Culture & Society

An Exchange Somewhat Inexact

This story spins a tale about a ‘kachra-collector’ called Kubjamma, who has learnt not to express herself. There is also Abdul Muid, a pao-wala. 

A tale of connections
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Do pao dena plij” Two bread buns please, she said. “Chuttha hai na?”, I hope you have change, he asked even as he held out an open palm for the exact amount that he knew she had ready. For almost three years now, every morning, before she started work, Kubjamma bought two paos for herself. 

Abdul Muid slowed down his scooter as he neared the Pooja Fruits and Vegetable Stall.  He could see her bent down, systematically going through yesterday’s vegetables. 

Today’s vegetables would come at Nine AM. The garbage collection truck would arrive at Eight AM. From Six AM, when the employees who slept at the back of the stall swept the floor and the Eight AM collection of the garbage, vegetables were kept outside the stall.  

Someone kind had thought to classify the vegetables into two sections. The rotten ones were thrown into a bin. But there were some that could not be sold, especially not in this upmarket neighborhood, but were still fit for human consumption. For consumption by needy humans at any rate. These were put in a relatively clean box. It was this box that Abdul Muid saw Kubjamma bent over. Saw from a distance, for before he reached the shop, for she had already packed the one or two chosen vegetables in a cotton bag and was standing tall, waiting. 

Nobody had told Muid that it was important to Kubja that he never see her collect the vegetables, but he found himself squeezing the rubber bulb of his brass cycle horn to warn her of his arrival. For the past year, three short sounds. 

Kubjamma and Abdul Muid had had this interaction long enough for patterns to develop. The salaam/namaste question was handled by doing away with the formality of greeting altogether. Just directly, the business transaction. Two paos. Four rupees. Not the convenient five Rupee coin, for the one Rupee change would have prolonged the interaction. Two coins. Or four coins. Two paos.  

The Salaam Namaste Question. In Abdul Muid’s community, the greeting was A-Salaam-Alaykum (peace be upon you), to be replied with a Wa-Alaikum -Salaam (and unto you peace). For Kubjamma, it used be a name of any Hindu deity that she worshipped or which God’s day it was, but now all greetings had been replaced by a salutation to one God-King, one hero of a mythic epic, one symbol of a new way of the majority religion. 

Kubja and Muid were too poor to risk anything, too simple to understand the reasons behind the many changes that were happening around them, and too busy with earning a precarious living to figure out the salaam-namastes.  So the “Do pao”, answered with “Chutta hai na?” had to be enough. 

But today, she said “Achcha hai” , for it was really pretty,  a picture that Muid had drawn on the aluminium trunk that carried the paos, the nankatais, the bruns.  A sketch of a young man. Handsome young man, Kubjamma noted, with hair just long enough to fly as Muid’s did when he rode the bike. 

A young man, who, she smiled to herself, resembled greatly, this old bread-seller that she had come to like. Also in the picture was a beautiful young lady wearing a salwar-kameez, with her hair in a long plait and flowers drawn around her.

“Sundar hai”. She’s beautiful, Kubjamma said. Let alone replying, Muid did not even acknowledge her remark.Turning instead to Vithal, one of the boys who worked at the stall, Muid asked him “So, did you sell many nariyal paanis at last night’s rally?” Kubjamma did not wait to listen to this conversation, for it was the day after a ‘victory march’.  The dirtiest, most polluted day. The most difficult day for those who cleaned the streets.

Firecrackers are the farts of a social class that has swallowed too much. Too much food. Too many things. The words of politicians are also nothing but gas.

That gas too has been gulped in, passed around into others, and finally farted out as phatakas. The entire road is full of firecracker waste. Despite warnings about pollution levels, the ‘custom’ has been adhered to. The celebratory custom of literally ‘blowing up’ money in the form of firecrackers. Supposedly, signifying prosperity. Anticipating five years of corrupt income, thanking Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. 

There she was, printed on a now torn phataka packet. The goddess of the rich as envisaged by a famous painter.  A fair, firm-bodied lady with jewelry adorning her body.

The firecrackers had been offered to her, but seemed to have reached the wrong goddess. This dark, short woman with a distended stomach and thin limbs. The goddess of waste.

While the Goddess of wealth was always seen standing in a sweet-smelling lotus, the goddess of waste had still not received the rubber boots that the municipal corporation was supposed to have spent lakhs of Rupees on last year. 

How many Rupees must have been spent on this large bomb, Kubja wondered now, as she collected the sticky mess entangled with paper and plastic. Again, she could not help seeing the firecracker garbage as some kind of abnormal bodily waste. Why did she constant think of sewage? What else had life shown her? Yes, excreta was always on her mind. How could it not be? When other people’s bodily waste had touched one’s body, when the smell had filled all five senses, of course that is what had filled the mind too. 

