You might have seen her regularly. She comes at about eight or nine in the morning. She comes with her hesitant and slow pace. She carries a basket or a tin box under her arm. That basket or tin box is full of stuff…
As soon as you see her you start hating. You look somewhere else blocking your nose and mouth. You withdraw your attention not from her but from the stuff. If she is not carrying the stuff…
She is not that bad looking. She is a woman of twenty or twenty two years, well-built arms and legs and with bold-charming face. Her body looks a mixed color of copper and gold. Her parents have rightly named her Rukuna.
She comes like Rukuna ratha1 and goes like Rukuna ratha. This part of the town is her field of work. She works hard during all seasons- summer, winter and rainy. She wears a red Kasta saree and wraps a gamcha or a towel. In her arm she carries the tin full of stuff.
You may withdraw yourself from her stuff but listen to her story. Listen, listen with full attention. It is the story told by Rukuna herself:
That year during winter her mother-in-law fell ill. Arthritis. The old woman could no longer walk. Forget about carrying weight. Who will do the work? You can’t ignore municipality work. We get hundred rupees every month. You need to fill your stomach. It was Rukuna’s responsibility.
Rukuna did not agree to do that work. It is true her mother swept the streets. But she never cleaned latrines. Father was dead when she was a child. Even though mother took a lot of trouble in bringing her up, she was remembering her father a lot. If father was alive, he would have sent to school and given her in marriage to a better person.
Her younger brother went to school for two years but did not continue. He became mischievous. Now he works as a peon in the colitor (collector) office. She has no contact with him after her marriage.
She spent one year happily after her marriage with Dina. Then Kuna was born. He brought trouble with him. For some reason, Dina did not pay attention to Rukuna. He started drinking. Started visiting prostitutes. Dina used to work as a sweeper in Municipality. He used to earn well. Now all his income goes to liquor shop and the prostitute house.
Her mother-in-law requested Dina earnestly. She rebuked him. But there was no result. One day, Rukuna sat at his feet and said, “If you don’t bother it is all right. But think of Kuna. You have to bring him up. Please don’t waste your money on that whore.
Dina got wild. He cried of anger. “What did you say? I am after a whore! Which whore? Have you seen me with her? You shali! You yourself have been doing prostitution. So you think that all are doing like you.”
Then arguments, anger, sulk. Then, thrashing on Rukuna. Rukuna felt harassed due to this kind of regular drama. The fate perhaps could not tolerate the well-being of Rukuna’s young days. She was punished without her fault. She tried to forget everything by looking at Kuna’s moon-like round face.
At that time, fate brought one more punishment. She had to take the responsibility of lifting night soil and carry it on the streets. First she could not come to term with how she could do such a dirty work. When she expressed her unwillingness, her mother-in-law rebuked her, “Are you a Raja Bahadur’s daughter? If you don’t work in latrines, how can you get food for your stomach? If your landlord mother had brought up you like a pampered child, why didn’t you remain at home unmarried?”
Rukuna realized it. If she does not step out, does n’t shoulder responsibility of her mother-in-law, the house can’t run. She came out to work tightening her waist leaving behind her seven month old baby under her mother-in-law’s care.
Rukuna clearly remembers that day. She fed Kuna and had pan- cakes with molasses. She drank the extra tea made for her mother-in-law, took her tin box and went out for work. Dina was at home that time. She told him, “You didn’t bother about the family! I am now forced to go and work in latrines!”
First she went to a shift latrine. She got mad. Her mind didn’t work. The night soil had got accumulated like ant hills as they were not cleared for two or three days due to the absence of her mother-in-law. The liquid portion has started flowing. On the heap, there were lengutia insects moving on the flowing soil. There was no place to put legs and stand straight. How could she not know.
Her nose was about to burst with that terrible smell. As if she was about to vomit. Rukuna closed her nostrils with the end of her saree and collected the dirt with a scrapper and put in the tin box. At once her stomach churned. It looked ark all around. She left the work, went and sat under a chakunda tree and started thinking.
She vomited the pan cakes she had in the morning. She felt a bit better. She remembered the story heard in her childhood. Every one’s fate is decided in the court of Jama Raja. Those who are sinners, they are sent to the Narakapura, they are put in the holes of poisonous snakes and alligators or in the tank which is full of human disposal covered with insects moving all around. For Rukuna, all these were the painful suffering of Naraka. But what sin she had committed to go through this pain?
