i was out for a smoke, on yet another one of those routine breaks while at work when i saw him at the street corner. they’re mostly always reeking of alcohol. its not common to find people getting drunk and going to work, but thats how it works for them.
‘it makes it easier for us to down a couple of shots and then get to work’, he tells me. ‘otherwise sometimes the stench is unbearable. its like this – we can’t possibly do this job when we’re sober’. talk about occupational hazards. his black skin had lines of sweat glistening against the scorching summer sun. he was stripped down to his underpants, smoking a beedi. i am not sure which odour is more pervasive, that of his alcohol laden breath or that which emantes from the open manhole next to which he is standing.
there are a hundred questions running in my mind. we’ve supposed to have evolved as a civilization, but, i ask myself why men are still condemned to such menial jobs. surely there must be another way out?
impulsively, i extend my hand out to him.
‘my hands are dirty, sir’, he tells me.
dirty hands can be washed off with soap. what do i do with my dirty mind, i ask myself again. the voices in the head!
‘it’s ok’, i tell him, and we shake hands. he has this quizzical look on his face, for i don’t think people otherwise talk to him. ‘my family always complains to me that i am stinking, even after i’ve had a thorough bath and cleaned up and all that’, he tells me with a forlorn expression. ‘my children are even ashamed of me. after all, what would they tell their friends in school when they are asked what their father does?’
there is a pregnant pause, and it seems to last forever, a period in which i had neither the conscience and courage to look at him, nor could i look away.
‘thank you’, i told him on impulse, ‘you clean up our dirt. we owe a lot to you, for it is you who ensures cleanliness for us’
‘it’s my job sir’, he retorts before quickly plunging into the hole again, ‘the monsoons will arrive and we have to make sure the drains are free of any blockages’