Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Sluts in My Neighbourhood

I wrote this a few weeks ago when the Besharmi Morcha/SlutWalk was supposed to happen….
They go by the grand name of “pourakarmikas” but what they do isn’t so grand. They are the men and women who clear the city’s garbage – everything from leaves to shit of every denomination including human. .
Shovelling shit – literally or figuratively – has never been the most coveted of jobs and a pourakarmika’s is no different. Add to that the fact that the pay sucks – and in many ways. For example, a large majority of pourakarmikas are contract labourers, at the mercy of their unscrupulous, corrupt contractor bosses. So their salaries are almost never paid on time, often not arriving before the 15th or the 20th of the month. Then, in many cases, the contractor makes them for the stipulated amount, but half or even less than half of it is actually paid. The rest goes into the contractor’s already bulging coffers.
The working conditions are not just unsanitary but also dangerous, sometimes even life-threatening. Most work with bare hands, handling stuff like broken glass, syringes, dead carcasses of animals, hospital and toxic waste. So, disease and injury is common – ranging from asthma, tuberculosis, heart trouble to gangrene even loss of limbs and fingers. And sometimes, these workers have to go down manholes that may be filled with poisonous gases that can – and have – killed. So strikes are commonplace; desperate measures for a desperate people; sometimes so desperate that during one such strike, two pourakarmikas poured “night soil” over themselves to get the attention of the concerned authorities! (Wikipedia describes night soil as “a euphemism for human excrement collected at night from cesspools, privies, etc. and sometimes used as a fertilizer.)
But, the women face occupational hazards of a different kind. Many are young, beautiful girls (whom I itch to photograph but am too self-conscious to do so!), but even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t prevent the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle harassment that they are often subjected to by their male supervisors – “special treatment”, just because they are women.
A few days ago, the daily early morning collection of garbage did not happen. Another strike, I thought and didn’t pay any further attention to it apart from grumbling about having day-old garbage in the house. The newspapers confirmed the strike and the story was a familiar one. A high-ranking local official had been getting the women pourkarmikas to work at his house, often beyond working hours. It’s probably a common enough occurrence, so I thought, there must have been something else that made the women protest and their men to join them and go on strike .
I found out what that something was the next morning. Once a week, gangs of pourkarmikas are assigned to different parts of the city to sweep and clean all the roads. The ones that come to our area consist of mostly women and I have befriended a few – they do a special cleaning of the rain water drain in front of my house for a tip. Gauri, Nagamani, Lakshmi, Rangamma – their names are beautiful, these women with skins of chocolate satin against which gleam impossibly white teeth when they laugh.
Some days, if I’m not outside when they arrive, one of them will call.
“Amma!” Just one loud, bell-like yell and I know who it is…..
And some days, they’ll gather for a drink of water, flocking around me like chirpy birds, their voices laughing and calling out to each, cutting through the air like clear, shrill, sharp bird calls.
This was one such morning.
I leant on the gate, feeling the sun gently toasting my back as I watched the women wield their long-handled brooms in the drain.
“So, strike, hahn? Why this time?” I said, opening the innings
And it all came tumbling out - it seemed that having to run personal errands for the official was the least of their woes.
Don’t come to work with your faces washed clean, they tell us, Amma.
Don’t put kumkumam on your foreheads, they say.
Don’t wear “good” sarees to work, they tell us.
I listened, disbelieving…
We have children and homes to look after, Amma. And sometimes, on some days of the month, we are not so well. So we come late to work or we can’t come at all. They cut our salaries – 150 rupees for each day that we are late or absent.
We work all day in the open, under the hot sun, Amma. We have no drinking water and the constant sweeping and inhaling of dust gives us breathing problems. The mornings are really bad –  sometimes we can barely breathe…
One woman picked where the other left off, the rhythmic sounds of their brooms providing accompaniment for a sorry, shocking litany. But the most horrible of all was yet to come…
We work all day in the open, Amma. We have no toilets to go to. So, when we find a place where we can go and when we sit down to relieve ourselves, they come and bend down and look.
Just for a few seconds, I thought I hadn’t heard right. But I had. I felt rage welling up.
I started to blubber, “Why don’t you hit them….scream….why don’t you…what about your men……”. I petered out because I could see no rage on these women’s faces; just a sad,stoic blankness.
We have told them, Amma – we are women and we have problems that we can’t tell you and if we did, you wouldn’t understand. So until you find somebody who can, it’s brooms down.
As I stood there and watched the women walk away, dragging their brooms behind them, I remembered that all of these last few weeks, there has been so much talk about Slutwalk. Or should I say, “Besharmi Morcha”?
It’s true that a woman is seen to be “asking for it” if she dresses a particular way. But she’s also a slut for so many other reasons. She is a slut when her man dies or worse still, leaves her; or worst of all, when she has no man at all. She is a slut when she has too much education. Or too little education. She’s a slut when she talks to much, laughs too much and when she dares to have an opinion of her own and voices it. Or worse still, that she is shameless enough to show that she has a mind. She’s a slut if she does anything without the permission of her father/husband/brother; and when they are all gone, her son.
And she’s a slut when she lifts up her saree and squats in public to relieve herself because there is no private place where she can do so.
And sometimes, she’s a slut just because she is a woman.
And for all this sluttish behavior, she has been humiliated, beaten, molested, raped, maimed, burned, even killed.
And it has nothing at all to do with wearing tight jeans or a t-shirt or showing her cleavage
So – Besharmi Morcha?
Why not?
But my question is this. Will it fight for the right for hundreds of thousands of besahrmi women like my Nagamanis and Lakshmis and Gauris and Rangammas all over India to pee and defecate in dignity?

