Modern-Day Slavery: Half A Century As A Sweeper
As Narrated to Yoginder Sikand
19 January, 2013
Never before—and I am now almost sixty years old—has anyone asked me to recount the story of my life. No, not even my own children have asked me this. I don’t blame them at all. After all, who wants to hear the story of a mere sweeper? It isn’t that I’ve earned a lot of money or that I have become a famous or powerful man that someone would like to know about my life. But, anyway, since you insist, I will tell you something about myself.
I was born in a small village in eastern India shortly after the British had left the country. My family belonged to a caste that was considered to be among the lowest of the low. Our ancestral profession was, as long as we could remember, removing carcasses from the village, clearing the drains and cleaning people’s toilets. My father did this work, just as his forefathers had done before him, but after some years it was next to impossible for him to maintain his family on the meager income that he earned from this occupation. And so, he left the village and went to Calcutta, where he got a job as a sweeper in a jute mill on a wage of 50 paise a month. Can you believe it? Just 50 paise!
50 paise was a lot in those days for a family of our background, but as the prices of things went up it became virtually impossible for us to survive on this amount. We led a literally hand-to-mouth existence, not knowing how and from where we would get our next meal. Very often, we ate only boiled water flavoured with chillies and salt.
In those days, the fashion of sending children to school had just started in the villages in my area. People thought, ‘If our sons study something, they can get at least some sort of job in the city that might pull us out of poverty.’ Believing this, my father insisted I should join the village school. I studied there for a few years. I learnt how to read and write in the vernacular, but it has been ages since I’ve used a pen, and very long ago I forgot almost everything that I had studied.
After some years at school, my father decided I should quit and take up a job because, being the eldest son, he felt that it was time that I should begin contributing to our family’s upkeep. I was happy to leave school—it was boring and very scary, too—and was glad to be able to go to the ‘big city’—to Calcutta, where my father worked, and about which I had heard so much.
In Calcutta, I got a job as a sweeper in the jute mill where my father worked. It was tough work, but at least I was able to make some money and feel that I was helping my family.
A short while after taking up this job, a friend of mine told me about a family in Calcutta that wanted a full-time sweeper. They offered a salary of fifty rupees a month, which was considerably more than what I was then earning, and so I willingly took up the job. And now, almost fifty years later, I am still working with the same family.
The family consisted of five people—Saheb and Memsaheb (that was how I had to address them) and their three children. You may want to know how it was for me to work for them as a mere sweeper. I don’t have any easy answer to give you. Yes, it is true that Saheb and Memsaheb have been kind to me. They generally spoke in a nice way, and they even helped me educate my children. They gave me good food to eat—the same food which they also had—and nice clothes to wear. For all that I am very grateful. Certainly, I haven’t been treated as shabbily as some other sweepers I know have. Some of my friends who work as sweepers, maids or cooks in the houses of the rich have told me horror stories which would shock and shake you—of how their Memsahebs lock up the fridge so that they won’t be able to steal scraps of food, and of how young maids have been verbally and sexually abused by their employers and their sons and even beaten with sticks. No, I haven’t been through any of that sort of thing, and for this I am grateful to God. May he bless Saheb and Memsaheb for all the good they’ve done to me.
But, that said, I can’t say that I really enjoyed being a sweeper all my life or that I couldn’t have been treated better by Saheb and Memsaheb and their children. Although most of the time they weren’t bad to me, and certainly very rarely vicious, they’ve always made me feel and remember that I am just a sweeper, a lowly servant, almost just a thing and not a person. As a servant, I was conditioned to never have a mind of my own and simply to do what I was ordered to. I was made to understand that if I ever dared utter a word that didn’t accord with Saheb or Memsaheb’s opinion I could be sure of losing my job. And so, I had to smile or just shut up while being scolded. I had to treat Saheb and Memsaheb’s children, who are much younger than me, as if they were my revered elders. While the family’s dogs and cats could sprawl out on the sofas and beds, I could never dare do so, and had to be content with my place on the floor. While Saheb and Memsaheb and their kids would cuddle their pets and kiss them and allow themselves to be licked by them on their faces, they would, of course, never touch, leave alone hug or kiss, my little kids.
I’ve spent most of my life cleaning the toilets and sweeping the floors in Saheb’s house. You may think that’s not difficult work, but it isn’t really so. Saheb, as I’ve indicated, wasn’t a bad or mean man—at least with me he was something like a father—but he was a messy shitter, and that really sickened me. Sometimes, he wouldn’t bother to pull the flush of the loo, leaving big, smelly logs of shit floating in the pot. At other times, he would leave bits of shit sticking onto the commode after relieving himself, and I had to clean it all up myself with my hands—using a brush, of course. Sometimes, he would get drunk and vomit on the floor, and I would have to clear away the mess. Sometimes, Memsaheb would scream at me if a patch of floor had a stain that I had overlooked. Once, Memsaheb’s son gave me a slap because while dusting his things I had toppled a religious icon that he had kept on his table. If he were really religious in the true sense of the term, would he ever do a thing like that?
