I was happy to be holding her hand, calloused, wet from the tears that she had wiped off from her bloodshot eyes. Happy to be out of the dinginess that our house held in its bosom, blackened by constant bickering, brawls and beating, much of which came from the man in the house who wasn't even my father, his alcohol breath, the jarring voice that made my mother crumple up in an evasive corner. The smell of unshackled morning air gladdened me every day; it freed my little mind from the sewer of rotting unrest that reeked every night inside the four walls.
I followed my mother around as she moved from place to place, scavenging dirt and refuse. Even in a magnanimous city like Mumbai, we were bhangis , a term derogatory but used all the same, for a lower Hindu caste, disparaged, whose identity stemmed from, was besmirched by, its profession: purging the stench of society. For several unforgiving decades we have been doing it with impassive willingness, an inherent surrender. As a jaunty child, I didn't see anything wrong with it, in fact enjoyed it; I got to lounge on soft carpets in people's houses, play with my craggy doll, bask in the comfort of air-conditioning, admire myself in the bathroom mirror as mother scraped the marble and bathed the tiles. The kachra kona days were even better; she would sit inside three-walled concrete enclosures, sifting through trash, separating paper from waste and the worthless. The paper was saved while the defecations, its stubborn splotches, were scrubbed off and washed down the drain. I enjoyed the sifting, discovering broken, decrepit but colorful toys, discarded by scions of the affluent that saw no more use for them; curious knick-knacks, unpolished hairpins, brooches, hangers, abandoned cell phones that I loved talking into, making me feel important as I chatted for hours with someone I thought was paying attention; slipping into dispossessed dresses that fit me, soiled, torn yet attractive, while my mother watched, a quiet smile playing on her lips, the spring in my delighted steps, my face gloating over new assets.
My mother seemed calm during the day, unaffected by the constant cleansing of community dregs, unruffled by occasional rudeness; she didn't cringe when people addressed her as bhangi, or waved their arrogant fingers of authority at her, or barked profanities in her face; I wondered whether she was inured, had stoically relinquished control over her fate, or was just thankful that there was a job to be done that kept her from extending the anguish from revolting nights. On more tiring days, I would give her a hand, go on my knees and brush away the soaked stains till the browns turned into white again, amuse myself with running water as I hosed, meandering sprays caressing my face. There was something emancipating about the sight of uncontrolled droplets flying through the air, the sound of streams gurgling into dark exits, the wetness under my feet. I loved sitting proudly behind the steering wheel, pretending to take my mother away into a less demanding world while she mopped the insides of cars, sooty from long trips, discolored with vomit or shoe stains. There was joy in finding rupee bills stuck under the seats or forgotten in the door, and watching expressions of stifled wonder, disbelieving eyes, when my mother handed them back to the owners. One of our employers, impressed by my mother's unflappable integrity and diligence, in a rare gesture of largesse, announced her financial support for my education. That was the first time I saw my mother cry outside the confines of our house.
As a decently placed lawyer, when I look back at those days of scouring grease and excrement, I wonder if my steely determination is genetic. If there is something I did not inherit, it was my mother's honesty, which I had compromised for my profession. She remained a bhangi all her life, true to her squalid job, imperturbable in her submission to fate. I might be earning a great deal more than she ever did, but while she rummaged through and flushed out the filth, I am working with it.
BIO: The author works with bugs he cannot see. Ajay Vishwanathan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Times of India, Bartleby Snopes, The Houston Literary Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Cantaraville, Mid-Day, Counterexample Poetics, Bewildering Stories, Khabar, The Afternoon Despatch & Courier, Six Sentences, Static Movement, Short Humour Site, and Little India.