accurately, it used to be. She has rebelled, thrown off the yoke and is now jobless, near- penniless. Her husband finds her work demeaning and would never be able to bring himself to do it; it is all right for women though, one has to live. He makes his living by descending every fortnight into a tank filled with the excrement of the vicinal municipality of Botadpuri. Cleaning it non-stop occupies him for six to eight hours. If he takes a break, he finds that he is unable to resume. It is not possible for him therefore to enter that tank without first getting absolutely drunk. The first time he did it some fifteen years ago, it was without alcohol, he puked eight times in the initial twenty minutes and couldn’t go on; of course, he wasn’t paid anything that day.
In the village, Bawla Mod marks one boundary of the residential quarter of Valmikis. There, the potholed alley— largely dust when dry and mud when wet—turns once to make room for the modest graveyard of Hela Muslims and then skirts the six shops-in-shacks of Kadbi Patels before snaking its way in between the outlying, poorer houses of the Korama community of pigkeepers.
‘Hurry up, I’ve my rounds to do,’ snaps Heena at her younger brother. He walks slowly, with his head tilted back to keep the dark glasses from slipping off his nose. ‘Anyway, you can’t see a thing in those.’
‘I can. Everything seems further away and I feel…’ Protected is what he wishes to say but his voice trails off because he doesn’t want his sister scoffing at him. Either snapping or scoffing, that’s what she is always doing.
It is early in the day, not yet seven, and the two pass several Valmiki mothers carrying their scoops, brooms and buckets on their way to work. ‘Jai Bheem!’ Heena greets mainly those whom her mother gets along with; that number, over the last few months, has been slowly—pitifully slowly—increasing.
‘Jai Bheem!’ they respond, smiling, still a little self-conscious about their new way of saying hello.
It isn’t much fun; no adult seems to see—leave alone admire—Devji in his dark glasses. And it’s too early; none of his compeers is on his way to school yet. ‘Didi, can’t we walk on to the PHC dispensary and you go back from there?’
‘Don’t be a fool. You want to be beaten up by Chirag Marar or Manish Rana or one of those Banajiga brothers? And your silly glasses taken away?’
‘They won’t take them away if I tell them that I found them on an abandoned corpse.’ He glances at his sister’s scowling face but nevertheless adds because he’s in a great mood, ‘Besides, you’re there to protect me. They wouldn’t dare touch you.’
‘I hate them.’
‘They’ll just call us names. But we’re used to that.’
Only in a manner of speaking are sister and brother used to that, to what they hear from some of the youth of the other castes a dozen times a day, every day of their lives. ‘Hey slut. Come and clean my shit. My arse is bursting.’
The children of shit-cleaners are themselves shit-cleaners. Shit-cleaners they will forever remain. Outside the confines of their own residential quarter, without upsetting a lot of people, they simply cannot wear ornaments or ride bicycles or tuck their shirts in or touch things in a shop or smoke upwind from anyone of another caste or let their shadows fall on anybody else or enter temples or sport dark glasses or drink tea from cups not set aside for them at public tea stalls or carry a bottle of water to school or keep sitting in a public bus if someone from another caste hasn’t found a place or of course draw water themselves from the village well because they, in imitating the other castes, would be getting above themselves.
Sure enough, that very morning, en route to school, just after his sister has turned back—with the dark glasses—at the PHC dispensary, unmindful because glum again at the very thought of the day ahead, the boy Devji is rebuked by Ganjam Osthama the Elder. ‘Watch where your shadow falls, you piece of dogshit.’ To which adds Smriti Kumari his daughter, ‘Announce your presence in advance, shit-cleaner, if you want to stay on in this village.’ She is fourteen years old and three classes ahead of Devji in the same school.
Back home, Heena begins to prepare to start her day. For the last few weeks, after her rounds, she’s been helping her mother sell tea at the Food Corporation Godown bus stop on National Highway 47. That is a good three kilometres from their village. They will walk to work carrying what they need—a stove, a can of kerosene, a kettle, tea dust, sugar, plastic cups, rusk biscuits, matches, their lunch—yesterday’s potatoes and rotis from the day before that—wrapped in newspapers. They earn almost nothing per day and each morning seems strange because they are happy.
Amritbhai watches them leave. Mother and daughter walking upright, in their new way, carrying not basket and broom but stuff for the other end of the alimentary canal. That is a phrase that came to him unbidden soon after his wife’s rebellion; he uses it some fifteen times a day. My woman now occupies herself with the other end of the alimentary canal. It has brought down walls in his mind, that revolt of hers, he can barely acknowledge it to himself. They turn the corner; ‘Ram Ram’—he greets Tola Pat his neighbour gargling and expectorating at his doorstep. Amritbhai has not yet been able to get around to using ‘Jai Bheem’—and then, out of habit, searches the confined, ill-lit space that they call home to see if, by oversight, his wife has left behind a rupee or two. No such luck. And even if she had, his daughter would have double-checked.
Without further mishap, his son meanwhile has reached his destination.
School is a large shed in the strip of wasteland between the Saka Devi temple and a wide, filthy and entirely stagnant, open drain. The shed is divided into three rooms, each of which opens onto a verandah that runs along its length. Each room has a doorway (without a door) and a window without panes. The senior classes sit inside, Devji’s class usually takes place in the verandah.
Amongst the children whom he studies with, there are two other boys of his caste, one of whom, Chikka, has been absent for close to a year. Devji looks about for Ragi the other, doesn’t see either him or his bag, then puts his own down on the ground against the shed wall, well away from those of the children of the other castes; those satchels are all piled up pell- mell in a corner of the verandah itself.
Devji’s bag is largely symbolic. He hasn’t opened it in months, he is not certain what it contains, a couple of broken pencils, a splintered and effaced footruler, last year’s Hindi textbook. He stands still and alone in the sun and waits for Ragi. The others are in groups, horsing around, chatting away. No one greets him, he greets nobody.
