“Malgudi Days,” a collection of short stories by the famous Indian writer R. K. Narayan, was my inspiration forf “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives.” Narayan portrayed the many faces of life in the fictional town of Malgudi. My Bandilanka serves a similar purpose. However, whereas Narayan’s stories are peopled by men and dogs, mine run the gamut of caste, class, gender, and age. Here is a taste from the short story “Night soil removers Kaavanna and Kondamma”:
Night soil removers Kaavanna and Kondamma
“If I were to be born again,
I would like to be born in the
family of a scavenger
so that I may relieve them
of the inhuman unhealthy and
hateful practice of carrying
head loads of night soil.
The last rays of the sun disappeared below the western shore of the Godavari River. Kaavanna squatted at the threshold of his hut, smoking the first bidi of the night. There would be many more during the next twelve hours. Without his bidis, the stench would be overpowering. He inhaled the last bit of smoke deeply into his damaged lungs, and got up slowly, trying not to look at the blood he had just coughed up. He wondered, as he did every night, how much longer he would be able to survive. He glanced at his wife of four decades. She had inserted the lit end of the bidi into her mouth so that the smoke would go more directly into her lungs. That was the way of the Paky people. Kaavanna’s bleeding gums had stopped him from smoking this way. Kondamma finished her smoke and spat.
“Come, husband!” she whispered, tapping him gently on the shoulder. “No time to waste!”
She had given him three daughters and two sons. All of them were scavengers, just like their parents. Karma! There was no escaping one’s karma. They were Paky, the lowest of the Relli caste. The Relli thought they were so superior! They gathered fruit and sold them. And that gave them the right to steal all the Government benefits. Not that this Government does much for the likes of us. He spat as he thought of the government. It was always the same, always the same unending misery and hunger.
If only he could get his children out of this cesspool. But how? He rubbed the small of his back. His own health was rapidly failing. He had neither the strength nor the will to live. The ‘nalla mandu’ that he was taking in increasing quantities was becoming more expensive. And the pain was unbearable.
His wife handed him the tools of their trade: a brush, a bucket, a metal scraper, and a wooden scoop.
“Kondamma, you should stay home today. We’ll manage. You know you are …”
Kondamma aggressively tucked the end of her sari around her waist.
“Listen carefully, husband! If I allowed my monthly shame to interfere with our work, you would all be starving by now.”
She called out to their children who were hastily swallowing flattened rice puffed up in a little watery milk. Kondamma handed each of them a bagful of raw peanuts that a farmer from the neighboring village had given them for cleaning his latrines.
“Don’t eat them all at once!” she cautioned. “And don’t forget those jute scarves for your faces. Did you soak them in sesame oil?”
“Yes, Amma!” came the chorus-like response from five teenage voices. Her oldest – a son – would turn nineteen in a couple of months. She sighed.
“Husband, we don’t have any kerosene left. It will be hard.”
Kerosene had become too expensive. And without it, the stench from the latrines would be like entering narakam.
The group picked up the soiled gunny bags that contained their tools. Kaavanna whispered:
“Time to go! We have to get there before the early morning trains block the tracks.”
Today’s work was along the railway tracks in the Bandilanka station. The amount of human excreta along the tracks was one of the less onerous of the tasks facing them every night. They wouldn’t have to climb down into the big holes of the pig toilets. Kondamma shuddered. Her worst nightmare was imagining she was choking to death in the putrefying muck. Her sins in a previous life must have been horrific indeed for her to be reborn into this most dehumanizing of tasks.
Seven figures slunk along the side roads and back alleys to get to the railway station, avoiding the main roads. It would be safer that way. If people spotted them, they either threw garbage at them, stoned them, or came at them with lathis. “Unclean pigs!” The cry never varied. “Daridram! Daridram! Unclean pigs! Unclean pigs!”
The tracks were glistening after an early morning shower. Kaavanna bent down to feel the ground.
