The garbage has not been taken. The black bag lies huddled. No municipal truck will come to collect it. It is a holiday. A day when she is written into the Constitution. Until the other day I did not know her name, did not even know who she was. Silently, early mornings, she’d pick up the bag and leave. I realised that her whole family has been doing the same work for years. I know the father. He is a filmi sort who always blesses everyone in the language/greeting of their community. I knew the mother. She met with an accident and decided to stay home. Where was home?
I had gone there once. Not because I am nice. I was a predator, doing a story. I reached there, jumping over puddles. She shooed off the onlookers, but they continued to stand there, edging away slightly, their bodies twisting and turning in anticipation. She felt grateful. She, who had seen leftover rice that I threw away with curry floating in it, the blood-stained sanitary napkins, my useless pens and lots of sheets of shred paper that hid secrets, was protecting me from the crowd. We talked as my eyes scoured the room. A bedsheet I had given her covered a large bundle; it looked like a coffin. She was wearing one of my salwaar kameezes. For a few seconds, I felt displaced. This could have been my life. This could be me. Suddenly, my nails with silver varnish looked like neon lights in a dhaaba.
Someone brought a bottle of Fanta and opened it right there to assure me so that it had not been touched by them. A man hobbled in. He had some mithai in his hand. It was prasad he said. I could not believe that he was not sure whether he should drop it in my hand or let me pick it up. Which of the two acts would his status permit? He would not even look up. My fingers reached out and took a piece from his curled open palm. He looked up and folded his hands. He thought I had done him a favour. I was eating what he had to offer, and yet I was making him feel tall.
As I left, a trail of kids followed me. Bimla would not forget this day, she told me. Years later, I did not even know what her daughter looked like. A daughter who has inherited the job, the leftovers, those black bags stuffed with another day of my life that went to waste.
As on every year, today too I could hear music. It came from a place I do not know. My not knowing about it is what I mourn for. It is not personal ignorance. It is about all those who live other lives. “Jahaan daal-daal par sone ki chidiya karti hai basera”…the golden birds. Where are they?
They love playing the poor. The Chikni Chamelis. The tough guys who break matkis. Agneepath! Agneepath! Actor Hrithik Roshan goes to his old school Bombay Scottish to promote the movie. What are we coming to? I hate the promos. There is too much colour, it hurts the eyes. But see, this kind of film in a fancy little school would never have made the grade earlier. But now it is acceptable. Everything is a commodity. They will say they are exposing the children to reality. They have done it by exposing him to a little man who pretends to be a clone of Mahatma Gandhi. A sanitiser ad took over a whole page of a broadsheet. One of the points made is that children should carry it with them to school. These children will never touch mud. Agneepath! Agneepath!
Author James Shapiro, an authority on the Bard’s works made an astonishing comment on his visit to India: “I’d say that first and foremost, half the street children around the world now read Shakespeare. It is not just in India, the US or the UK but around the world.”
Where do people get these ill-informed ideas from? There are hardly any statistics about these kids, so how would one know their reading habits? Besides, much as I love Shakespeare and literature, how does this transform their situation? Do they have a choice – to be or not to be street children? When they cling to the edge of your kurta as you leave after ‘doing time’ with them, are they thinking of sitting back with A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
The newspaper had this on the front page yesterday.
It is such an insult. The Republic cannot lose just like that. Has the Republic lost when those street children cannot even read their own names? Has the Republic lost when a man cannot offer me prasad because he belongs to a low caste? Has the Republic lost when people play music at high volume because the words will cut through them and their lives, and slice their hopes? “Sone ki chidiya.” Where? In saheb’s house. In a gilded cage, beaks nibbling aperitifs. On some days, when their servers gather together – an assembly of more than five not allowed, they are told ominously – they too are called the mob. The Republic is supposed to protect them. The Republic has made them lose.
Most of the gallantry awards this year were given to those who fought insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and the Naxalite areas. Those people did their jobs. But remember, we are killing our own and being killed by our own.
It is late now. My windows are still shut. The music has become a whimper. I did what I heard without thinking. My eyes were filled with tears “Zaraa aankh mein bhar lo paani” because the garbage bag now looks dead. I mourn for the waste. In a few hours, the day will be over, so why am I writing now? Because I want the water to flow tomorrow and the day after and after…
“Ae watan, ae watan, tujhko meri qasam…”
- - -
These two pictures were taken on different trips in India.
Also an earlier piece: The Republic of India Divided