Despite the dark glasses, his day hasn’t begun well. His stomach is rumbling, he might have to move his bowels again; that would mean trudging back towards home and relieving himself in the bushes abutting the reed tank. The school does have a toilet but it is not for him.
Precisely speaking, it is the mother who carries the shit of others on her head. Even more accurately, it used to be. She has rebelled, thrown off the yoke and is now jobless, near-penniless
Fifty two percent of India shits in the open; that makes over five hundred and twenty million people—two-thirds of Europe—defecating in fields, beaches, marshes, alleys, lanes, parks and pavements; alongside railroad tracks and on road shoulders, under bridges and behind protected monuments; it is a large country. Just twelve percent of it is covered by what could be called a modern sewerage system. Of the several hundred million Indians therefore—an entire US—who depend on Devji’s caste to remove their shit for them, not one, not one, is chastened and squirms in shame, for instance, while taking a crap.
‘Where does our shit go, exactly?’
‘Not at the dinner table, I mean, really.’
Elder Daughter dutifully changes the topic to the general dreadfulness of The Merchant of Venice but she remains curious and determined to dig. In two days, she ferrets out the essentials of that modern sewerage system.
‘Our toilets are connected to these underground pipes that take the shit away to a large, mercifully underground, tank, in which bacteria—practically our relatives— swing into action and decompose the crap and after some weeks, by means of a soakaway, it seeps into the surrounding soil.’
‘Soil?’ squeaks Younger Daughter without however glancing up from some text on her mobile phone, ‘OMG.’
But that is not all. Every two months or so, some employee of the nearest municipal setup has to clean that septic tank, to do what in the civilised world is done by a machine, an impressive vacuum apparatus mounted on a pumping truck. Elder Daughter learns from Karishmaben that it is invariably someone from the Valmiki or an equivalent caste who descends into the tank and that that kind of government job, reserved for the truly fortunate amongst them, is the highest that an Amritbhai can aspire to. Heaven is a septic tank. Between shitting in the fields and that heaven are a dozen gradations of toilet, examples of all of which are to be found in the Petwada area; all of them, with varying frequency but without exception, are cleaned by the Valmikis.
‘You all began coming here to school at the age of five,’ says Karishmaben to the assembled, uncomfortable, uncomprehending students, ‘I picked up a basket to accompany my mother on her morning rounds.’ She tries to smile. ‘How can you say no at the age of five?’ She pauses before adding, ‘There are two million of us across the country.’
Devji, silent in the sun, watches the teacher arrive on his bicycle. The teacher, a Mahajan by caste, is four months old at that school. He parks against the lone pipal sapling, chains and locks the machine. ‘Good morning, sir!’ sing—in English— those of the students whom he passes on his way to the northern-most room of the shed. He emerges in a minute without his shoulder bag, holding instead a tin plate before his chest; he begins on it a frenzied rat-a-tat with a spoon. The bell.
The students form rows to sing first, the National Anthem and next, the National Song. None of them is fully certain which is which, so it helps that the teacher leads. Devji, still waiting for Ragi, stands alone behind everyone else; he leaves a gap of more than a metre between the last row and himself. It is good that they face east so that his shadow falls behind him. The teacher stands in the verandah opposite his charges. He has put the plate down but retains the spoon; beating time with it—one-two-three-four—he breaks into the national anthem; a subdued mumble from the boys and girls, like the murmur of a sleepy ocean, indicates that they have joined the singing. They sing first of the overlord of India’s destiny and the oneness of the country; they move on, in the National Song, to its fertile fields and radiantly green harvests, and bow down to it as the mother and giver of all; mercifully, not a whisper in either song of the idea of equality.
Assembly over, the students disperse. Noisily, those of the senior classes pick up their satchels from the heap in the corner and enter their respective rooms. Devji’s classmates, giggling and jostling, settle down on the floor of the verandah. He remains standing in the sun, glancing about every now and then for Ragi, till things quieten down. He feels even more blue because he is alone. Had Ragi been present, the two would have shared the chore. The four more senior Valmiki students are certainly not going to help, it is not their day on the roster. Finally, when it looks as though class is about to begin, he trudges off to clean the school toilet.
Its four walls are slats of rusty tin; it is open to the sky. There is shit all around it but that Devji will have to deal with later. He takes off his rubber slippers; it is necessary to be barefoot for the job. His implements are the rusted iron bucket and mug, a stump of a broom, a second, cleaner bucket and a piece of carton that says Cadbury that are kept—that he keeps—behind the tin slats. The toilet itself is rudimentary; two chipped and stained cement blocks with a large tin pot between them. It is heavy, full. Holding his breath, Devji pulls it out, lifts it, clumsily overturns it into the bucket. Not neatly done. He dumps it on the ground so as to step back a few paces to breathe. He returns in a few moments to the task. With the mug, he scrapes off what he can from the pot.
The bucket, as long as he can remember, has never had a handle. It is now full, heavy. He crouches, places on his head first the fragment of carton, and then lifts the bucket on to it, stands up, carefully, unsteadily and, holding it with both hands, moves off towards the stagnant drain.
At its edge, careful not to step on any excrement, he leans over and, without lifting the bucket off his head because he cannot, and attentive to not losing the piece of cardboard, dumps the filth onto the filth of the drain.
Behind the school lie the maize fields of the six richer Chowdhari families. Alongside the track that leads to them is the hand pump that serves that part of the village. The water it draws up is hard and brackish and tastes of a mix of oil and salt. Devji returns to the toilet, leaves the dirty bucket beside the dirty pot, picks up the clean bucket and trudges to the pump. He is in luck, there are people there. He waits some steps away from it for the two women to fill their own pots and buckets. When they are done, the elder one, Ganiga the oil merchant’s daughter by his first wife, asks the boy, matter-of-factly and without rancour, to move back a few paces from his bucket. Muttering an incantation, she then steps forward and fills it from on high with water from her own. She is kind. Devji stands still until the women have left, then picks up his bucket of water and returns to the school toilet.