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Kubja makes a deep sound (“yhyaak”) before spitting out (“thoo”). 

One of the boys waiting for the school bus turns to look at her. He does not give her a disgusted look, nor does he laugh at her. Kubja looks at him. He is so clean and neat. He wears those black shoes that she had always wanted Raju to have. She could never buy them, but yes, she had sent Raju to school clean and neat. And then, Raju died. 

Her 10-year-old boy had died while saving his father. From the flooded Varahi . That was what the family told people they met after they migrated to Pune. New city, new life, so, new story. 

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A story almost true. Yes, Raju had saved his father from drowning and suffocation. But not from the river Varahi.  In fact, from a sewage tank. From toxic fumes generated by the excreta in a town named after Jasmine flowers. Kundapur. Winner of the Government ‘Safai’ prize.

A ‘safai’, cleanliness that was achieved by sending men down into toxic sullage to clean drains, by not providing simple safety equipment to workers.  

Kubjamma had wanted to shout in front of the Municipal office, the same office where she drew intricate designs of Rangoli every Diwali, and then stood far away during the actual celebrations. She wanted ask them for some acknowledgement of the death of her son, maybe some compensation. 

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Relatives from the community advised her against doing this. She would not receive any money, they said; neither Danappa nor Raju were permanent employees of the municipality after all. Most sewage workers were kept on this ‘contract’ basis precisely for such an occasion. So that no compensation had ever to be paid.

Why did she want to jeopardise the meagre livelihood of the entire community? The city would see them as trouble makers, and sign a contract with one of those private players that were increasingly coming into the waste disposal market.

Kubjamma wanted to ask some questions. So, you want to be assured of the livelihood not because it is your right, not because you have been doing it for generations and doing it well, but because you are a community that will not ask for even basic safety measures and will die quietly and worse, will stay quiet even when a co-worker, a friend, a brother dies. But she kept quiet.

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And one night, when continuing to live in Kundapur became unbearable, the couple quietly took a State Transport bus to Pune. The new place had been inhospitable first, even hostile, which place isn’t, and it had been Kubjamma who negotiated their way through all the initial troubles. Now, having managed to get permission from various official and non-official people to collect waste in this area, Kubjamma had also made friends. 

She could see two of them at the corner chai tapri where she would eat her paos now. She would dip them into the tiny cup of tea that the stall owner made a great show of giving her ‘free-of-charge’. One cup of tea in exchange for clearing the entire area around his stall. 

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Littered by the employees of the huge IT office-complex who drank tea and smoked and then just dropped their paper cup, their cigarette stubs on the road, before stepping back into their clean, air-conditioned office. 

Kubjamma often felt like speaking to them- and some of them seemed friendly- a young lady had even clicked a photograph of Kubjamma once. She wanted to at least point out the old drum that the chai tapri wala had kept outside his stall, so that the cups could be thrown into it. But they were so clean, smelled so good, and she was dirty, what if she smelled bad, and what if she had to let go of this free cup of tea? So, she did not speak to them.
But she could speak, she was glad, to these two friends, ragpickers, who were also expert pickers of gossip. News they called it. Today for example, “Did you see the drawing on the pao wala’s bike?". Already! 

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And additional information. “The girl in the picture is wearing a bindi on her forehead!”.
Kubjamma had missed the vermillion mark; she had seen a few wisps of hair that had strayed on to the forehead of the girl in the picture.
“ Did you know that pao wala chaacha has a Hindu chaachi?” they giggled today. Like little girls. That they were not, thought Kubjamma, both were in their fifties, surely, too old to refer to Muid as Chacha (uncle).  But that was the way- the Muslim vendors were called Chacha, just as the women sweepers were called Mavshi which meant Aunt, one’s mother’s sister. 

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Kubja pushed aside her irritation and listened to how years ago, it had been quite the scandal when policemen had arrested Abdul Muid on charges of kidnapping. Policemen from Andhra Pradesh had come here looking for him, for his bride’s parents had not only complained but also bribed. Abdul Muid had been beaten in up Lock-Up for two days, before his wife had approached a legal-aid NGO, gone to the police and made a statement saying she had voluntarily migrated with her husband Abdul Muid, and that she was very happy with him. 

Oh... like her, the Pao Wala too had fled his hometown. Did he miss the town, the people as she did, Kubjamma wondered.

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Danappa, her husband, did not want to mention Raju at all. What was the need, he asked? Maybe Raju needs to know that we have not forgotten him, Kubja pleaded. She tried to keep her son’s memory alive, for her husband. To feel gratitude. To know the price that had been paid, to know what had been lost to keep him alive. Perhaps then, Danappa would value his life more. But how to explain that to a drunk and depressed man? So, she did not.

After Raju died, she did not cry. She bled. Bled for 10 days. Bled through Danappa’s suicide attempt.  Bled in the journey to Pune.  Then, after 20 days, she bled again. And went on bleeding.

