A railway worker lives another day

Megha Majumdar | Updated on January 24, 2020

Bitter vocation: “Thousands of kilometers of tracks, kilograms and kilograms of waste to clean”   -  ISTOCK.COM

A man who will never be caught flings kerosene upon the straw roof of the missionaries’ hut. He is not a man without mercy — he knows for certain that the family is away that night. He wears a wool scarf over his head to guard himself from dew. In his excitement, the jar heavy and unstable in his hand, he grows angry that the liquid splashes not quickly enough.

Fling, fling.

The jar in his hand is cold.

No, his hand is cold. When he lights the match, his fingers fold and grasp imperfectly, but there, he has thrown the match, and thankfully it has landed on the roof. The straw crackles. The other lit match has landed just inside the doorway. Fists of smoke shove him back, and the other men, too, who are waiting with farm sickles in case anybody was inside. The sickles dangle from loose hands like playthings. Tokens of participation.

He hears screams, but it could be that his mind is playing tricks. The roof has collapsed now and a cheer goes up from the mob. It is as close to the height of festivity as he has seen, because what else is there to celebrate these days?

Certainly the offenders distributed washing powder, sugar, salt. He has heard they distributed suspect meats to the poor, too, those too hungry to examine food for purity, those who will eat a rhino or a lizard, and fight for more. They did such things in this very village. Those who listened were not the enlightened ones, like him, but the waste-cleaning men and women. Now the man feels hands clapping his shoulders, palms cupping his head, like he has made a winning goal in football.

Sad that they managed to convert a few of the backward people, like that woman, now calling herself — listen to this — Mary. What is to be done with her, and with the rest of them? The champion of the moment asks this question.


Silenced: “It is the village council which has declared the broom necessary to quiet her footsteps and erase her footprints”   -  ISTOCK.COM


In the morning, flushed with energy from the night’s happenings, he sits outside his hut and eats a big meal of vegetables and ruti shiny with ghee. Mary emerges from her hovel, he sees.

Mary keeps her face calm and walks down the dirt road, and shh-shh goes the broom hanging from her waist, knocking against the back of her knees. Irritating to look at, honestly. It irritates the man to look at this dark creature in a jangly pink sari walking with a broom tail. Oh, all right, it is he who makes her wear it. It is the village council which has declared the broom necessary to quiet her footsteps and erase her footprints.

So she follows the rules, timid Rajubai, who has taken a white-woman name.

“Mary!” he scoffs. What does she think, just because she takes a madam name, everybody will forget who she really is?


She thinks no such things. If a new name is what it takes to keep receiving free packets of washing powder, she will change her name at every sunrise. But Mary is up this morning, still Mary, her washing powder running low and the rare sugar too.

Out the doorway with no door, Mary walks to the back and into the woods, finding the rut which is her permitted path around the village. The main paths are forbidden to her.

The trees are drying in the heat, their sap sucked by the sun. Bees arrive, intent on the honey of Mary’s hair. Mary keeps her head down, chomping a corner of her sari for breakfast, and pretends to see nothing when she sees what she sees. It makes the hairs on her arms stand up. The missionary family’s hut is a heap of ash, like a crouched animal spotted black and white, some spots smoking as if they are being cooked. During the night, snoring like an engine, she heard nothing.

Her legs feel frail, and not only from the broom’s knocking. Dozens of people are gathered, staring at the hut, and a policeman is idling by a jeep. The press people have not come yet. Quickly, keeping the tin pan steady at her hips, she walks on, glancing at the scarecrow trees and dry bushes for anybody who may have been watching her.

Dry grasses scratch her ankles and sun falls once again on her sun-blackened skin. Why, Mary thinks in a fog of fear that feels like the onset of fever, had she taken the packets of washing powder that Philip and Ethel gave her?

On her hip, and held by one arm, Mary carries a tin bowl with a stick broom and scraping pan inside. They are coming after her next. She knows it.

The rut finally opens up onto a paddy field, now merely stubble. Despite the empty field, Mary knows that in the huts at the far edge, somebody is keeping an eye on her to make sure she does not stumble and fall on either side of the narrow raised strip of soil. If she does, the fields will be ruined for the coming season. They will be forced fallow by her polluting touch. She will not live, in any case.

She can see the railway tracks now, lines stretching from places she has never been (Arunachal, Odisha) to places she will never go (the capital, Dilli). Thousands of kilometres of tracks, kilograms and kilograms of waste to clean.

Some years ago, when the courts of the country found themselves disturbed by a moral conscience and prohibited manual scavenging — the employment of human beings to clean up the solid waste of other human beings deposited from long-distance trains on railway tracks — the news came as a minor disturbance. Would she go to work the next day? If she did not go, the local railways officer would haul her in and tell her, “Why are you given a daily wage? To sit on your behind and look at the sky?”

This daily work has given her dysentery many times. It has coated her fingertips in a permanent smell which she no longer can detect, but others can. Still, it is work.

So Mary bends on the tracks — 40 minutes before the next train comes — and takes a scraper from her bowl. It is no more than a flat piece of tin, smaller than a notebook, with one edge that somebody has tried curling like a plate’s rim. She holds that rim and scoops and scrapes the ochre mud, some of which looks like a cracked cake and some of which looks like a rain puddle. Flies rise from the soil in a panic. She picks with her hands the human excreta where it covers the crushed stone ballast, fallen from the intestines of the bellied men and women who passed by on the express trains, their faces in the windows dulled to the irrigated green of the rural parts. The flies come quickly, no matter the season, their jewel blue wings and beetle red eyes finding something delicious in the excreta. And she is a fly too, Mary knows.



Megha Majumdar is a New York-based editor. Her debut novel A Burning will be published in India by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton in June 2020

Published on January 24, 2020

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