Swachh Bharat: India, Caste, and Cleanliness
702 Pitambara lane, Raniganj, was bustling already. Even those who didn’t know that this was a ‘wedding’ home, could tell so by looking at how many people had been traipsing up and down the front stairs since morning. Vijay uncle was making most of these trips, carrying mattresses and pillows to the bedrooms upstairs where out of town guests would be settled, trekking mud with his shoes in the process, undoing the work of the maid. More often than not, Vijay uncle forgot to take his shoes off after entering the house. But he was always forgiven by Shweta Bhabhi – sister-in-law of the groom and the bahu of the house. He was the only one who would stay till the end; long after everyone else had left, making sure everything was taken care of.
Steam coming off the hot cups of chai constantly being circled kept drifting towards the stairs, underneath which Ramu had been asked to wait, right by the main trash bin. A precarious place to be at today, given the volume of people hurrying by. About 100 ft. away but straight across, right next to the loo, Chaiji, the eldest of the house, was flopped on a lone arm chair. This exact location allowed her a clear view of the entryway and a good enough one of the kitchen. Chaiji seldom left her place, trying to participate in every conversation, but was mostly ignored. Chaiji was hard of hearing – a good ailment to have at this point of life. She sat clutching her walking stick, using it to reach out and poke the ones who passed her by from time to time. To alert them of a specific need or of her general existence. Her needs weren’t much – an occasional chai and a few crackers – or an inquiry gone un-responded to.
Newcomers were flocking in hourly. There were the brother and sister-in-law from America who had made it, much to the delight of Chaiji. They had promptly retreated upstairs. There was a Chacha from the heartland who had taken a long bus ride to get here. His yellowed shirt had a coating of dusty red – a different color than the grey Delhi dust. He mostly fidgeted in the hallway sipping tea, waiting to be noticed by Shweta Bhabhi as she hurried past. He was going to wait a long time. Shweta Bhabhi was busy today. There were many like him awaiting her attention.
‘Just let me get the garbage, I need to leave.’ Ramu yelled again. On usual days, his yell would be sufficient to grab someone’s attention. Today, it was lost in the commotion.
Ramu wondered if he should be stepping in. He would be yelled at for sure if he did. But he’d be yelled at if he left without the garbage too, and he had the entire gully to finish still. That would take a while too today. Garbage was strewn all across this house thanks to celebrations. And of course the gullys in the Raniganj market area – crowding houses and small shops on both sides that could be touched if one stretched arms – amassed as much disgust as in the depths of sewage just from their daily grind. Inside the houses, however, no marks could be seen.
‘Wait for a bit.’ A passing lady announced. Shweta Bhabhi wants the loo bin cleaned too and someone is in there.
‘Why can’t you people compile your trash beforehand?’ Ramu grumbled under his breath. Sweat was glistening over his body from crouching in heat. The nearest fan was where Chaiji was at.
‘I can be back later,’ he offered in vain, just as Meena walked in.
Meena was the youngest daughter-in-law of the family. Before Tai-ji (the uncle of the groom and Chai-ji’s eldest son) had moved his family out of the house and to the one next door, Meena had been the youngest daughter-in-law of the house. The relocation of the uncle’s family had caused a great deal of consternation and many long discussions but no resolution. They had since then been inhabiting separate quarters with Chaiji taking turns between the two households to ensure both sons got to take equal care of her. Meena was now a visitor who just visited, albeit regularly. She wore a new outfit on every visit – her arms adorned with red bangles up to her elbows to make sure no one forgot that not too long ago she had been the focus of everyone’s attraction.
Meena went straight to the mirror like always. Even with its glass hazy and rust around the entire perimeter, the mirror was indispensable to her for catching a quick glance of herself. Most times she was quick enough to avoid Chaiji. But this time, trying to elude Chai-ji’s poke, she tripped and bumped right into Ramu, who had precariously stepped out and wandered in at this exact unfortunate moment. Ramu was used to the disgust that followed. He couldn’t be touched after all. But he couldn’t help feeling amused as Meena’s sparkling eyes darkened with shock and she lost her balance completely. She would have much preferred to have been poked by Chaiji, but it was too late to choose now. Uncle Vijay arrived right on time to find Meena sprawled on the floor. He pulled her up, looking around to figure out what had happened. Ramu, quite aware of what could follow next, had swiftly disappeared. Meena yanked herself free and stormed out before anyone could stop her. The commotion had been enough to have the visiting brother from America peek down over the railing, but he soon disappeared, doubtlessly misgauging the severity of the incident that had just happened.
‘Meena is our bahu too,’ Shweta Bhabhi’s father-i- law Prem, the head of this household, was saying. His elder brother meant everything to him. Now his brother might think that the incident had been deliberately caused to take revenge on them for moving out.
The afternoon was unexpectedly quite. And unexpectedly equalizing with both the sister-in-law from America and the Chacha from Rajasthan making rounds to the kitchen inquiring about lunch. With them around, any real conversation on the matter would have to wait. Shweta Bhabhi and her mother-in-law Sashi went to confer with the maid. Lunch, it seemed, was going to get made at last.
Shashi didn’t come much to the kitchen anymore. She no longer had to since Shweta Bhabhi had been wedded to her elder son. After this wedding which would add another daughter-in-law to the family, Shashi would never have to come. But her face today had more despair than this sudden culinary hardship could have caused. Chaiji was constant in her usual place, mostly unable to hear what was being discussed but savvy enough about such matters to know not to leave her spot.
‘I have said before too, that we need to leave the trash outside.’ Vijay uncle insisted after lunch. ‘You have the jamadar entering right through the front door, walking around, touching things! In a wedding house teeming with guests you had him waiting in the house!’
‘He doesn’t touch anything!’ Shweta Bhabhi protested.
‘Really Bahu? Weren’t you going to get him tea?’
‘I was going to hand him a plastic cup. That’s why I was looking around. Maybe I should have asked him to wait outside. But what if Meena collided with him there? It would still have been…’
‘No, then it wouldn’t have been our problem.’ Vijay uncle interrupted Bhabi. ‘That would not be in our home. What is the need to drag nuisance in?’
‘Vijay is right.’ Shweta Bhabhi’s father-in-law finalized. He was going to go apologize himself today. With a special set of shagun for Meena, swapping with Shweta’s.
Shashi didn’t respond, neither did Shweta Bhabhi. The later seemed to have darker circles under her eyes all of a sudden.
Next morning Ramu reached outside 702 Pitampura last, finishing all other houses in the row first. To his delight, the trash was all outside – the big bin and extra plastic bags – shining in the morning sun supplementing the garbage strewn around the gully.