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The Municipal doctor’s makeup streaked her face, melted without air-conditioning, as she brushed aside Kubja’s complaints about flushing. It’s because you are fat, she said, looking at Kubja’s rough working body. “Like to eat, haanh?” and the other doctor in the room and the nurse laughed. 

So loudly that Kubja forgot to tell the doctor that ever since the heavy periods had started, she had become weak, and felt breathless. “chakkar aata hai...” I feel giddy, she almost said, but it went against the joke that, by now, everyone was enjoying. So, she took the month’s strip of oral contraceptive that would make her periods regular, and walked out. 

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Yes, she liked to eat more ever since they migrated, and she had to become a ragpicker. But she did not eat what she liked. Covering the drunk Danappa with a Chadar, unable to fall asleep herself, she put some salt and oil to erase the day’s smells from the leftover rice, and swallowed it.

Every month, when she went to collect the tablets, and the young, pretty doctor had something to say about her weight or eating, Kubjamma wanted to seek help, ask for medicine. A question was flung at her pain, her illness, instead of a diagnosis – “Like to eat?” Almost at the tip of her tongue was an answer to that question. She swallowed it.

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The dog looked on as the lady barked. “I have lakhs of rupees worth of jewelry in my house. Wait outside the gate. Step back step back” Kubja almost laughed. Why was she announcing the valuables in her house? Would that not attract robbers? If one was to go by the number of security measures that rich people had nowadays, surely there were many robbers on the street at this very moment. Why was the fair lady announcing her Lakhs of Rupees worth of jewelry? Nobody would have guessed how slovenly and careless she really was, behind those shiny exteriors- both of her house and of herself.

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The trash, however, all mixed up, stank in the announcement.

Basic rules regarding the segregation of ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ garbage were not followed. Food that could have been considered for consumption could not be collected. Today there were some good slices of bread. They were wrapped in a clean newspaper; they could have been used. But when she opened the wrapped newspaper, her hand touched something sticky. Nobody but a collector of garbage could believe this, anyone but a waste picker would wonder how could anyone manage to have this particular combination? Bread and... wait a minute…a used condom! 

A barrier contraceptive, a rubber. A French letter? No. Kubjamma’s sex worker friends knew it as a topi – a ‘cap’. Their insistence, rather their plea to their customers that the ‘topi’ be used, their fear of catching disease, was known to Kubjamma. She looked at the dirty, filled-up condom- a relic of someone else’s pleasure-not a remote pleasure that she could be indifferent to, but one that she knew as an infliction of violence upon a vulnerable person- her sex worker friends.  Then, an infliction of nausea on someone without a choice to refuse to touch it, to pick it up and dispose it.

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Kubjamma quickly threw the condom down and wiped her hands on the side of her saree. Looking up, she could see the fair lady look at her. Challenging her to say something. Daring her to say something and risk her livelihood. Knowing that Kubjamma would not say anything. The fair lady was her gated community’s person in charge of well, something that Kubjamma was not quite sure of, but knew that the fair lady could keep Kubjamma out of the society compound. She also has seen the fair lady talk to the municipality inspectors who are again powerful people who can deprive Kubjamma of her livelihood, if a rich person such as the fair lady decided to make up a complaint. 

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But did the municipality people not see that the trash was not segregated, for this was a common occurrence. Open sanitary napkins mixed with vegetables, blades, their sharp edges exposed. Retched up nausea swallowed back, bloody scratches hidden, cries silenced. Silenced into a permanently quiet state. Silent even when attacked. 

Kubjamma will not speak up a little later when a man will make a vulgar remark about her. She will not explain now the peace and joy she felt every morning, on seeing Abdul Muid, although they never had talked or anything. An explanation will not work anyway. For Shahnawaz is as closed as he is slimy. Shahnawaz the other pao wala, had just pulled over at the tapri and had, uninvited as usual, joined the conversation. 

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“Main bola Muid Bhai ko”, he began, for of course, he had seen the painting, and he had expressed his opinion about it. Of course, he had, Kubja thought; hatred, destructive comments seemed to have all the freedom to be spat out. 

“I told Muid Bhai”, he was saying, “that the painting of a Muslim boy with a Hindu girl would only get him into trouble. Just see the times we are in. We should learn to adjust, hai na?”

Kubja was not surprised that Shahnawaaz would not want to see Muid’s aluminum trunk decorated. It was that sparklingly polished trunk that was responsible for the many daily deliveries that Abdul Muid made to many homes. And maybe his tall, attractive personality, Kubja thought fondly.

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She had noticed how the nicely dressed people at the joggers’ park(“especially the ladies”, Kubja smiled to herself, “discussing the finer aspects of the nankatai”) stopped Muid and bought bread from him. Shahnawaz, on the other end, mainly delivered to the vada-pao stalls, often haggling loudly with the equally rough stall owners, and had back entry only to service entrances of two small restaurants in the neighborhood.