It is cold and oily, the water. With the fragment of broom, he cleans, as best he can, the pot, the bucket and the mug and replaces them. He returns to the hand pump for more water. There is no one else there. He waits. He could lose his right hand if someone sees him touching the pump. Ganiga’s daughter comes back, hissing repeatedly and with rapidly decreasing good humour, ‘Hello! Hello! I can’t hear you!’ into her mobile phone. She obliges Devji again. With the second bucket and the stub of soap that has lodged in his pocket ever since he can remember, he scrubs the flecks of shit, real and imagined, of his classmates and other villagers, off his hands and feet and hair.
He goes back to class. As always, he keeps a metre between himself and the edge of the verandah but the students in the outer flank—as always—unthinkingly cringe as he passes them. For the last year, whenever they have done that, Devji has been reminded of Chikka’s last day in school, of his all at once lashing out, but quietly, at Nirmal and Sujaan and the others. Why are you shying away like that, you sons of pigs, from the thought of your own shit? How much, Devji remembers, he and Ragi had had to suffer thereafter.
At the back, the last row, as often, sits right on the edge of the verandah. There is no place left for Devji. Half-relieved, he squats in the dust behind and beneath the others, his shoulders level with the loops of their half-pants, the sun nice and warm on his back. Maths is three-quarters over. Fractions. He waits. He is sort of, for the moment, content. No one can see him and denigrate him for just being.
For days, Elder Daughter digs deeper and deeper and the subject of her research gets more and more murky. She is distracted by the things that she can’t follow.
‘I don’t get it. All these makers of modern India would’ve crapped in dry toilets and then someone would’ve slunk in through a hole in the back door to take their shit away. So what did they think of their shit-lifters? Dadabhai Naoroji, Bipin Chandra Pal, Motilal Nehru, Annie Besant and Bhulabhai Desai? Did they all say, Let me just go to the loo and then while some half-human carts the poo away, I shall slip on a jacket and tie and go to a meeting where, in devastating English, I shall demand freedom for my country?’
‘Well, I doubt whether they thought of shit as often as you do.’ But Father pauses. Why is he trying to defend the indefensible?
‘And democracy and equality and all that shit. Karishmaben says that at every election, they all flock to our part of the village and with folded hands do a house-to-house for votes. But of course nothing changes. Their doctors don’t examine us, their police don’t register our cases, they don’t allow us music at our weddings, our area has no electricity and no taps.’
‘Man, the world stinks,’ murmurs Younger Daughter to her phone.
It is to lessen that stench, explains Karishmaben, that with the years, inevitably, the Valmiki youth take to hooch, the adolescents to adulterated heroin and the girls to strong tobacco, supari and paan. Intoxicants help them, she says, to remain switched off their entire lives.
They began to switch on—agonisingly slowly, flickeringly, as it were, in sparks, fits and starts all over the country—in the mid-nineties of the preceding century.
It is, let us say, 1995. The Valmikis of Petwada do not yet know that Parliament two years previously has passed an Act about them and what they do for a living. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. It is available on the Net but since a mere two percent of them—some twenty male and a dozen female adults—can just about, fumblingly, write their names (but not read what their neighbour has written), that is not going to do any good.
‘And what does it even mean, manual scavenging?’ breaks in Elder Daughter, glancing accusingly at her parents. ‘A vulture is a scavenger, a coke addict rooting about in a rubbish dump is, it could be said, scavenging manually, but the Valmikis in contrast are plain and simple shit-lifters, that’s what they are. It’s an Indianism, manual scavenging, like eve-teasing, a horrid euphemism that hides the horror under the carpet.’
‘Dust,’ corrects Mother, feigning her famed absentmindedness, ‘Ask the maid.’
‘Or Harijan. You call them people of God, that doesn’t turn the shit in their baskets to apples from Himachal, that’s what Karishmaben said.’
It’s more than twenty years ago today, and yet Mainaben remembers so clearly who came first to Petwada. They all seemed to arrive within weeks of one another and the cops of course came much later and—naturally—raised the most dust and annoyed and frightened everyone the most but the first visitors, she remembers, were those young enthusiasts from the new-leaf organisations of faraway Ahmedabad and New Delhi. The journalists joined them on their sixth or seventh visit, not before that.
‘You are human beings. It is not worthy of you, what you do. To carry the shit of others for a living is not what you were born for. And now at last, after four thousand years, it is against the law.’
What on earth could they mean. At first—at second and at third—the Valmikis really didn’t follow what was being discussed with them. Soon, however, the elders—Amritbhai’s late father, for instance—were forbidding the community from paying heed to the views of those subversive unemployables. They want you to give up your jobs and become even poorer than before. And then when someone else is working in your place, at what your ancestors have been doing for generations, those maverick rascals’ll give you a couple of slogans for food— munch munch—before going back to their cities forever.
Careful not to let the ladle touch any plate, Ganjambhai serves the Valmikis. He then turns the tricycle about and prepares to leave. Those plates too near the wheels of the cart he pushes away with his foot
The young bustlers did go away but only to return, again and again. And one day, they were accompanied by journalists in jeans carrying cameras and microphones. The next time, Mainaben and Nanko Devi, feeling unreal, saw photographs of themselves with baskets of shit on their heads in Outlook and The Times of India. ‘Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s struggle has been revived with renewed force,’ they were told, ‘and this time it will not end without victory. Jai Bheem.’ Nodding her head despite feeling numb, Mainaben mumblingly repeated, ‘Jai Bheem’ and Nanko Devi slipped both, the magazine and the newspaper, into plastic and kept them under her one silk sari— her grandmother’s—in her one iron trunk.
