Dates and Gestures
I was walking along the main gully of a Balmiki neighborhood when a fifty-year-old woman in a dark colored sari, sitting alone on a charpoy, gave me an impassive look, patted the empty space next to her, and said in a tone that would brook no refusal, “Baiṭho.” Sit.
I sat. Soon we were joined by two more women of her age, one wielding a bamboo staff freshly whittled, at one end, to a sharp point. This sharpened staff was soon to be thrust into a tightly ringed bundle of dried and split date palm fronds to make a laggā jhāṛū, a long-handled broom. A short distance away sat the elderly Shyam Mehboob in his skullcap, sunning his arthritic knees in front of his house. None of the three women around me wore a bindī, burqā, sindūr, or other conventional markers of Hindu or Muslim femininity.
The women asked me if I had any pull at the municipality—could I get them regularized, their status converted from contract laborers to permanent municipal employees? No one in their families, they explained, had pakkī naukrī—a permanent position—and only permanent employees enjoyed any kind of security. I replied honestly that I had no influence at the municipality, and asked whether their children were in a position to help support them financially. One woman had eight children, six of whom were alive. Do they live here, I asked, or have they moved away? She laughed at my question.
“They’re all in England,” said the woman next to me on the charpoy.
“They send her money from there,” added the woman with the bamboo staff.
“Yes,” concluded the first woman, “and my husband lives in Saudi!” The three laughed at their joke and my naïveté. In fact, all six of the woman's surviving children live in the bastī, and all work as sanitation laborers.
Some young men wandered over and joined the conversation. It was autumn, a season of Hindu festivals as well as, this year, Muharram. There were also caste-specific events upcoming: Valmiki Jayanti, the commemoration of the birth of Rishi Valmiki, was only two weeks away, and shortly thereafter would follow Jamghaṭ, the day on which, according to a colonial source, Lal Beg used to be ritually venerated.