“Muid Bhai trusts me and always values my advice. It was my duty as a friend to remind him about all the talk about Love jihaad that was going on. Muslim young men were being beaten up on suspicion of luring Hindu girls into conversion and marriage.”, said Shahnawaz self-importantly. “My duty as a friend”, he repeated.

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“But isn’t that all the more reason that people should see this beautiful love-ishtory painting?” Kubjamma whispered.

Shahnawaz’s sneer while talking about Muid whom he called Bhai was in total contrast to the respect he feigned while in his presence. 
“Yes, I heard about the ‘achcha hai’”.  he laughed, “I told Bhai that Kubja mavshi praises whatever you do, for everybody knows she wants to go behind the new Sulabh toilet with you.” 

“What did he say to that?”, Kubja held back her tears, “tell me what he said.” terribly hurt, insulted, for behind the new toilet was an empty dark space where the poorest sex workers, the poorest transgender prostitutes met the truck drivers who had stopped to use the toilet. “Well, Bhai did not react to that, just said he would erase the picture today itself.” Shahnawaz muttered. Muid had not said anything. So, Kubja too did not say anything.  She looked at Shahnawaz, his bike. Yes, anyone with his wares in a basket covered with this dusty black tarpaulin would naturally want that painting erased from the shiny aluminum trunk on Muid’s bike. For a moment, she actually pitied Shahnawaz, this short, sly, sad other pao wala.

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Kubja pushed her rusted rattling wheelbarrow away as he Shahnawaz regaled the others with his best manipulation move.

“I reminded Bhai of the time he was beaten up by the police. Did he want young boys to be beaten up as he had been?”
Kubja must have stopped suddenly; she saw that the wheel had turned back and hurt her toe. Kubja held her foot under the municipality tap, and looked at the layers of dirt caked over her trolley. Filling a broken bucket, she splashed water onto the one implement of her work, one thing that was hers. She scrubbed and scrubbed the dirt coverings off the surface of that one thing that belonged only to her. 

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Today, as always, Kubjamma stands with the exact change in her hand. She feels and looks confident. A small action has filled her with strength. Today, she will ask the doctor for medicine, after they finish joking about her weight. She will (almost) demand that it was time they sent her for blood tests and maybe a sonography. 

At work too, there also had to be some way to ensure that the residents segregated and disposed their trash by the rules. 
Yes, today, she feels she could try to speak up. Anything seems possible today. 

There. Two sounds of the cycle horn and a bike turning the corner. Muid’s hair settles down back on the nape of his neck as the bike stops. She can see that he has washed off the painting from the trunk.

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She feels hurt that Muid had been pushed into erasing his expression of the love he felt for his wife. Why did he give in so easily? And why is Kubja feeling so hurt about it?

Should she tell him how she had remembered an unconnected incident when Shahnawaz had made that vulgar remark yesterday?

A year ago, at the tea stall, the ragpickers were watching a video on a cell phone. An elderly man being beaten up, his beard being pulled, being forced to chant glory to a God not of his religion. That night, she had nightmares about a known face in pain, his beard being pulled. The next morning, she had waited to see Muid, and when he arrived, for a moment, for a brief moment, wanted to touch his beard. Just to touch his face and cry. 

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But he would not understand, maybe even get angry. Maybe he would stop talking to her in what was a very brief, precious meeting. 

Yes, she had decided to speak up for her rights. Kubja’s personal feelings, however, were best left alone. Muid sees the sadness in her eyes as she looks at the trunk, bereft of the painting. He looks away, and his eyes fall on her wheelbarrow. It shines today. Clean and bright. Also, something he erased, something he did not stand by, something she could not defend, she has made her own. 

For there it is, nicely drawn, a picture of a handsome young man, hair just long enough to flow, sporting a beard, wearing a cap. Besides him, a very beautiful young lady in a salwar kameez. It is almost as if Kubja has seen his wife. This drawing is an exact likeness, or so Muid feels. His wife.  Her hair in a neat long plait.  

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No stray wisps of hair on the forehead. Nothing to conceal the prominent bindi on her forehead. A tribute to his love for his wife. A love that had overcome so many difficulties. 

A tribute to that love by this feeling that would never have a name. Muid looks at Kubja.  For the first time in years, they bungle their lines. Does it matter if the order of dialogue is changed?  How will grammatical error change the meaning, when all the meaning lies in what is left unsaid?

“Chuttha hai na?”, Abdul Muid asks even as he is looking at the exact change in her open palm.  “Do pao dena plij”, Kubjamma answers. 

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(Dr Manasee Palshikar aka Nadi Palshikar is a screenplay writer and a novelist. Her novel, Sutak, was received warmly, and appreciated for its treatment of gender and caste)

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