It is hot in the sun and Devji is thirsty. Maths and Hindi are over. Mahajan Sir is taking time off from Social Studies to decide with the class what they will do for the Independence Day Cultural Celebrations. Devji is tense even though there is no question of his being involved in anything, of his joining, for instance, the choir for patriotic songs from Hindi films, or participating in the skit on the Rani of Jhansi or reading out the best class essay on the Father of the Nation. The hands of some of the others shoot up every now and then in response to Mahajan Sir’s demand for names, Devji continues to look down at his fingers trailing arcs in the dust. If he raises his hand, it would not actually be seen. In fact, the previous year, round about the same time, when Heena, sitting behind the last row in her class had suddenly stood up and, in great agitation and breathing in spasms, started speaking, for a few moments, no one had understood where the voice was coming from.
The essay selected the previous year to be declaimed on Independence Day, on the subject of Gandhiji and His Timeless Wisdom, was being read out before the class by the writer Smriti Kumari. The sageness of the Father of the Nation included the nugget that castes like the Valmikis ‘do for society what a mother does for her child. A mother cleans her child’s excrement and safeguards his health. In the same way,’ castes like the Valmikis clean up to preserve ‘the health of the whole community.’
It was then that Heena all at once stood up and, hissing and weeping and gasping for breath, prevented the redoubtable Smriti Kumari from warming to her theme. ‘If shit-lifting is so noble, why don’t you all do it! Why is it only us, and always us! Why do you sprinkle water on everything we touch! He lies, the Father of your Nation! Ask him to carry a basket of shit on his head first and then talk!’
Quick as lightning, Marar Sir personally organised her thrashing. Almost all the boys and girls of the other castes in her class participated. It is okay to touch Valmiki skin with one’s slipper or footruler. In any case, one washes up thereafter. No broken bones for Heena fortunately. Just bruises and throbbing legs and a nose that wouldn’t stop bleeding.
From that day onwards, says Karishmaben, she stopped going to class. No more education for her. She began instead to accompany her mother on her morning rounds. In place of the toilets at school, she chose those of the village. There is no escape for us from the latrines of others. But at least she helped her family with the monthly income.
For two days after Heena’s revolt, Devji remembers too well, he did not go to school. No one noticed. On the third day, his sister asked him, not very kindly, ‘For how long will you continue to miss your only decent meal of the day?’
Eleven forty-five. The students on the verandah watch— and those in the rooms hear—the school lunch, in aluminium vats on a cart behind a tricycle, come in. It is usually weevil rice, watery dal and potatoes, but it is warm. The four students on lunch duty—one of the Darbar caste, one Bharwad and two Vaghris—skip away to help with the arrangements while the rest while away the quarter-hour that remains in a haze of inattentiveness. At twelve, Mahajan Sir again beats a rat-a-tat with his spoon on his plate. Noisily, joyously, the classes break up.
Silently, Devji waits under the pipal sapling with the Valmiki children of the other classes. Space for them in the shade is further curtailed by Mahajan Sir’s parked bicycle that—God forbid—they, even accidentally, touch. They watch the students on lunch duty bring out the teacher’s table from the first room and arrange on it the vats. The others, in complete disorder, enter the last room to fetch the plates stored in the cupboard. They then line up before the vats to be served. Mahajan Sir chides each one who has not gone to the handpump to wash his hands. All those caught out rush off, laughing, to comply but nevertheless lose their places in the queue. With their laden plates, the students go and sit cross-legged on the floor, in untidy rows, down the entire length of the verandah. Slowly descends on them the silence of contentment.
The students on lunch duty then serve the teachers and next themselves. The teachers enter the second room to eat at the table, the servers join their classmates on the floor. That is usually the sign for the Valmiki children to go behind the school shed and pick up their plates from where they are stacked in the open against the wall. For identification, the back of each plate has been scratched with an X. Devji and his caste members queue up but outside in the sun, away from the verandah. Ganjambhai Valand, the Panchayat employee who has brought the food, now heaves the near-empty vats away to the cart. Devji and the others place their plates in the dust alongside its wheels. Careful not to let the ladle touch any plate, Ganjambhai serves the Valmikis. He then turns the tricycle about and prepares to leave. Those plates too near the wheels of the cart he pushes away with his foot. Devji and his caste-mates pick up their plates and go and sit and eat under the sapling.
After lunch, they will trudge to the handpump with their plates and the clean bucket, wait aside for everyone else to finish and for somebody to fill the bucket with water, wash their plates and stack them again against the shed wall. They will be thirsty but they couldn’t possibly carry bottles to school and no one drinks the water of that handpump. While class begins again, they will stroll back home—half-an-hour’s walk for most of them—drink and drink and take their time about returning. Devji though would have to because he has to clean the school toilet again at four.
But how long it took—months, years actually—of tortuous, tormenting cogitation and discussion, of unwillingly giving ear to the persuasions of the worker activists—‘You cannot avoid the struggle. Government is upper caste and your poverty, your life bereft of dignity, are its doing. Come, file your affidavits in court. Nothing can be worse than this, so rise, rise and say, Jai Bheem.’—how long it took for Mainaben, Lakshmania, Munira, Kusumi, Nanko Devi and the other women to allow their spirits to buckle, to cave in, and then slowly to begin to blossom, for them to conclude: But is it possible? Could anything be worse than this? This stinking nightmare that has been my life since the age of five. In the monsoon I cannot undo my hair in public because the shit of my neighbours has seeped into it and under my fingernails. Even after twenty years, I cannot look at turmeric without wishing to throw up. This cesspit that is my world, in which, at my marriage, my dowry was how many toilets per day I did, and in which I’ve watched the flies rise from a pile of excrement to settle on the face of my infant because, having no choice, I had to carry her to work, that world, could things get worse and is it possible to sink even lower into it?