Besides the cleaning work, I had to do various jobs throughout the day—moving things from here to there, taking the dogs for a walk and cleaning up their shit and piss, running to the neighbourhood shop to buy this and that, helping out with the cooking, and so on. I would come up to the house at 7 in the morning. Then, I would work till lunch-time, after which I would go down to my room (a tiny hole in the wall, which I shared with another servant), and then come up at 4 and work till 9. This was the fixed routine which I’ve followed almost every day for almost half a century, except for the one month every year when I was able to go back home.
I have served Saheb and Memsaheb faithfully all my life. They trusted me so much that they would leave their home in my hands when they went away on vacation. On several occasions, they gave me boxes of jewels and bundles of cash to handle or keep with me for safety, and never once did I give them cause to lose their faith in me. Even when Saheb died—here I am not bragging, and if you want you can easily confirm this—I was the one who handled his corpse. No one else, not even his wife or children, was ready to even touch his body—maybe, they considered it polluting. It was I who cleaned his body, and with much love, for the man was good to me in his own way. So, I took off the clothes that Saheb died in, wiped his body with a wet cloth, and dressed him in a new kurta-pajama, while the rest of the family was busy mourning Saheb’s death and also—believe it or not—squabbling over the property he had left behind. (Saheb’s daughter had accused Memsaheb of hiding Saheb’s will, because, she claimed, Saheb had left most of the property to her! I don’t know what the truth of the matter is, but why should I bother? After all, Saheb didn’t leave even a rupee for me in his will despite my having faithfully served him like an uncomplaining donkey for years.)
Although I have been such a loyal servant, I feel sad that my loyalty has hardly been respected by this family. Don’t think I am complaining, but I think I might have deserved better for all I have done for them. You will be surprised at how I’ve shabbily been treated actually if I tell you everything.
There was a boy who worked in Memsaheb’s house (this was after Saheb had died), and he and I didn’t get along well. He was in Memsaheb’s good books—she loved to listen to his gossip, and would egg him on to bad-mouth others, this being one of her favourite pastimes. One day, believe it or not, he told Memsaheb that he had spotted me in her bathroom having sex with her favourite dog! Without confirming this or asking me if this were true, she ordered me to leave her house at once. You can imagine how shocked I was! But there was nothing I could do. I had no idea how I would face the world if news of this horrible rumour spread. I rushed to the railway station that very day and took the next available train home.
It was virtually impossible staying at home in the village then because we had little to survive on now that I had lost my job. I did a few low-paid odd jobs here and there and somehow we managed to survive. Then, a few months later, I got a call from Memsaheb. She had started a business, she said, and she needed me to work in her office. She didn’t’ say that she was sorry for having asked me to leave or for falsely accusing me of having sex with her dog. I knew she wanted me to come back only because she wasn’t able to find another trustworthy person to work for her.
What could I do or say? I had to agree. I swallowed my pride and came back to Memsaheb simply because I wasn’t able to feed my family any longer. And so, I started working with Memsaheb again.
By this time, I had begun to turn old and I wasn’t keeping very well. After a few months, I went to a doctor and we did some tests and discovered that I had diabetes. I was so weak that I was unable to work any longer. You might have thought that since I was in such a bad shape Memsaheb would have had some compassion for me and given me a decent sum of money, which would have enabled me to return home and spend the rest of my life there. After all, I had served her faithfully and uncomplainingly for so many years. And then, she had just sold off her mother’s flat, earning a whopping sum for it. Giving me just a wee bit of that money wouldn’t have done her any harm. But, no! I don’t think rich people think like that about the poor, not even about those poor people who have spent almost their whole lives working for them like slaves. When I told her that my health did not permit me to work any longer, Memsaheb simply asked me to go back to the village. She gave me only my train fare, and not a single rupee more!
And so I was back to square one.
I stayed in the village for a long time after that. Not once did Memsaheb contact me—to ask me if I needed money (which I certainly did) or to ask if I was well (which I wasn’t). That’s how I was treated despite having toiled for a pittance for that family for decades.
In a way, it was good to be back in the village for a while. After all, I had been away from home for almost fifty years (except for the annual one month holiday) and I had hardly spent any time with my wife and children. In fact, I can say that I hardly knew my family at all. Staying in the village gave me the chance to get to know them better. At this time, I also managed to marry off my daughter. That was a major responsibility that I was able to fulfill, although I spent almost all my savings on the marriage party and the dowry—more than four lakh rupees.
Since I had lost my job and we had hardly any money left in the bank, it was really difficult to make ends meet. You might have thought that working all these years for Saheb and Memsaheb I would have had a fairly decent bank balance. But no! You will be shocked when I tell you that all I now have is a sum of ten thousand rupees!
Some months ago, Memsaheb contacted me again. She had opened a new office and needed a man to work there, and so she asked me to come back. Naturally, I had, once again, to forget my self-respect and agree. At least I would be able to earn something and keep my family alive. That’s why I am now back to slaving for the family that I have been serving for almost all my life now, back, once again, to being a sweeper.
Yoginder Sikand is a Bangalore based writer
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