The day had not really begun in the city of Kolkata but there one could see a woman rather short, thin, almost skinny of dark complexion with a pail of water and a broom in her hand, her hair tied up in a rough bun, the pleats of her sari raised and tucked into her waist, spouting angrily in her Bengali dialect. That was Mashi hurrying up the backstairs of Dalhousie Mansion, a colonial edifice at the heart of BBD Bag in Kolkata, for she was the sanitation worker and cleaner of the buildings’ toilets. Though no one knew her name for Mashi was a kinship word meaning mother’s sister, she had perhaps found a way to avenge the nonchalance of the world with her raised voice that like a sharpened weapon stabbed through the glass and wooden doors and grazed past the high floors of the building.
An office building, Dalhousie Mansion still clung to its very British first name even though Dalhousie Square had become BBD Bag. The structure was three-storied, with double-height ceilings, corridor verandas, and gothic archways spread across five blocks each named after one of the first five letters of the English alphabet. There was no trace of the elephant gates of marble which had once graced its entrance for instead one would be greeted by the menace of the enmesh of electric wires, discoloured walls stained with paan and plasters of walls, and ceilings falling off, and almost every bit of its aesthetic façade decaying like diseased skin. Most of all even in broad daylight the flight of stairs remained shrouded in darkness with an occasional dim electric bulb that was breathing its last. A living death or a dying life it was difficult to say what would best describe the present condition for both its lifts had shut down operations and even the fire department had refused to enlist or renew any license to any of the businesses in the building causing much anxiety among its tenants. Still, the interiors of the offices that were housed were completely modernized and furnished according to the latest standards of interior design. Amidst the split of the inside and outside like two countries on the border of the glass door, Dalhousie Mansion housed a hundred or more tenants, lawyers, chartered accountants, businessmen, share brokers, and many more.
Lately, the meetings of the tenant associations were frequent, and alleged the landlord of being indifferent to the state of the building and shutting down the lifts to drive away the tenants. The landlord alleged the tenants had shifted their operations elsewhere long before but held on to their offices paying a paltry rent, waiting for handsome compensation from whosoever be it a developer or another owner when the building would be torn down to build a mall or plush apartments. So it was not surprising that they often ended in stalemate as was common in such associations. And since every issue had become a point of contention between the landlord and the tenants there was a passive resignation to problems remaining a problem for a long time without direct solutions.
Of the two building blocks where Mashi was the cleaner, the ladies’ toilets were in a bad state with doors with broken latches, faulty bolts and swollen wood which could not be shut from the inside. As such women came at least in pairs or often in small groups together so that one of them would hold the door handle often a small rusty ring from the outside while another went in to relieve herself. With the lifts shut down, to avoid going up and down the flight of stairs, an open shop selling cigarettes and pan masala did brisk business in a corner on the topmost third floor. It so happened that one of the ladies’ toilets was directly opposite that open shop with men smoking and joking with their eyes riveted on the women waiting to relieve themselves. Worse still some days there would be no water supply and at other times the water overflowed flooding the toilet floors. At such times Mashi could be seen in hectic activity uttering a deluge of foul language out of an aggravated sense of frustration unable to keep the toilets strictly clean.
Naturally, these never featured in the minutes of the meetings of the tenant association often considered taboo and unimportant in the face of other important issues such as the collection of association fees and the election of the secretary. Even though a maximum number of women worked in the offices there were hardly any women members in the tenant association as very few women owned businesses and the few that did made great efforts to pretend everything was fine.
Everyday Mashi would come from the mofussil areas of Kolkata boarding the train at daybreak. The sanitation workers and cleaners of the other blocks Mashi regarded as her enemies and frequently guarded the washrooms as her strongholds jealously against their invasion. Only once when Mashi fell sick the clerk of one of the Advocate’s chambers brought another cleaner ‘temporarily’ he claimed from a neighbouring block for what he called the ‘good of the women in his office.’ When Mashi came back she was found standing in front of the glass door of his office, “Kicking me in the stomach are you?” she yelled, “Threatening the livelihood of a poor woman? You think you are too clever? Don’t make me open my mouth about how you cheat me,” and she continued her loud tirade with her one hand raised, her finger pointing to the office doors wishing him dead from cholera more than once and the extinction of his family line with no one to give him pinda. He simply sat stoned as though at his desk, pen in hand pretending not to hear, even though this led to him being subject to severe disapproval from his boss and associates for bringing such chaos into a gentlemanly office. Even the thick glass doors and the surveillance cameras could not prevent the wave of Mashi’s words from penetrating right into the sacred chamber of the office in charge of the highest duties of the constitution. After the storm had subsided even though no one came in the clerk’s defence there were murmurs of the rise of the lower classes and even more of the lower castes that were taking over the city. “This city is just going to hell,” they said. “All the chotoloks, the lower classes, are taking over. What can the civilized people do against the uncivilized?” by which they meant that they couldn’t stoop so low as to ruin their speech by getting into an open confrontation with Mashi. Otherwise, it was thus that at the end of each month, Mashi would go out to collect the payment from the offices wearing a crisp cotton saree but as the nature of her work prevented her from entering the offices she waited outside and the clerks were happy to give her the cash and be over and done with.