‘And worse I may be yet,’ blurts out Father, unable to stop himself, ashamed to have a head full of useless quotations from another world that pop out unbidden and unwanted, uncontrollable like the onslaught of some acute digestive disorder, ‘The worst is not as long as we can say, This is the worst.’
His exclamation is directed at his daughters who, in preparation for their skit for School Day, have been roaming around the house, ever since they got off the afternoon bus, in yellow gum boots, grey transparent raincoats, orange rubber gloves that reach the elbows, dentists’ face masks and towels around their necks. Wandering about from room to room, banging into furniture, continually in danger of toppling over in their outsize boots, they practise and improvise their lines.
‘Look at me, ladies and gentlemen,’ declaims Elder Daughter in Hindi, pushing her mask up into her hair and glaring at her parents, ‘and tell me, What’s in a name. For I have several. Let us say that I was born Heena. But I am a child of the Valmiki caste. So back home in the village though, no matter what our names are, we are called, depending on which part of the country we have the misfortune to live in, Thotamma or any of its variants. Garbage-Woman. Shit-Woman.’
Younger Daughter steps up to stand beside her sister. ‘What’s in a name. Because the Acts of 1993 and 2013 call me a manual scavenger. Manual.’ She lifts up her orange gloves like a boxer taking guard. ‘Like a sculptor or artisan or something. Whose material, however, is excrement. And the municipal corporation calls me a conservancy worker. Like a protector of wildlife. Or of monuments.’
‘Monumental gobbledegook, brothers and sisters,’ butts in Elder Daughter. ‘Because the Act of 2013 states, in the explanation to Clause 2 1) g) in Chapter I, that if I wear protective gear,’—she rapidly begins, as she speaks, to tap her boots, gloves, raincoat, mask and towel,—‘I shall not be deemed to be a manual scavenger. A change of name again! So what will I then have become? I pause for a reply.’ None is heard. She then begins to prowl about the room in a round-shouldered crouch, chastising, in near- hysterical whispers, a piece of blackboard chalk that she holds up in front of her nose; it is the gait and manner of the Class Teacher Mrs Mendiratta. ‘To be a manual scavenger and carry shit about for a living is a crime. So far so good. But if I wear this plastic shit, I am no longer, by definition, a manual scavenger and so can descend into a septic tank and wallow in excrement upto my neck.’
‘Allow us ,’ Younger Daughter steps forward again, wobblingly, to centrestage, ‘brothers and sisters of the upper world, to tell you about life in a septic tank.’
The tank, then reveal the sisters in a rapidfire exchange, is typically a concrete box measuring twelve feet by ten by ten. It is full of shit, water, bacteria, cockroaches, rats and other vermin. The bacteria are busy 24X7 decomposing the shit; they know of no other life. The chemical reaction involved in their activity uses up almost all the oxygen and releases into the air of the tank methane, hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Excrement therefore is not the only reason why the tank stinks to high heaven. To fight the stench and the nausea, the Amritbhais first get plastered. Then they find that they can’t breathe and that there they are, in their plastic gear, surrounded by decomposing shit, in ambient temperatures that exceed 55º Celsius. Often their last thought before passing out is that their wives above ground might just have a better deal. The statistics? The rate of death amongst conservancy workers in the city of Bombay alone is 349 per year.
‘At that point,’ Elder Daughter breaks off to explain to the pop-eyed parents, ‘we want to get Karishmaben to come up and talk about her mother’s revolt.’
‘Except that she’s terrified and refuses. Not before all the parents, she says.’
‘Your brooms have no reeds left and your baskets are holes held together by string. When were they last changed? Why don’t you ask the Panchayat to buy you new equipment?’
That was how Mainaben’s revolt began.
The new Panchayat office building stands, white and low- ceilinged and stifling, in the open space between the PHC dispensary and the Civil Supplies ration shop. The alley to—and the few square metres around—it are where the Darbar cattle and the Korama pigs, chewing the cud, offal and the fat, love most to while their lives away. On a sweltering June day, having finished their morning rounds, a dozen Valmiki women stroll through the mud and dust towards the Panchayat; diffident, doubting, their faces veiled behind the ends of their saris, they have occasionally to push out of their way a ruminating cow or engrossed sow. Animals—each one of the women noticed long ago in her life—never, whether muttering mantras or curses or silently, feel the need to move aside for them.
Mainaben never fails to recook whatever is given, usually adding chilli in three forms—dried red, fresh green and as powder— to mask that faint, unmistakable stench of rottenness of the food
They stop at the bottom of the four steps, they look at one another. They wait. A crowd of idlers gathers. Not a marriage or festival or funeral, what’s going on. A delegation? Of Valmiki women? Ganjambhai Valand emerges on the verandah from one of the rooms. ‘So many of you to clean one toilet, is it?’ he jokes.
‘We want to meet Harshadbhai Thakore,’ announces Mainaben.
Whyever should shit-cleaners want to meet the sarpanch, you think he has nothing better to do, he’s busy, he isn’t here, tell me what the problem is and I’ll tell him, you’re crazy if you think he can face the village again after being called out to meet you, to listen to you, just go away, etcetera.
At that moment, without knowing exactly what she is doing, Mainaben becomes a sort of leader. The others are uncertain, the excursion has been stressful and some would be only too glad to melt back into their lives. ‘Very well. It’s important, so we’ll wait here for the sarpanch,’ declares Mainaben and sits down in the dust at the foot of the steps. The other women, almost as taken aback as the bystanders, find their knees buckling. Surprised at themselves, they join her in her sit-in.
