Ramaiya was breathing her last. All her three children surrounded her bed. She lay on a charpoy, covered with tattered sheets. She had been suffering from tuberculosis for the last one and a half years. Her eldest daughter Gauri had started her treatment at the government hospital but, most of the time, either the doctors were not available or the medicines were out of stock. Finally Ramaiya succumbed to the disease, leaving her wailing children behind. She died with her eyes fixed at Gauri. Gauri could read every word written in those eyes. She reached out with her hand and gently shut them, for ever. Ramaiya’s husband, Hira, lay drunk on the verandah outside.
Ramaiya and Hira lived with their three children in the Dalit basti on the outskirts of Lakhanpur. This basti was different from the others, because of the nature of job of the adults here. They were mainly all manual scavengers and yes, though unbelievable in the twenty-first century, they were very much there, putting the civilised world to shame. The filthy work that they were doing to earn their livelihood was so appalling, and so humiliating, that mostly all the men took to drinking. The whole evening they would drink and do drugs, to escape the horrible reality of their lives. The womenfolk were more resilient and had to run a house and bring up the children, which they did inspite of the beatings and abuses of their alcoholic husbands.
The children were not spared either. They were not allowed to study with other children in schools. The parents, lifting the night soil manually, would make their children too untouchables. The other, not so unfortunate children, would taunt them and say nasty things to them. Ramaiya had tried sending her children to the government school. She desperately wanted her children to study and, on growing up, take up a different livelihood. But her children were not allowed to study there. She had vowed to herself that she would not let her children become scavengers. So she, along with her eldest child Gauri, would leave the village very early in the morning and walk down to the township that was about ten kilometres away. She would leave her younger children at home, with her mother-in-law. In the township she would work as a daily labourer, on construction sites. After the day’s work she would walk back home again. Gauri too would work with her, and both mother and daughter managed like this for a long time.
A young boy named Raman, also working there on the site as a painter, fell in love with Gauri. Gauri, knowing her caste, could not dare to reciprocate. After trying to woo Gauri through many ways and being completely ignored by her, one day Raman confronted Gauri. Gauri somehow managed to escape and from the next day she stopped going to work with her mother. A week passed and Gauri still hadn’t joined work. Raman then went up to Ramaiya and told her that he loved Gauri and would like to marry her. Ramaiya was aghast.
“ Do you know what you are saying, Raman Babu? Gauri can’t marry you and please stop pestering her.”
“ But why can’t she marry me?” questioned Raman.
“Because we are Dalits and the lowest of Dalits. Now if you are satisfied, will you please leave us alone?” cried an agitated Ramaiya with folded hands.
Next day, Gauri resumed work. She was sure that after knowing the reality, Raman would not even throw a glance at her. Exactly as Gauri had anticipated, Raman kept himself busy at work the whole day, as if Gauri was not even there. Gauri felt hurt, for she too, in her heart, had started liking Raman. But she was not ready to face the insulting glance from Raman, after he would know about her caste; hence, she was trying to ward off Raman. After work when Gauri and Ramaiya were leaving for home, Raman came and stood in front of them. In front of a shocked Ramaiya, he proposed to Gauri and asked for her hand in marriage.
“How can you do this? What will your family say?” cried Gauri.
“ I live with my mother. My father is no more. I have told mother about you and she has no objection to this marriage. She does not believe in the caste system,” smiled Raman. Gauri could say nothing else. Soon Gauri and Ramaiya got married. Within two years they were blessed with a beautiful girl. Gauri named her Vidya.
Four years had gone by. Ramaiya fell ill and she died. Gauri knew that her mother’s only dream was getting all her children out of this rut of the gutter. Gauri and Raman had taken the younger siblings with them to the township, and had got them admitted in a school. Ramaiya had seen this and that had given her some solace, during her lifetime. She knew that her children will not have to get into the gutters anymore. Hira did not live too long and one day was found dead, near a canal. Consumption of excessive alcohol was the cause given for his death. He got freed of a disgusting as well as a frustrated life of a manual scavenger.
Years rolled by. Vidya was receiving her doctorate in Sanskrit. She was brilliant in academics and was a particularly well-loved professor in the Benaras Hindu University. Gauri and Raman were present there and their hearts were bursting with joy and pride. Meera, Gauri’s younger sister, came and hugged Vidya while congratulating her. Meera was the Head of the English Department in the same university.
“Where is Sanskar uncle, Mom?” enquired Vidya.
“Name the devil and the devil is here,” Sanskar walked in and hugged Vidya tight. “My meeting yesterday went on till late night, so I got delayed” said Sanskar apologetically. He was a senior scientist of repute, at ISRO.
“Mom, what is this? Why do you look sad? Are you thinking about grand mom?” asked Vidya.
“ Yes, Maa would have been so happy to see all of us. It is only her dream that has been fulfilled, or else …” she left the sentence unfinished.
Raman reached out for her hand and held it in a tight clasp. A reporter, covering the event, came up to Vidya and asked her,
“Dr. Vidya, is it true that your grandfather worked as a manual scavenger?”
Vidya flinched at the question but looking into the camera replied,
“Yes, sadly he was. In today’s times when man has reached the moon, there still are many who go down into the gutters everyday, to earn their livelihood. Is anybody bothered about them? The sheer filth that they work in, is unthinkable. Nobody has the empathy to lend them a helping hand, and give them an equal place in society. Does progress has any bearing on their lives?”
The reporter continued,
“You and your family are all well settled now, in the society. Are you doing something to help them?”
“We have never waited for others to help us. My illiterate grandmother had only one dream, that was to see her children out of the gutters. My parents, and my uncle and aunt, have fulfilled her dream. They have fought with the society and opted to get educated against all odds, so we all could have a life outside the gutters. Now we all work to help the children of others in our basti, by funding their education. Education is the only way out and the children understand it well. We hope to be able to eradicate this despicable way of livelihood, very soon,” replied a composed and confident Vidya.
Next day the papers carried a full page story of Vidya with her picture, and the heading was, “The journey from the gutters to the university.”