The telephone rang. It was my neighbour Paramjit
‘Did you give Madhu a chaddar? ’

‘I thought it was yours…Look, don’t misunderstand me, but you shouldn’t give her such things. It creates problems for all of us!’ On that cold winter morning, the controlled irritation in her voice came through the vibrations of the ear-piece.

‘She brought her baby today…. and it was so cold…’my voice trailed off. ‘Your sympathy is wasted on the likes of her’ and Paramjit. ‘If she can find money to smoke beedis, she can find it for a chadder as well…I just thought I should warn you…. bye!’ The phone went dead.

I put down the receiver. I had antagonised yet another neighbour.

Madhu was the koodawali. She came to collect the garbage every morning. She tied her hair in a bun on top of her head, smoked beedis and walked with an insolent swing of her hips. Everyone was afraid of Madhu because the minute she was thwarted she let out a stream of abuse. This was her trump card. No one could challenge one who had such a stock of foul language at her command.

My first encounter with Madhu took place the day after we moved into the new house. I opened the back bedroom window to find her seated on our veranda, smoking a beedi. I was furious. Who was she and how dare she sit on my varanda! I told her to move away.

She ignored me.

‘You can’t sit here’ I repeated.

‘I always sit here!’ she replied.

I was nonplussed. There was no scope for argument. What could one do in the face of such a point blank refusal!

I closed the window. The smoke from the beedi filtered in through the cracks between the shutters. I felt as though someone had slapped me in the face. How could I live here after encountering such a humiliation? But what could I do!

I got what little comfort I could by ranting and raving in front of my husband and children.

Now what? The insolence of a koodavali was not reason enough to move out of a good house and neighbourhood!

At last I hit upon a brilliant idea. I would grill in the entire back verandah at our expense. It would give me more space to keep my what-nots and hang wet clothes and, more important, it would keep out the koodavali My husband raised no objections. His astute banker’s brain worked out the monetary damage of the enterprise. If we stayed there for 3 years it would cost just 200 rupees a month, taking in the opportunity cost at 12%. Not too big a price to pay if he could avoid the hassles of another house hunt and shifting…. and of course the constant cribbing of a frustrated wife. The plan was executed in just three days. One day to find a contractor and haggle over the cost, two days for him to fabricate the grill. It was welded into place the third night. The next day I could not resist the temptation of taking a peek to see Madhu’s reaction. It was raining quite heavily. I couldn’t see anyone. Maybe Madhu and her helpers had decided not to come because of the rain…and then I saw her. She sat huddled under the sunshade of the opposite house, trying to escape the downpour. She was sipping tea from a mug and staring out in front of her; her face totally devoid of any expression.

Why did I feel so deflated all of sudden?

Madhu intrigued and then obsessed me. In the days that followed I casually gathered information about her from the neighbours. They told me that Nana, her husband, was a no-good fellow who was in and out of jail for petty crimes. Madhu had two children, girls. A third child was on the way. When he was not in jail or on one of his drunken binges the husband took care of her and the children. But that was very rare. He got into fights often and landed up in jail. Then Madhu organised the workers, got them to come regularly, harangued them and swore at them like a trooper so that all our houses remained ‘garbage-free’. Although all my neighbours heartily disliked her, somehow things seemed to work better when she was in charge. All this for thirty rupees a month.

‘You did very well to teach her a lesson’ said one of my neighbours. ‘You know’ till last year we had to pay only twenty rupees for the kooda. Then one day she knocks at all our doors and says she will not lift the kooda unless we raise the wages. What can we do? They are so organised and powerful!’

My neighbour shook her head sadly at the sorry state of affairs where a mere koodavali could hold the entire street to ransom.

Sunday was sabbath, strictly observed by the entire neighbourhood. It brought about a oneness of intent that no Din Ilahi could – lie in bed as late as possible! All the hired help were under orders not to come before 9 in the morning. So when I suddenly woke up one Sunday morning to a persistent whirring sound I couldn’t place it…yes the calling bell. I looked at the clock– 7.30 a.m. Drugged with sleep I wondered who it was who had come so early. The whirring again…. finally, unable to bear it any longer, I dragged myself to the door and looked out through the peephole. Madhu.

Why have you come today?’ I asked as I unlatched the door.

‘Biji, Nana is in jail. He got drunk yesterday and had a fight with the neighbours. The police took him away. I have to go and get him out. Give me 20 rupees…’ I wondered briefly whether the story was true. Then to my surprise I caught myself thinking, how does it matter! I gave her the money.

A strange fascination got hold of me. I found myself watching Madhu frequently.

That Diwali I gave her 20 rupees extra – a sop to my conscience.

She looked at me in surprise. One need give the ‘bonus’ only when one has completed one year of stay and Madhu had worked for us only a few months.

By this time her pregnancy was well advanced. I often saw her bending over the trash heap, a pathetic and grotesque figure poking in the rubbish with a long stick, separating it all into smaller heaps…. holding things up for inspection, speculating on what could be salvaged, what could be of value to the kapadiwala….

Another winter Sunday. The strident burr of the door bell pierced the warm cocoon of my rezai. I tried to snuggle deeper into the quilt but the sound persisted. Muttering and cursing I dragged myself to the door. A tiny blurred face floated in the peephole; Madhu’s nine year old daughter. These last few days she had been coming instead of her mother.

‘Haven’t I told you not to come so early on a Sunday?’ I asked crossly as I opened the door.

‘Biji, ma asked me to come to you. She is in hospital. She wants a hundred rupees’.

She has had the baby?’ I asked as I gave her some food.

‘hm.’ The child appeared ill at ease.

‘Boy or girl?’ I was making conversation.

The eyelashes fluttered as she looked up at me. My heart flipped to see the transformation in those eyes – a fleeting look that vested the child’s eyes with the hurt of knowledge beyond their years. It was gone almost before it appeared. She lowered her eyes and lifted the tea cup.


. Lecturer in Victoria College, Palghat, now on long leave. Special interest, theatre. Has written and directed plays. Frequent contributor to newspapers and theatre journals. Reviews books. Presently living in Hyderabad.

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Catherine Thankamma
Lecturer in Victoria College, Palghat, now on long leave. Special interest, theatre. Has written and directed plays. Frequent contributor to newspapers and theatre journals. Reviews books. Presently living in Hyderabad.

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