It doesn’t last very long, about twenty minutes or so. The women have lunches to cook and families to tend, a hundred responsibilities. But the earth has teetered, just a little. Eventually, Mainaben has to reveal to the unspeakable Ganjambhai the purpose of the drama. He is surprised, amused. Anything to do with shit he finds funny. He demands a petition on paper.
‘We can’t write,’ confesses Mainaben sadly. ‘Neither can you.’ He does stop smirking.
The petition, drafted the week before, is in the hands of the activist unemployables who observe the first phase of the revolt, the fruit of their labours, from the sidelines. It covers everything, all the points that the Valmiki women have not even dreamt of.
Under Section 19 1) of the Act by which you have been created, it is the duty of the Panchayat, states the document, to function as a unit of self-government in order to achieve economic development and social justice for all. Section 19 2) of the same Act details your responsibilities that include, among others, the obligation to provide for sanitation in the area under your jurisdiction. Not to supply new and adequate equipment to the Valmiki women (after all, your contractual employees) for their daily chores therefore violates several laws of the land and is liable to attract judicial action. It is further brought to your attention that the cost of twenty brooms and baskets amounts to less than a thousandth of the annual budget of your Panchayat. It may moreover be noted that you are also duty bound to provide to the Valmiki women detergent for their equipment, soap for themselves and three dedicated water sources in the village for their use. You would otherwise be accused of violating Article 14 of the Constitution and the provisions of The Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1955.
Fuckall happens (apart from the earth teetering just a bit). The petition is read out to the members of the Panchayat. They are bemused and outraged and finally decide not to do anything on the grounds that they can’t because the budget for that year has been committed elsewhere.
On the surface, things return to routine from the very next day. The village, having—naturally—heard of the visit of the delegation, for a week or two, mocks the Valmiki women when they turn up in the morning. ‘But you haven’t brought your new equipment today! Saving them up for your daughter’s dowry, is it!’—that sort of thing. But inwardly amongst the cleaners, in their blood and their spirit, they do sense that their visit with their demands to the lowest level of officialdom was unprecedented; the darkness has been cracked apart a fraction, now to shatter it. No matter how slowly they move, the only way to go is forward, they do sense that. They wait. The next step, it will come.
‘How much they increase our work, these activist hoodlums,’ declares the assistant sub-inspector in charge of the demolitions, ‘and how much they deserve to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and have their noses rubbed’— he gestures expansively at his surroundings—‘in excrement.’ He is balding and genial and pleased with himself at a job being done well by others. ‘They are everywhere, ingratiating themselves in Valmiki hovels, drafting petitions against the government, grovelling in the Supreme Court, everywhere. And everywhere encouraging disorder.’
It is a dull winter morning. The police roll up early in two jeeps followed by an open truck in which loll a dozen listless labourers. The convoy stops in the shit zone, the strip of no man’s land where the village of Petwada prepares to become the municipality of Botadpuri. Eight dry latrines, narrow cubicles of tin with no roofs and half-doors all askew—the pride of the Panchayat— face the village; myriads of tiny piles of shit surround them for several metres in every direction, like a depiction, in excrement, of the Milky Way.
Mainaben and Kusumi are at work at those latrines that morning. Without being asked to, they step back and, puzzled, watch the constables direct the labourers to shatter, with crowbars and rods of iron, the flimsy walls of tin and the cement blocks that they hide. In half an hour, the blocks have become rubble, and the truck, ferrying the labourers and the slats of tin, and snorting and wheezing and disgorging black noxious fumes that give to the winter air the shade of ashes, has chugged away.
Before getting into his jeep, the assistant sub-inspector beckons Mainaben and Kusumi with his baton. He, chummily, taps the first with it on the backside and then, wagging it in the second’s face, declares, ‘Dry latrines do not officially exist from today, here or anywhere else in the land. They have all been more or less demolished, they’ve all—save for a few hundred thousand scattered here and there—disappeared overnight. And so the Act has been implemented, your Honour, that is what the country is going to tell the Supreme Court. Do you follow?’ He beams at them both with benign, fatherly lust. ‘To shit in a dry toilet, and to carry shit away from it, have both now been declared offences. So when you go to work tomorrow, you could very easily, if and when we want, carry on from there to jail.’ He chuckles at the wondrous ways of the government. ‘If you own a dry toilet, don’t shit for three months. In that period, apply to the authorities for a loan to convert it to a flush toilet.’ Continuing to smile at the women, he extends his open, upturned left palm in the direction of his driver. Reverentially, the latter places in it a sachet of perfumed, carcinogenic tobacco. ‘But Petwada is not going to get sewerage in a thousand years, so who’s going to remove the filth of the pit attached to the flush toilet?’ He tears the sachet open with his teeth and showers its contents into a maw wide as a hippo’s. ‘Sisters, you are in luck.’
Four pm. School is almost over for the day. The last class is Sports. The girls play kho-kho, the boys kick a ball around in the dust, Devji goes off to do the toilet. By the time he finishes and cleans up, he is alone, the other students have disappeared.
He walks home quickly, following Newton’s fourth law of motion that states that a child returns home from school at twice the velocity that he goes to it in the morning. Dump the bag, a drink of water, then off again to mooch about, chew the fat, play some tennis-ball hand-cricket with his Valmiki chums before setting off, round about six o’clock, with his two plastic bags and his grandfather’s stick, on his evening round.
His first stop, as always, is the back door of the house of Raghubha Darbar. The lane that leads to it is in fact a five-foot- wide gutter, perennially muddy, filthy, stinking of rotting food and stagnant water and humming with flies and mosquitoes like an amplifier of a music system left on with the volume at maximum. Devji, for fear of slipping, treads most cautiously. With the stick, he taps politely on the door, twice, and waits. There was a time not so long ago when they had to tap and then kneel in the muck to wait. That stopped because of his grandfather who just couldn’t bend his knees on account of his arthritis. Raghubha’s wife had at first been so shocked at his pride.