24 comments:

@deeppz said...

Hi. this is the 2nd time im commenting on your blog. the last one was about the boy who works for your neighborhood scrap dealer.Your todays blog about the "Pourkarmikas" is simply heart wrenching. There is very little that i can add..u have said it all. A superb write up Dear "Unfair&lovely".This needs to be read by more and more people.

regards.

deeppz.

Anonymous said...

100% Literacy is the answer.

Abisrk said...

Shahrukh khan once said, if he were to be prime minister, he would build toilets for ladies and children to avoid such daily humiliation. Very fundamental need. Wish someone already in power would heed to this.

Madhuri Banerjee said...

Very well written. Wish this would change. What can we do to make the change happen?

Swati said...

No words are enough. Its heart-wrenching.And what's worse is we are all used to it. All these men orgasm-ing the word slut, deserve to live this life u just described as a woman. What's worse, is we girls don't think twice before we use this word without thinking.This reality makes you want to hide once again. Thank you for this beautiful post.

maniac.hunter said...

totally agree.just because some 1 dresses in a particular way doesnt mean shes asking for it.and cutting rs 150 per day is just CRUEL and INHUMAN!

uberschizo said...

Well said. as opposed to the what is a slut and i am not a slut approach, talking about when is a woman a slut is probably the best approach to exposing the horrendous violence against women.

respect.

uberschizo

Bhargavi Sameeran said...

Very well penned , all this happens and we cant do a thing , thats the worst pain.. great post ..

Bhargavi Sameeran said...

Very well penned , all this happens and we cant do a thing , thats the worst pain.. great post ..

Chintan said...

A very well written post! But I do not think Besharmi Morcha can fix the issues these women highlighted. Most of the men involved in such kinda work or labourers do not pay attention to slut walks or respect women!

I wish Government could for once use our taxes wisely and at least build the public toilets....and maintain too.

Vidyut said...

touching. A scream of horror. Straight from your heart to mine. Respect. For caring so deeply.

Anonymous said...

Instead of one man one vote we need to have one man one toilet. There should be a total ban on markets, gas stations, shopping centers, temples and other public areas without adequate clean toilets accessible for everyone, customers or not. The rich like to build 24 and higher story homes, why dont they build toilets for the poor and maintain them. Every million dollar company can afford to build toilets for the public and maintain them, such civic mindedness is missing in the corrupt forms of government that India has.

Ruchira said...

Yes.Im glad they went brooms down...

Pundit said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to put this to paper. It is such a long battle till the day we can all live and let live with dignity that every step feels insurmountable as well.

Mac said...

Brilliant !!!

Chai with Lakshmi said...

Hi!
I'm republishing this with full credit back to you on www.chaiwithlakshmi.in Hope this is okay.

Lakshmi

mayflower said...

Heart wrenching and True!!! I can almost feel their pain and yours through this piece. I'm sure these beautiful women are happy that you talk to them and even know their names. Its my time to start, even if its a baby step i must start today. Thank you

pawan said...

very nicely elucidated.

Anonymous said...

*Wipes Tears*

The Thinker said...

Nice post. Sadly, the toilet situation applies to women of all classes in India. Public toilets are a scarcity in our country, and a women always has to hide to pee or else there will be many bending down to check her out or hollering at her. Been on many road trips, seen many men peeing away to glory without a care on the highway but even if a woman is hiding and peeing, a bunch of truckers might spot her and holler. If one does happen to get a public toilet, first it will be extremely filthy, and second there will be very high chances of it having broken window-panes and cracked doors - providing ample opportunities for peeping toms!

Saraswati said...

Passionately written and the stark truth. Thank you for broadcasting their reality so we don't forget it.

shipz said...

Beautiful post. Sad and beautiful. You should post this on the Besharmi Morcha website. More ppl need to read this. More ppl need to get inspired. And more ppl need to stand up for the basic rights that we cannot even take for granted like decent sanitation. Please tweet it too (if you havent already). Makes me so angry to even think about it, I cannot imagine someone being resigned to it, how much of s*** these women must have gone through already to reach this stage of resignation!
Sick minds of sick men...aargh!

Chai with Lakshmi said...

Your article has been republished here: http://chaiwithlakshmi.in/2011/articles/asipinthecity/invisibles-and-sluts.html

The Marketing Consultant said...

Your article has been published here: http://chaiwithlakshmi.in/2011/articles/asipinthecity/invisibles-and-sluts.html