Mashi never wore the sindoor or the sakha pola the signs of a married woman for her husband had passed away and she said she had three daughters. It was such that though Mashi was married young, because she could not bear children her husband married a second time, but after the second wife gave birth to three daughters he left both of them. In his last days, Mashi’s husband came back to her, seriously ill, having lost all his money spending the remaining days of his life on his wife’s earnings. “That wretch everyday he would curse me by calling me all the names in the Bengali language which meant whore, but could never tell me the day he left,” Mashi said describing the day her husband died to one of the women of the offices who cared to ask Mashi how she was doing and it would always bring tears to her eyes. It was so that the office women said that they would never talk to “that foul-mouthed woman,” as they called her. Yet bits and pieces of the lives of the women who waited to access the toilets and the woman who made that possible were shared every day without either side acknowledging it. Mashi’s greatest rival was Safai Bhaiya the sweeper of one of the richest Law firms in Dalhousie Mansion. However, he also ran errands bringing tiffin or delivering letters or carrying bags of the babus of some of the other offices as he called them. Bhaiya was much older than Mashi for his wrinkled skin, and his greying hair and moustache already showed signs of aging. He was said to have emigrated from Bihar a long time back to work in Kolkata after a devastating riot in his state. The firm in question had transformed itself into a globalized firm from a traditional local office bringing richer clients, more briefs and more outsourced work. With marble floors, conference rooms, and air conditioners, naturally, its Partners were the most respected in the building. Bhaiya felt a lot of pride in being a permanent sweeper employed by the firm, in fact so much so that when they asked him to put his thumb mark on the salary register while taking his wages, as he was illiterate, he memorized his signature in the Hindi alphabet as some symbol that defined him and insisted to put it down instead.
Bhaiya couldn’t stand Mashi either, their hatred was mutual but the difference was he felt no rivalry with her for she was a woman and regarded the attendants called peons of the office as his deserving rivals. “That pora mukho (burnt-faced) sweeper, the chamcha of the clerk, what do I care,” Mashi said dismissing him. Every morning Bhaiya could be seen in a shirt and a chequered lungi even before the staff would come sweeping and cleaning the floors, while the office attendants could be seen filling the water bottles of the babus and the staff. If any of the attendants told him he had not swept properly or had not come in time then he would protest against their authority. “I work under the Babu not you,” that is how it would begin and it so happened that incidentally the office attendant of the law firm known to all as Shyamol Da and Bhaiya were staunch supporters of the very opposite political parties and their verbal quarrel would blow up to the latest failure or successes of each of the political parties they supported blindly. Even though the ruling party or the leader of the opposition remained blissfully unaware of the two of their most ardent supporters, it so happened many times the two came to blows even as Bhaiya had demonstrated his support of the lal jhanda the red flag as he said.
Bhaiya’s age never increased but often decreased and when asked his age he was careful to give a number that never went near sixty the age of retirement. It was always before the Durga Puja that Mashi and Bhaiya would reach a truce as sworn enemies would turn to friends talking intently in a corner at the end of the corridor verandas of the topmost floor smoking bidi. It would always be that before the festivities the grapevine would say that the firm had underperformed that its profits had been low and that no puja bonus or bakshish could be given. That would set both Bhaiya and Mashi in a state of panic and their meetings would be more frequent. “Have enemies become friends? Are you both going to a movie together,” some of the clerical staff of the offices would jokingly interfere in their discussions as they passed them but Mashi would not divulge. Bhaiya’s calculations in these matters were more accurate he knew the certain percentage of the wages as the bonus. “8.33% bonus hain,” he would say, and even had an imaginary gratuity and provident fund where he often calculated the fictional sum of his retirement dues which came to nearly two lakhs and he often wondered aloud what if he got the same.