She opens the door, head half-hidden behind the veil of the end of her sari, nods at Devji, he is expected. She disappears, returns in a moment, flings at him something heavy wrapped in newspaper, shuts the door. He, leaning the stick against his leg, catches the packet with the dexterity of a cricket professional; he places it carefully in one of his plastic bags.
The Raghubha Darbars give the best food; invariably the largest number of stale rotis and always something to go with them, dal in a tiny polythene bag—typically a little too sour because it’s gone off—or day before yesterday’s potatoes. In any case, Mainaben never fails to recook whatever is given, usually adding chilli in three forms —dried red, fresh green and as powder—to mask that faint, unmistakable stench of rottenness of the food.
Sometimes the back door just doesn’t open, or the leftovers thrown out are so putrid that they stink in flight even before they reach Devji’s capable hands. To leave them in the muck at his feet would be so insulting as to cause an incident; he usually takes it all home and lets the boss of the household decide.
Onward to the back door of the house of Devipujak Barot. Pigs in the back alley and rats the size of piglets. They eat better food than us, Mainaben had screamed, on that morning of her famed revolt, on her return from Devipujak’s house, hobbling in pain, bleeding, round of houses left incomplete. She’d then been in her seventh month and Amritbhai, apprehensive, had suggested that day that she rest and send her daughter instead to do her circuit.
‘My children go to school. They’ll go to college. They are not going to touch other people’s shit.’
Devji knocks. He waits. A rat pauses near his foot to contemplate his slipper.
That evening in March of the previous year, a good six weeks after the police, in knocking down the dry toilets of the Panchayat, have shown the Valmikis, but in a glimmer, that nothing in life on earth is impossible, Mainaben, carrying her basket and broom, pushes open the back door of the house of Devipujak Barot, enters, and thrusts ajar the toilet immediately on her right. It is full, filthy, shit all over the place. On any other day, she would’ve been inured to the sight and stink but she’s been feeling queasy all morning. She reels just a little, her foot slips, she collapses half on the pot, overturning some of its contents on herself. The thud of the fall and the wailing bring Padmaben Barot scurrying to investigate. One look, two exclamations and the lady of the house scoots off again only to return a few moments later with a bottle from her puja room and the long-handled broom from the kitchen. Muttering the appropriate incantation, she first purifies herself by sprinkling Gangajal on her torso and the top of her head; she then offers the reed-end of the broom to a prostrate Mainaben to hoist herself up with.
Mainaben can’t; the pain in her abdomen is too acute. She remains flat on that floor for an hour and twelve minutes; the shit on her, around her, mean nothing to her. She has lost the baby, she is sure of it. It takes that long for Padmaben to send the servant to the Valmiki quarter to fetch help; no one in her household can touch that woman curled up on the toilet floor, naturally. Amritbhai is out cleaning a tank in Botadpuri; to drag him away would entail the loss of a day’s wage. Ultimately, Gudiyadevi and a couple of other women half-carry Mainaben home.
It is Padmaben who opens the back door to Devji; she knows who it will be, she shuts the door in his face; it is the sole pleasure that life has left to her.
The boy’s mother has made her the laughing stock of the village.
For, three days after her fall in the toilet, Mainaben, haggard, distraught, limping, leads yet another delegation of Valmiki women to the Panchayat. At the foot of its steps, they make a bonfire of their broken brooms and tattered baskets and swear over its flames to abandon, from that day forth, the occupation of their caste. They are filmed by a scruffy television crew. Interviewed. During which (horror of horrors) wretched Mainaben actually mentions Devipujak Barot by name. ‘I have had to take this decision because of what happened to me a few days ago in the house of… she was occupied in sprinkling Gangajal on herself while I was losing my child… she will have to drown many times in several buckets of holy water before she finds salvation (the last delivered quietly, in tears, shattering in a subdued way).’
‘You and your sister have more sense than your mother,’ declares Padmaben as she flings her newspaper packet at Devji. She says it every day. Three quarters of the village agrees with her, virtually everybody, that is, other than the Valmiki women.
After the bonfire and the TV interview, the mood in the Mainaben household is blue; several tempers are frayed. Aghast at his daughter-in-law’s conduct, Amritbhai’s father hobbles off the next morning, with his stick and everything, to clean the dry latrine of Devipujak Barot. That his son simply cannot have; he proposes a compromise.
‘Heena can take over your work in the mornings; in any case, she’s stopped going to school, she has nothing to do. And Devji can do the food round in the evening. Why should we lose out on both your salary and the food?’
Have you no shame, how dense are you, what am I trying to fight for, etcetera, from Mainaben, screaming, for a day and a half.
Though preserved in alcohol, Amritbhai’s brain turns out to have enough current to emit a spark or two. ‘You should revolt in stages. First you. Then when you are nicely settled in your state of rebellion, then the children.’
Mainaben never says yes to the arrangement. Like a street dog curled up in repose, on a pavement in the winter sun, who growls whenever a stray from another part of town passes within ten metres of him, growls to himself but otherwise does not react, she murmurs abuse every morning when Heena leaves to do the round that was her mother’s and she frowns in the evening and mutters other phrases of invective when Devji returns home with two plastic bags of stale food. She says that she feels exactly like a mother bird who has escaped her cage without caring for the fledglings that she has left behind.
