First, I want to wish you all a very good rest of the year! If I’m late by three months, it’s really because I have had a very tough semester, which is almost over and so I will be with you every month or more… soon… and to make up… this is a long letter…
My last week’s resolution: I’ve decided to write our toilet project report to you in the form of stories – but which will be true. Why? Well, last week I was in Delhi – for one of my research projects, about which you will read sooner or later… I was returning to my hotel room and there was a crowd on the way and I was curious and there he was, Vikram Seth, my favorite writer (and among the best English language writers from India) reading out from ‘Beastly Tales’. And as the story-poem of the friendship between a cat and a cock wafted through the air and I began to cheer with the others for the cat who after a good cry decided to rescue his dear friend from the fox – I knew that I wanted to write our experiences as stories for this blog which has been on my ‘to do list’ since a very long time. But I’m not Vikram Seth. So again, thank you so much for your faith in me, and letting me write you true stories.
But I’ll write it next time because tonight I have to work on my paper on health outcomes of sanitation – based on Kameshwaram for tomorrow’s presentation at Calcutta University and so I’ve told my story for this time to this 15 year old kid, my friend’s son in whose house I’m today (she’s an architect who’s has been with our project since the beginning… one day her story)… and the kid is going to write out the rest… he is one creative kid – that’s one of his photos on the right…
A true Story by Gaurav Balakrishnan as recounted by Shyama Aunty
Once upon a time, not very long ago, the day after Christmas huge waves roared out of the Indian ocean and nothing was ever the same again… including for this lady (i.e. Shyama aunty) married to this French guy, who was no-where near the Indian ocean, but who decided to adopt one village to get to know it better… then before she knew how exactly it all happened she was trying to help people have a toilet and make the village as clean as any of the cute villages she loves in the French Alps.
Now she found it a challenge to get anyone to clean up or pick up the garbage that was accumulating in the village just about everywhere: “Why Mr.P” she asked her one staff who has been with her since forever, “why do you REFUSE to clean up anything in the village?”
“Madam, I can’t do it – what if someone thinks I’m of the manual scavenging caste… think of the sadness of my wife and my son… really Madam… try to understand…” he replied.
“Then, who’s going to clean up Mr.P? Should we call off the project?”
“No” he said immediately, “I’ll get someone from another village”.
And so he got a guy, whom Shyama Aunty wrote about in her blog in October and who never did the work and so she had to say “bye” to him. But that chap didn’t mind it at all, Shyama Aunty told me and “Mr.P got me another guy– Mr.K ”.
This time she wanted someone who would do the work. So she asked him upfront: “Mr.K – why are you willing to pick up garbage?” and she continued, “Aren’t you scared that you will be mistaken for for someone of the manual scavenging caste?” knowing well she couldn’t recognize any caste herself.
And he replied, very slowly, “No, it doesn’t matter. you see… I mean…” and Shyama Aunty drew in her breath sharply, because she almost falls asleep every time she waits for him to speak, because he takes so long but Mr.K is so very polite that she can’t be impolite and sleep while waiting for him to speak.
In his so very typical manner, slowly, Mr. K began his story.
“Madam”, he said, “I was a bus driver for a Tamil Nadu bus service at the time of the tsunami. Umm… And on the day of the tsunami, I was in a place called Velankanni.”
Aunty thought to herself, ‘A bus driver, and in Velankanni? oh my God – it was hit so badly by the tsunami’
There was a long pause before Mr. K continued with his story, with Aunty almost nodding off. “I had driven throughout the night and we had a long halt at Velankanni and I was taking a nap in my driver’s seat in the bus – when there was this huge noise and commotion. I can’t ever forget it – there was just so much commotion and confusion. So instead of going further I basically spent the day dropping off the passengers to areas of safety. Many were crying because they didn’t know what had happened to their families. I did this… umm… until my shift got over. Throughout the day, all I could think was of my own family. The network connections were down and cell phones were not working at all. My wife and kids were at Karaikal – another town devastated by the tsunami.”
Mr.K stopped, his light brown eyes clearly watery. “I counted the minutes to the end of my end of my shift. Then, when I went to sign my logbook to leave, my boss commanded me, like I was some slave, “No way you can leave, today there is so much business to be done transporting people – you will stay and drive.” I was appalled when Aunty told me this. How could someone be so cruel and inhumane to another human being? But alas, people like that too, exist in this world.
Aunty became excited – “you know what happened here? Mr. K, the mild mannered slow to speak Mr.K, lost his temper and he shouted: “This job is the only source of income for my family, but what’s the use of earning if I can’t even look after them. I am going to find them in Karaikal and that’s it”. Fortunately the senior manager of the company came to his rescue. ”Of course, you should definitely go and look for your family. Come back after confirming their safety”.
Getting quite emotional, Mr.K went on,” If by chance the senior manager hadn’t passed by at that moment, I might have lost my job and if I had stayed back, I would be saving others while not taking care of my family. See… Madam… I’m nothing. I’m nothing in this vast world. There are a thousand people that can replace me. But I, too, am a person. I also have feelings. My boss there didn’t understand that, but you do. You treat me like an equal and I’m really grateful for that. That’s why I will do the job. For you.”
Aunty was moved by these words of his. She said,” Well, thank you. That really does mean a lot to both, me and Friend in Need. I really appreciate it. But let me ask you one thing, why aren’t you still driving the bus? Why did you leave?”
“That, madam, umm… is another story,” said Mr.K.
“When I was a bus driver, one night, a drunken man came into my bus. It was visibly clear that he was inebriated. He was leaning out of the door and singing loudly. I saw there was a danger of him falling out… so I asked my conductor to do something about it. But instead, he started encouraging the drunkard and started singing with him. The man fell out of the bus and got crushed by another vehicle and died. And I got arrested. Not the conductor.”
“Madam… the conductor had some powerful family connections, but I don’t have any and so, in court he said that he had actually told me to stop the bus but I had continued to drive, and there were false witnesses to corroborate his tale. Then I did lose my job. And for the past three years… the past THREE years I have been fighting a court case. Two days of the week I spend there. And I am going to fight for justice Madam… so when Mr.P told me about a job, I came running to take it. I don’t have another source of income and I need to look after my family.”
“So” Aunty finished, “Friend in Need got its second staff who had been rejected by the labour market. Though I didn’t mean it to be this way, we seem to be specializing in giving a second chance to people, who have lost out due to bad luck in addition to probably other factors.” And she beamed.
☺That’s it folks – from me too. These experiences of a simple common man have really touched my heart. I have studied in a good school, stayed in a safe and secure home all my life. I can’t even imagine the kind of trouble Mr.K faced. So, thank you Shyama Aunty for letting me do this. And Mr.K, hats off to you!