After the bonus and bakshish would be disbursed Mashi would refuse to see Bhaiya’s face for ever as according to her his bonus, despite being meagre, not much more than hers, was a matter of right but she got a bakshish as a matter of whim. Mashi believed that the clerk deliberately gave her a lower bakshish to prove himself to be useful to his employer as a gesture of saving the firm’s money. In the hierarchy of the firm if the Partners were the celestials and the juniors the worshippers, the clerks were the gatekeepers to heaven and Mashi was a creature of the underworld. But even so, one day as the Partner was briskly getting out of his car, Mashi covered her head with the end of her saree and said with trepidation, “Babu, there is something I’d like to say when you have time.” And hearing all that Mashi had to say about getting a lower puja bakshish the Partner turned to the clerk and said, “Just see to whatever she is saying.” However often an appeal to the higher courts comes back to the lower courts the verdict doesn’t get much altered so it happened in this case also. But what such unaltered verdicts can do is no more than dishearten the appellant’s will to fight anymore.
Mashi often took small amounts of loans from some of the offices of Dalhousie Mansion to be deducted from her meagre wages towards her stepdaughters’ marriage. Mashi loved the three daughters as her own and had taken to see their well-being along with that of her co-wife whom she called her sotin who also worked as domestic help in the city. According to Mashi the five women lived together and though she never said so, without Mashi working it would never have been possible for them to sustain themselves. “Get them married, what use sending them to schools, they will be domestic helps after all,” was all Mashi heard the cashiers of the offices say when she went to deduct the loans. “Matriculation they must pass,” Mashi would reply. But when the eldest daughter eloped with a young driver halfway through school one of the clerks commented, “Why worry Mashi it is good that she has found her way, will you be able to marry them on your own.” Then the second daughter too married but her hopes rested on the third, the youngest daughter.
“Which class is your youngest daughter?” once one of the Advocates of the law firm asked her. Mashi’s face grew dark, “Choto Madam,” Mashi began she had her names for the women of the offices, “It was not possible to keep her alone when both me and my sotin go to work you see so many lecherous men were after her, God knows what would have happened, I couldn’t even sleep at night.” What Mashi said was that she had some hopes for the youngest daughter and so she got her married to a youth who worked as an artisan in a jewellery shop. They had a house of their own and a bit of land and it cost her quite a bit of her tiny savings for the marriage dowry.
For a few days Bhaiya was not coming and one day his nephew called the firm’s clerk to say he was sick. A few days later sadly he passed away. Some days after, Bhaiya’s wife, a frail woman came with his nephew and she waited a long time for almost the entire day in the office of the firm, so that in the end a mere thousand rupees was sanctioned to her. In an office where even a stapler or its box of pins could not be replaced without a series of complicated vouchers, it was almost brutal to witness the swiftness of Bhaiya’s replacement who had worked for forty years when the new sweeper came.
With time Mashi had become a bit melancholy she could be seen sitting alone on her haunches at the end of the corridor veranda where she and Bhaiya often discussed whatever it was they said for Bhaiya couldn’t speak Bengali and Mashi couldn’t speak Hindi. Mashi’s health was failing, whenever anyone asked her she would say, “With me what more can happen perhaps one day my heart will fail like that wretched pora mukho sweeper.”
Her only regret was that neither of her stepdaughters had cleared the matriculation, “God knows if any of my grandchildren will, it is all fate,” she would say pointing to the lines on her forehead as if softly talking to herself.
It was not known if, in the coming mornings, the voice of Mashi never having even scratched the hard skin of the world had faded with the screeching sound of the lifts that had been repaired. The sturdy mechanical lifts grinding up and down the high floors had brought back a lost pulse to Dalhousie Mansion. With the morning rush the lifts created an illusion of clients, customers, traders, and professionals moving upwards with ease in a city where money was said to fly. At the end of each day as the shadow of time lengthened those very people listlessly drifted out of the old colonial building, and in the electric light Dalhousie Mansion still stood like a fragile, hollow apparatus, a mute witness to the sting of time and of what remains and what fades away in the short span that is life.
Tapti Bose is a poet/ writer based in Kolkata. Her articles and poems have been published in Feminism in India, Women’s Web, and Indian Periodical.