Amritbhai is impressed with the simile and says as much. She is up to something or very soon will be, he knows that; but as long as the few rupees and the stale food continue to dribble in, he lets her be. She is trying to do what he himself should be doing but he’s been manacled since birth by his birth. So has she, he acknowledges that. Well. They can neither read nor write and everything—a sewing machine, a driving licence, the tools of a plumber’s profession, the apprenticeship to a bicycle repairer—everything costs money. They don’t have either the cash or the papers to open a bank account with. Nothing, they have nothing except the children, her two silk saris, her six silver bangles and the hereditary right to the excrement collected every day in a dozen dry latrines of Petwada. He watches her get ready to pawn the bangles.
‘I’m going to start a tea shop. Umed Solanki will give me a loan.’
‘Except the Valmikis who don’t have the money, no one in the village is going to drink tea made by those beautiful hands. You know that.’
‘There is a world beyond Petwada. Heena will accompany me.’
The offers of change, when they do arrive, come from that world.
‘What did your mother say about the dark glasses?’
‘I wore them this morning. Tops they are. Didn’t tell her that you gave them. But she knew somehow. Heena didi probably.’
Devji can’t take his eyes off Chikka. He hadn’t even recognised him the day before till he’d opened his mouth. After a year in Bombay, Chikka is taller, he wears jeans, he smokes and he’s done something to his hair; it rises straight up like the bristles of a black toilet brush from a skull otherwise shaved clean; even more wondrous, he has a mobile phone.
Chikka shakes his head in sorrow and scorn at the plastic bags of food in Devji’s hands. ‘In Bombay, after a day’s work, we eat kebabs and swig rum before going off to have ice-cream at Chowpatty with the sweeper girls.’
He’s been nagging Devji, ‘Come with me. You could work with me in the hospital morgue. It’s nothing, you drag a body out, dump it on the table, you clean it, it’s nothing. The doctor dawdles in a corner, smoking and saying, here, shave his pubis, cut his stomach, crack his skull, it’s all science, man. And I already make sixty rupees a day, that’s almost twice what my father gets here. And then in the canteen you do the dishes and you’re fed free.’
‘I’ll have to ask my mother. She’ll never allow me to leave my studies.’
And the next day: Did you ask?
‘No. Heena didi might be leaving. How could I in the middle of all that drama? One posh lady with a bobcut came to visit us and tried to sit on the floor with us crosslegged. First she couldn’t and then later, when it was time to go, she couldn’t get up. My mother yelled at my father in front of her for not removing his junk from the top of the trunk and giving her that to sit on.’
It is not surprising therefore that Devji does not pay due attention to what the posh lady offers. She has been a regular visitor, she oversaw the drafting of the petition for the Panchayat; her organisation, she says, runs a school in New Delhi in which she would like to place Heena and a couple of the other Valmiki girls; there, they would earn some money and some self-respect. In return, the posh one expects the girls to join and take seriously the evening literacy classes at the school.
‘How do I know that it isn’t a sex racket?’ asks Mainaben pensively.
Slapped in the face, the posh one makes to get up and discovers that she can’t. Heena, helping her up, whispers to her, ‘I’m willing. I’ll go with you.’
Devji is certain that he will never escape his daily routine and leave the village with Chikka but what he wants to know is, why him? They were the best of friends but that was a year ago.
‘Have you asked any of the others? Ragi? Bhiku? And would they give me a job just because I know how to carry shit on my head?’
‘You think it’s fun to work with corpses? Those on the payroll play cards while we do their job for them. And then they give us a fraction of their winnings.’
It emerges in a roundabout way that it is lonely at night in the verandah of the shed—alongside the hospital morgue— that stores defunct medical equipment. Would be nice to have someone to chew the fat with about home when you can’t sleep and are wondering what that thump-thump next door was.
Being too certain of her response, he can’t possibly ask his mother, particularly when she is so apprehensive and upset over Heena’s imminent departure for the wider world, so he asks his sister instead.
‘Don’t be stupid, what are you saying,’ snaps she in response, barely following what he mumbles, so apprehensive and upset is she herself.
The thought of his days, of his daily routine, without her at home, is what has finally decided him. ‘What is the posh lady’s mobile number? I’ll SMS you from Chikka’s phone once I reach Bombay.’
‘You’re so stupid,’she hisses. ‘And mad.’ Then adds, even more sibilantly, ‘Don’t say Heena in your stupid message. When she asked me my name, I am Karishma, I said. Sounds better for Delhi. Okay?’
Devji carries with him his school bag but first he dumps its contents into the drain that he has had to visit twice a day for years, and places in it instead just his new dark glasses.
Mainaben is inconsolable at the simultaneous departure of her two children; she wails all night, she tears her hair, she beats her breast, she stops functioning.
‘They aren’t dead, you know,’ points out Amritbhai, wise and sozzled and ready to pass out, ‘they’ve left in search of a better life for themselves. And they are happy.’
Mainaben would have recovered in time because it takes care of these things, time does. But watching her husband quietly, humming to himself, spend the remainder of the loan from Umed Solanki on hooch puts her back on her feet in four days.
But where is she to go, what is she to do? She finds herself less burdened; in freeing themselves, the children have also set her free. She has discovered that she likes bustle and being in the public eye, she has always been hot-tempered, a lover of fights in which she can rave and rant, and she is unlettered. Where else can she go but into politics?
‘I’m going to contest the Panchayat elections against Harshadbhai Thakore,’ announces she, trembling at her temerity, yet determined to have the time of her life.
One last loose end.
Elder Daughter’s skit does not get past the Class Teacher Mrs Mendiratta. ‘I shall have to tell your parents to get your head examined… Now don’t be so upset! Social uplift is a never-ending story but if it is really such an Issue with you, why don’t you sponsor one of the girls—Karishma, for instance—for the beauty parlour training course that she seems to have found at Jamrudpur?’
So it happens. But Karishma’s adventures in a South Delhi beauty parlour is really quite another story.
(I’d like to thank Bhasha Singh, Manjula Pradip and Martin Macwan for all their help with this story. Many thanks.)