A month ago, somebody asked me what story I was working on.
I told her.
"It's when people lift other people's shit. Real, literal shit, not the metaphorical kind."
She shook her head. "Really? So where will you be traveling?"
"Different places. But I will start will Delhi."
Her husband shook his head. "Delhi? This doesn't happen in Delhi."
He refused to believe it. "It can't be... maybe in villages where people are backward."
I don't blame him. We all think we're so progressive and this sort of thing doesn't happen in India. Not in the cities. Possibly, in the villages, where people don't know any better.
That is what we want to believe. That is what we cannot bear not to believe. That is, nevertheless, the truth. It is illegal. It is unfair. But it is the truth.
Yet, I understand the reluctance to accept it. I find it hard to speak about it. And naturally, even those who must do this ultimate-in-filthy-jobs are reluctant to talk.
In Delhi, in Shahdara, I met the women whom you could call, in polite terms, manual scavengers. In Panipat, in Haryana, I met some more. In Punjab, in Samral, yet more.... when we talked about it, we referred to manual scavening as "ye kaam" or "kacchi khuddiyo.n ka kaam" (work of the dry laterines).
They're usually neat, polite smiling women. Women who scoop up human excreta with a piece of tin and a rough broom and put it in bamboo baskets which they must carry away. On their shoulders. On their hips. On their heads.
Which is why many a government document mentions the term 'headloading'. Some government officials have even been insensitive enough to counter dalit activists' accusations of the continuing of the practice of headloading by saying that "they don't carry it on their heads; only their hips."
It is hard to come to terms with it, is it not? That there are a few thousand, tens of thousand, a few lakh people who must lift other people's excreta to be able to survive. That we immediately take to technology via mobile phones and CD players, the moment we can afford it, but we will not invest a few thousand rupees to build new toilets, to buy better sanitation, to hire consultants to think about what can be done towards better sewage systems.
To think that we let it happen - that nobody takes out processions in protest, that no bandhs are called in the capital, that nobody ostracises anybody in your city who employs another human being (at the rate of Rs 20 a month, and the occassional roti) to lift and carry your shit.
These are not nice things to think about. And I don't blame anybody for not wanting to think about them. But think, all the same.