Translated by Dr.G.K.Vankar
The stink would not leave her nose alone. All the filth used to accumulate around. “Damn. The toilets, are just facing the vas1. Every morning I have to visit. If clean, then it’s all right. Or else they are not even worth sitting. Why to fuss, no sooner you squat, you rise. The smell plus smell… the spit will form till you come out,” muttered Ratan. Spit continued to gather in her mouth after coming out of the public toilet, till she reached her home.
She had gone to the public toilet after bath and yet she felt like bathing again. Her daughter who was playing in the vas came running to her and settled in her lap, hence Ratan paused and caressed her head. The daughter said, “Mother, mother, there are people with movie at uncle Kanti’s home.” She was astonished, “people with movie? There is no dearth of movies in the city...” then she thought, “Who knows …Kantibhai knows so many people. May be there is something new”.
She disengaged her daughter from her lap and went to wash. She took a soap powder lying on the parapet and began to scrub. The palms and face were full of froth. Seeing her face full of froth, the daughter laughed and clapped , again she left for the vas galloping.
She remembered her own childhood.
Ratan appeared before her eyes, in skirt and blouse. She could not help sighing; “with what joy my parents had got me married in the city!” she muttered and splashed a palmful of water on her face. The soap in the eyes smarted. She splashed and splashed the water… then from her wet eyebrows some memories began to emerge.
“Ratan, beta, please go and do the task. Go my darling”
‘No mother, do you think I would ever go for such a job?”
“I do not feel well, bai, this is our life. You can not turn your face like this. Go; make haste. There are, one after the other two, three messages from the village. If we do not go we will have to listen to their rebukes. People give only a fistful of grain. That too, they will not …”
Mother shivering with fever continued to speak and Ratan stamping her feet went to the village. The stench from the corpse of the swollen dog was so terrible that it would burst her head. Nausea gripped Ratan. She covered her mouth with the odhni end and bent down. As she tried to put the noose of the rope in the dog’s feet, saw the worms swarming the carcass. Trembling, she drew away from it. The nausea recurred in the held up breath, she left the rope noose there and then, ran to home. Her mother had rebuked her for long but she did not bother.
‘Rand, you are making so much fuss but when you will go to your in laws , you will have to do this willy-nilly; then to which mother will you complain?”
She recalled everything; pulling carcasses of dogs and cats, going on festival days and occasions for village feast, and being dragged after mother uttering, ‘ Give us the gift of the festival , o mother, o father!’ , from house to house.
Here in the city too, Gomati, living at the entrance of the vas used to send her children to the colony, to beg for valu. She had told her more than once,
” Gomti, it ‘s better to eat only chilies and bread, rather than to send children begging for valu.” But Gomati said, “Look at this woman! Keep your advice to yourself. To ask for valu is our dharm, what is wrong in that? Don’t teach me!”
Children, who had climbed up the jeep parked besides Kantibhai’s home, blurted a horn.
Ratan, lost in thoughts, stretched her eyes to the entrance of the vas.
Soma had not returned yet. There was again something sharp; screech of the horn pierced her. Once again she heaved a hot sigh.
“You are more beautiful than even Shahukar women...” saying Soma would draw her close and those moments bloomed with joy,, her shy face turning red …
The smoke of coal stove continued to encircle in the eyes.
“Look, the municipality people are bloody dirty. You do only household chores and look after children.” As if she were trying to catch Soma’s words in fleeing smoke, she closed and opened her eyes for some time.
The coals on the stove were glowing red. Her eyes steadied on the live coals .She stared. Her elder daughter cleansed rice bought from ration shop for cooking khichdi, took the coal stove inside the room and put water in the vessel for cooking.
When Ratan was pregnant with her younger daughter, Soma gradually changed. She spared no pains to make Soma understand, she was tired of beseeching. Soma, to begin with used to give his whole salary in her hands, now began to waste money giving a hundred excuses. Sometimes he would get drunk and mutter “If not today, tomorrow I will win… I will not quit the cards... I swear by Meldi, if I ever quit the cards...”
On the stove the water was boiling, and it was now overflowing, she rose and lifted the lid with her bare hand. The tips of the fingers got burnt; she blew air on the burnt tips. The eyes which looked at the tip of the finger gradually moved on each and every part of her body.
The open gutter flowed just ahead of the verandah, at some distance heap of city waste accumulated and mosquitoes flying from the public toilets were a nuisance. She tried to remove a mosquito from her body with a thrash of hand and the overseer’s words began to echo in her ears.
“Look the one who sweeps…! Today onwards you will clean the toilets of vegetable market.”
The overseer, black cap on head and with equally dark face and yellow teeth was moving to and fro , frequently spitting tobacco from black lips.
She was trembling.
Every evening Soma would return intoxicated, stumbling .He would blabber and rush to beat her. Soma who once did not want her to work for Municipality, now uttered- you are lying down whole day in the house and how dare you ask me for the account of my salary? The women, who have come to their in laws after you came, have been working for the municipality for two years now”.
