Lakshaya’s sister Dolly, however, has no husband to take care of her. A deep sense of sadness engulfs her home. Its moss-coloured walls are riddled with pockmarks. Vidhi, her three-year-old daughter, often busies herself scraping off the paint and gingerly licking the wall with the tip of her tongue. From the ceiling hangs a lone bulb with an exposed wire. At night, when the bulb glows, small translucent-winged creatures dance around it, leaving Vidhi mesmerised.
Through a process of push-and-shove, space has been made for almost everything. Aluminium and steel pots are stacked on a long, narrow stone slab attached to the wall. A lumpy mattress rests on a single bed. Beneath it is a large metal trunk, which stores winter clothes, photo albums and other essentials. Summer clothes hang from iron hooks, piled on top of each other. A plastic tray that holds a toothbrush and a wiry tongue cleaner is fixed to the wall. A small ceiling fan whirs at a freakishly high speed. This is its only setting: the regulator is faulty. In a corner of the room hangs a tiny mirror. A thin film of dust has settled over it.
When Dolly was still Sekond Lal’s wife, she would spend hours before it, admiring her features while she combed her hair. Now she rarely looks at herself. In 2019, three years after her husband’s death, Dolly has aged. Her black eyes have become stony and her cheeks have sunk in. She bundles her long hair in a clumsy lump at her nape. She wears no jewellery, except for a wiry nose ring, a pair of anklets and two blood-red glass bangles. Perhaps, through this state of unkemptness, she tries to deflect the prying eyes of men. As a young widow, she is vulnerable.
Ten days after Sekond Lal died, Dolly’s in-laws told her they could no longer support her. “You are of no value to us,” they said. “Fend for yourself and live on your own.” Dolly was too shaken, too weak to question her mother-in-law, who instructed her to pack her belongings and leave. She quietly returned to her parents’ home, where her father gave her a small room on the ground floor despite the protests of her brother Ajay, who lived in a room above hers.
Ajay, though younger than her, is the eldest of the boys. He didn’t want to slice off a portion of his meagre earnings to feed half a dozen extra bellies, even if they were his own blood. He had a wife and children of his own to look after. Lakshaya, Dolly’s younger brother, was more accommodating. However, he refused to be seen with her beyond the boundary of Chand Ghat. “I have an image to maintain,” he tells me later.
Lakshaya, who was already working as a guide at the time, wanted to be seen in public by his clientele as a high-class man. He did not want to be associated with anyone or anything that might remotely remind people of his Dom background. Dolly unconsciously grinds her jagged teeth, rimmed crimson from excessive paan-chewing. “At that time, there was no one I could really depend on, except my parents, who were already old,” she says.
In order to allow Dolly to live comfortably with her children, her parents packed their bags and moved 150 kilometres away to another house. Barely able to make ends meet, however, Dolly was forced to part with three of her children. She sent one to live with her aunt and packed off two to live with her parents. The eldest, a son, and the youngest, Vidhi, remained with her. Like all the girls in the community, Dolly was raised to believe she would always be taken care of.
As a child, her father had looked after her expenses. Her parents never encouraged her to study, nor did she feel the need to. She was brought up to believe that her husband would take care of her once she was married. When she became a widow, Dolly realised she needed to earn. She disliked the idea of being dependent on her brother Ajay.
“But if I got a job, people in the community would ridicule him, saying that he couldn’t take care of me,” she explains. Still, Dolly knocked on the doors of “upper-caste” homes, asking whether they had cooking and cleaning jobs. Whenever she identified her neighbourhood or told them her surname, the individuals would take a step back. No one was comfortable giving her work, except that of scrubbing toilets. “I am, after all, a ‘low-born’,” she says, echoing a belief that has been seared into her since childhood. To be able to feed her children comfortably, Dolly needed to earn at least Rs 4,000 a month. The “latrine job”, as she called it, would earn her a meagre sum of Rs 550.
In India, a majority of safai karamcharis, manual scavengers, are Dalits. Among them, it is primarily the women and girls who are engaged to clean latrines, drains and toilet pits, and rid dominant-caste homes of faecal sludge and other waste. “We are the Chaudharys of Manikarnika Ghat,” Dolly’s neighbour Mirchi tells me on another day, while we are sitting in her home, drinking tea from small plastic cups. Mirchi is a 36-year-old woman with almond eyes, long dark hair and a pepper tongue. “People still consider us ‘untouchables’. If we touch people like this” – she pokes my knee with her finger – “hey immediately run off to take a bath. It’s because of our caste that almost nobody gives us a job.”
A working woman is an anomaly in Chand Ghat. That a woman can earn a living and be self-reliant is an alien concept for the community. “It’s just not in our tradition. It’s unacceptable,” Mirchi informs me. “Log galat nazar se dekhtein hain. People look at you in the wrong way.” If a woman leaves the house on her own, the community wonders if there are any strange men in her place of work or if she is going to meet someone secretly. “If a woman goes out to earn money, her husband’s masculinity is questioned,” she continues. “The community ridicules him, saying that he is incompetent. In some instances, the husband might do nothing, just eat and drink all day, and live off his wife. Or he might say, ‘Okay, you’re earning. Clearly you don’t need me. So, earn and live by yourself.’ Basically, their ego gets hurt.”
Excerpted with permission from Fire on the Ganges: Life Among the Dead in Banaras, Radhika Iyengar, HarperCollins India.