She got slowly and went and washed her hands and face from the house-owner’s pipe. The mistress called from inside in anger – “Is that, that sweeper girl, you dare devil! If you wanted water, you could have asked me. Why did you touch my pipe with those dirty hands with all that dirt? You spoilt my water!”
Rukuna was scared. She said in an apologetic tone. “I am sorry madam. I have committed a mistake. Please forgive me. I shall never do like this.”
The mistress was pacified a little. She asked, “Where is that old woman? You seem to be quite new for this job. You will learn slowly. Well. Go.”
That day, she finished her job early, came home and told her mother- in-law. Mother-in-law smiled and said, “Since you are new, you feel like that. Things will be better slowly. You tell me before you leave for work. I shall make some arrangement for you.”
Kuna refused to feed on milk when he saw his mother. Rukuna left for the river to have a bathe. She thought she has been contaminated with dirt throughout the morning. Why should she contaminate her child by feeding her child? She had her bathe in the river and took Kuna to her lap and fed him from her breast.
Cooking was not yet over. The mother-in-law had cooked dal and put off the fire. Rukuna cooked rice and prepared a curry with potato and salted dish. Dina does not like without non-vegetarian curry. Rukuna knows it well. Dina came at the right time had his belly full of meal and went somewhere else. Kuna was asleep. Rukuna served food for her mother-in-law and took for her and sat to eat. But what is this? She could see heap of disposal on her plate. The watery harada dal looked like flowing liquid for the heap. The hot vapour of rice reached her nose. It smelled like the smell that eminated from the dung. Rukuna could not eat. She left the food and got up.
The next day, when she started for work, she could not walk. Her mother-in-law called her and handed over a glass of liquor and said, “Take, drink this. You drink this much before you leave for work. You will feel fit – You won’t feel bad to do such work.”
Rukuna was startled looking the country liquor in the glass. That means she has to drink liquor if she has to work in latrines. She had fought with Dina over this liquor. She hated her mother-in-law for she drank. What a fate! At last she has resorted to drink!
The mother-in-law said, “Why are you refusing? Take. People who do such job usually drink. If you don’t, how can you stir the dung of people? “
Rukuna was compelled to drink. In the beginning, it tasted bad but she like it. Really, she did not feel bad to work after being drunk. She had no problem in clearing heaps of dung from latrines. After getting used, the ugly work became a passion.
But after coming back from work and washing drops of dung from her Kasta saree of washing strins of that from her body, she hated all that. There are so many kinds of work in this world but God has chosen to give this work to her. She thought how to get rid of this.
Rukuna saw that many women in the town have been leading their life doing such work. Earn for the belly. There is no harm. If they get any better job, then they leave it and switch over to that.
Rukuna looked for an opportunity and assembled every one. All said unitedly. We can do this bad job no longer. They took a unanimous decision that they won’t do such job. They decided to appeal to the Municipal Chairman and the Minister.
Really, why should women clean latrine in a civilized and independent country? Why should they bear the burden of carrying dung? In a welfare state, is there any provision to keep the cleanliness and purity of society at the cost of the health and hygiene and dignity of women? Why should that hand which feeds human child and makes a full person, be engaged and made ugly in steering of human disposal and urine. The body which is the divine alter of love and worship, should it carry the dung?
The Officer of the Municipality and Development Minster listened to their appeal. The urban Development Minister announced that according to the rule of the government, no man and woman should be engaged to clan latrines. For this, there is a law in place to free sweepers. Slowly, the lift system; latrines and open latrines will be abolished from all cities. The Municipality and NAC will provide loan and assistance to install flush toilets. People who are building new houses will not be allowed to construct lifting toilets or open toilets. Those men and women now engaged in lifting night soil will be given alternative job.
Rukuna is waiting for it. When the government announcement will be implemented and when will her sorrow go?
1. Rukuna is a place near Balasore in Orissa. The Rukuna cart festival is very famous. The character is compared with the cart here.
Translated from Oriya by Anand Mahanand
KRISHNA CHARAN BEHERA. Is a writer from Odisha.