And she had begun sweeping municipality roads along with women from vas. The dirt on road- all filth she would clean, sari covering her face. But the overseer who repeatedly crushed tobacco in his palm to make paste , his show off at time of marking presence in roll, and uttering Ratan Soma Bhangi’s name in long singsong manner…She again thrashed her face. There was a sharp mosquito bite on her cheek.
“This is hell, nothing but hell, o God, I am sick of such a life...”
“See this slut who talks of hell! When it comes to work, you feel sick.”
Late night, Soma would come besides her and would beat her even before she opened her mouth to tell about the overseer’s rudeness and harassment, Somo would say, “Shut up, don’t talk nonsense now.” He would roll on the other side. The darkness of the room would envelope her. The rising buzz of mosquitoes would not let her rest. In the passing night she would hear the lone vehicle’s scream, repeated whistles of the train at the station in the distance, some dog’s bark at the entrance of the vas, and cry of a child waking up for water amidst inaudible voices of parents in the neighboring rooms…
“Mother, o mother, the khichdi is burning and you are sitting without switching on the lights?”, the elder daughter who returned after buying tea and sugar from the shop , said and switched on the light and got down the khichdi from the stove.
The smell of burnt khichdi spread in entire room
She rose quickly, went to Meldi Mata shrine, could not find incense sticks in the pack , she left aside the empty pack , and folded her hands in prayer. Then she stared at the khichdi being served. The plain khichdi , devoid of any ghee or oil , and hungry children turned her soul restless. She came out and stood there for long. She continued to look at the entrance of the vas. She could not see Soma’s stumbles yet. Her body felt fatigue of the entire day. The wind from the other side that gathered a heap of stink surrounded her. The dirty toilets overflowing with piss and shit that afternoon, appeared before her eyes.
Since last week, the overseer was bad tempered. In the beginning he was chanting her name, but now as his intentions did not succeed, he changed her worksite. He assigned Ratan the cleaning of stinking toilets. She felt that she would vomit, retaining nothing that she had eaten. She had resolved in her mind, “Even if my younger one’s father kills me, I will not tolerate this bloody hell henceforth”.
The sweepers were coming to their rooms one by one. Some of them were blabbering after going to a bidi shop at the entrance of the vas, some were drunk, returning to vas stumbling. Before the quarreling dogs rushing through all this collided with Ratan, her younger daughter came out of her room with leavings of food on hands unwashed and ran to Kantibhai’s house.
The tube light on the pole in the middle of the vas was flickering, and insects had encircled the bulb that spread yellowish light from the other pole near the dung heap.
In the verandah of Kantibhai, people from vas were gathering together. Quickly doing the dishes, the elder daughter too left and merged with the crowd saying, “Mother, there is khichdi in the container. You have it.’
She wondered. “What would it be? Have they come to show a movie?” She closed her door and slowly went there and sat on the floor behind the gathering..
From the strangers in the chairs, an enthusiastic young man gave introductory information on the program of the day and then shifted the chair a bit to switch on the TV. With scramble the TV was on, there were scenes, incomprehensible, that moved up and down .Then the picture cleared and the voice also became clear.
The scene of a village spread over the screen. Then gradually the streets, royal houses with coats, mansions of seths and public roads appeared. Then there was a scene - a barely ten year old girl and her mother, all of them grew restless. ‘Oh, this is…’ someone from the crowd spoke. Then as if someone had sewn their lips, they grew silent. A series of scenes began.
That girl undid the lid on the toilet container, and was emptying the stinking feces in a tin, and then she helped to lift and put the tin on her mother’s head. The mother and the daughter began walking straight on the road, keeping themselves aside, careful not to touch anyone, shrinking their bodies and trying to cover their faces with cloth. A young man with microphone in his hand was asking some question. The woman was confused, staring for a moment towards the house from where they had just started, remained silent.
The scene changed…
One could see faint flicker In the innumerable wrinkles of the faces of the couple standing in the middle of a heap of feces,. The daughter and the mother of the previous scene arrived there with the tin on head. The tin was broken. Feces trickled down from it. It ran from head to face and swiftly trickled down her neck.
In the midst of silence Ratan mumbled something like a scream. Before her eyes everything began to swarm, from the time when she returned without pulling away the dead dog to the dirty overflowing toilets she had cleansed this noon, … Her eyes steadied on the mother and the daughter, the feces with the trickles, and the scene changed…
The old woman’s answer to the man with a microphone in the hand drilled into Ratan’s heart deeper and deeper. ‘Sir, please don’t ask. We live in hell… but for the belly we are forced to …”
It was difficult for her to sit there any longer. She began to rise; once again her eyes went on the trickle of the feces from the tin. She could not stand this on the tender girl’s face. She quickly averted her face. Now there was a crowd behind her , all their eyes glued to the TV. So many things simultaneously clouded their faces…She saw Soma with totally dry eyes and Ratan thought, “He will create a scene in public... look, woman, you were shouting so much ....’ ”
But Ratan saw that Soma who was watching all this with dry eyes, looked at her; he had begun trickling constantly.
Vas = colony
Meldi mata = Goddess
Seth = trader
Khichdi = a dish made by mixing rice and pulses
Shahukar = caste Hindu
Bhangi = Sweeper
Valu = evening food
Dharam = religion, duty
Bai = mother
Rand = woman, bad