“We have a few hours to work. When the station master comes out early morning at the sun’s first rays, he will not want to lay eyes on us – it would be a bad omen for him. He’s a Brahmin.”
The seven spaced themselves along the track. Using wooden hand scoops, each followed a segment of the track and collected waste from between the rails. An exhausting two hours later Kondamma cried out:
“We will pause here. Eat some of those peanuts! And Rangamma, go quickly to the pump …”
Older daughter Rangamma took out a brass pitcher from her bag.
“The one outside the station house? But Amma …”
“Yes, I know. We’re not allowed there. But at this time … just be careful! And try to get as much water as you can!”
Rangamma slowly walked to the water pump. Kaavanna took out a bidi, but before he could light it he collapsed on the iron rails.
“Husband!” Kondamma bent over her husband. “Talk to me! Say something!”
“Deva, deva!” she moaned, looking at her husband’s mouth. It was covered with bloody froth. She knew there was no hope for them here.
“Help me carry him home!” she ordered her trembling children. “His heart is still beating.”
Eighteen-year-old Venkatabaabu lifted his father’s frail body, and walked towards the station house.
“Amma, we need our money first! For medicines. The station master Reddy garu, we have to ask him.”
He knocked on the door. A middle-aged man clad in the uniform of a station master emerged. He stopped at the sight of Venkatabaabu and covered his nose with a starched white handkerchief.
“Yes, what is it? Don’t tell me you have completed your job.”
“Reddy garu, our father – he is very ill, perhaps dying even. We need some money to pay for the medicines, for the Vaidya.”
“What impertinence!” Reddy screamed. “You get paid only for finished work! Go back this minute! You people, you expect us to feed and clothe you for nothing?”
“No, Reddy garu, but …”
“So! Well, you won’t get paid and that is my final word.”
The pompous station master twirled his walrus moustache, and banged the door shut in Venkatabaabu’s face. Inside the house, he grinned and counted the money he had kept from the scavengers – a hundred Rupees, but he’d be able to buy a bottle of country liquor with the money.
“It’s no use, Venkatabaabu. We have to hurry!” Kondamma whispered. “Our Vaidya will help. When we visited him a month ago, he gave us free medication. No one else will touch us.”
She looked anxiously at her husband. His breathing was becoming shallower by the minute. Was that a whisper? He was trying to say something.
“Wait!” she said to her son. “Put him down! He’s trying to tell us something.”
Kaavanna looked at his family through tear-filled eyes.
“My wife, my children, this is the end of the road. I know the moment has come for me to leave this life.”
His voice trembled as he spoke his last wish:
“You will scatter my ashes in the waters of Mother Godavari. My blessings on you all.”
His eyes closed. The breathing stopped. Quietly, his family carried him home.
A week later, the local Telugu language newspaper reported:
“TRAGEDY AT RAILWAY TRACKS!
ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD BOY SLIPS ON FECAL MATTER, KNOCKED UNCONSCIOUS, RUN OVER BY TRAIN!
BREAKING NEWS, 4. April, 2018: The eleven-year-old son of our local station master Ramayya Reddy was tragically run over by the morning express from Hyderabad when he slipped on fecal matter that hadn’t been removed from the tracks. Ramayya Reddy has been arrested for gross negligence in mismanaging the cleanliness of the tracks. He has been accused of underpaying or pocketing the money owed to manual scavengers. There have been protests about fatalities resulting from scavenging. But this time a widespread strike by manual scavengers is directed at Mr. Reddy for gross abuse and exploitation. The Corporation is investigating the case.
Kondamma wiped her eyes as she read the news item.
“Come, Amma! It is time to go.”
At the shores of the Godavari, five figures jointly poured
the ashes from a brass pot into the waters of the river, as their mother
chanted a prayer to the gods for the souls of her husband and the boy martyred
on those railway tracks.
 Hell (in Telugu)
 Lathi: a heavy iron-bound bamboo stick
 Daridram means poverty. The word is used in a derogatory manner, as a curse.
 Non-codified traditional doctor.