Fiction | ‘Rahat’s Ammi had a finger and a half’ by Sanaa Bhutani | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

It was to happen today.

Rahat, not twenty yet, tall and spindly, sunken, with the ever-darting, grey-specked eyes, stands in well-rehearsed anticipation of bus number 108. It is a disconcerting wait. A slight disquiet is visible in the shuffling of his feet, the absent-minded biting of his nails. Glistening streams of sweat race to the corners of his mouth; he tastes salt.

Rahat has tried, many times, to mathematically decipher the sweet-spot of opportunity that will allow him to conquer Bombay’s bus schedules. A waiting time of under two minutes; avoiding the heart-wrenching ache of watching his bus slip away from a distance, knowing that running would be futile; and reporting for duty at a public toilet in Nariman Point at 8.45 am. Calculations have failed him. Precision eludes him. He has accepted, grudgingly, that the bus will arrive when it wants to.

He does not enjoy the waiting, the resigned gaps in action. This void-circumscribed, movement-bereft no man’s land of waiting bothers him. When he is on the bus, he must jostle for space. He must keep his eyes peeled for hints of movement in the feet, impatient hands on horizontal metal rods about to haul their bodies up—indications that a passenger is going to vacate their seat. It is important to position himself strategically to claim the soon-to-be-vacant seat—that is, when he has the luxury to do so. In rush hour, he must curve and hunch and make himself small. Limbs must be rearranged to fit in the nooks of others’ assorted body-parts like puzzle pieces, so that a bus with a capacity of 54 persons may pack a 100. All for everyone to get everywhere quicker. He likes to embody the traveller, the ritualised performativeness anchors him. In the interstitial spaces between calculation and performance, when he is waiting, he feels like he is no one.

At last, darting, shuffling, Rahat spots the nose-shaped curvature of the Marathi ‘8’ in the distance. The roaring intensifies, the distinctive air pressure horn toots relentlessly without breath to will into existence a path devoid of pesky traffic. By now, the dampness of an early June, pre-monsoon morning has glued his shirt to the skin of his back and to the hair on his chest. His knee radiates a dull, throbbing pain from an injury he sustained while trying to block a hole in the roof of his shanty, but today he barely notices.

Rahat boards the bus knowing that this may well be the most important day of his life.

***

As a member of one of the twenty-two Muslim families in a Hindu-dominated slum on the edge of the sea in Bombay, Rahat was accustomed to contempt. Some members of the community were particularly rancourous; some chose to express their antipathy in subtler ways. Rahat had therefore developed a discerning eye for judgement, disdain, suspicion—his experience as the object of such emotion had made him an expert. He had witnessed spates of communal violence within and outside of the settlement, he had seen a man die when he was only thirteen. He knew how to evade run-ins and conflicts. It was, however, the prosaic violence of his everyday reality, and of those around him—the lived and felt assault on identity, the treatment as less-than—that incessantly plagued his thoughts.

Still, he considered himself luckier than others. He had managed to not drop out of school, and graduate with a senior secondary education. Having a full-time salaried job, he did not possess the misfortune of hunting for a means of sustenance every morning. This granted him a rare indulgence, the ability to dream about tomorrow. Most people he knew only had enough capacity to live for the day, the concept of tomorrow foreign to them.

Because of this gift, he was also susceptible to constant worrying, mostly about his Ammi, who had not been so lucky. When their family had first arrived in Bombay as migrant workers from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, his Ammi had been in an accident. Unaccustomed to the constitutional frenzy of Bombay locals, she was caught between the train and the platform while trying to de-board a Borivali Fast against an onslaught of bodies at Andheri station. Three fingers, and a significant portion of her index finger and thumb, were chopped irrevocably and clean off her left hand. More than half of the family’s savings evaporated over the course of her treatment.

Now she walked with a limp. Years of travelling across the floors of other people’s homes in a squatting position to wipe them clean had given her painfully swollen ankles. Terrified of having to part with another chunk of money that they had painstakingly accumulated over the years, she much preferred to endure the pain than to seek medical relief.

Most of all, Rahat worried about the toilet. One of the more tangible rules of non-violent co-existence with the Hindu community was to never lobby for access to any of their facilities. With municipal elections only forty-five days away, the community toilets on their side of the slum, 15 cubicles per gender, had been freshly renovated. It would be weeks before the chronic stench of urine would implant itself once again, before residents would have to encounter a concoction of muck, sludge, and a perpetual wetness every time they used a cubicle—at least till the last vote was cast.

But on the Muslim side, there was only a quagmire of hazard disguised as a toilet structure. It was located in a particularly squalid corner of the slum. An unsorted and uncollected mountain of the community’s trash wound up as its neighbour, with the most loyal visitors a plethora of assorted vermin. Often, Rahat would have different iterations of the same argument with his Ammi.

“What is the need to use that dump, Ammi? It doesn’t have any water! No electricity! Every time you have to carry that heavy bucket of water all the way across the naala.” He was referring to an open drain that cut through the settlement. He sat cross-legged on the floor next to her, occasionally swatting away flies that landed on her face as she prepared dinner for the evening.

“It has a window doesn’t it? There’s plenty of sunlight. You’ve let the city and its promises get to your head. Don’t forget I was raised in a village that didn’t have electricity for half my life!”

“Is the sun going to save you when the roof falls on your head?” he retorted, vigilant for the return of his Abbu lest he walk in on them. This was not a conversation he would have deemed appropriate between mother and son.

“What do you want me to do?” she demanded, every word a notch higher, every oscillation of the rolling pin more forceful.

“We’re blessed with the sea right next to us, Ammi. The women… they find a way…”, he trailed off as her passive indignance turned to outrage at the mere mention.

“I was not raised like that. Don’t know where I went wrong with you! Stop arguing with me.” That would be the end of that, for the moment.

She used the crumbling community toilet, and because it was dangerous to go after dark, she had trained to control herself between dusk and dawn.

This gave Rahat the planner, the dreamer, the worrier, something to plan, dream, and worry about. He had a strong ally and confidante in Neelima Kamble, a woman of fiery determination, iron-like tenacity, and an undisguised intolerance for bullshit. Ms Kamble had fought and bled on the battlefields of politics and social work—that’s where she had cultivated her armour.

Many moons ago, with beginnings almost as humble as those of the slum dwellers’, she had worked in the local ward office with aspirations to contest civic elections and ascend the political hierarchy. But she quickly realised that if she were to make any real change, she was barking up the wrong proverbial ladder. She was uninterested in a life of casual deception and palm greasing—hers or anyone else’s. Abandoning her fledging political career, she set out on a path far more formidable. She decided to found an organisation. Over two long, arduous, backbreaking years, Ms Kamble gained the community’s trust; set up a bridge school for the community’s poorest; sourced additional employment for some of the women so they would send their children to school instead of work; and raised enough money to fund senior college for twenty-seven children.

She quickly became a mainstay, an embedded presence, a part of the very life of the community. She rented a room in the slum, where she spent upwards of twelve hours a day, going back to her home only to eat and sleep. Her children became friends with her students. Her room became a sanctuary of hope where she taught anyone who would listen how to learn, work, and dream.

Many young boys had been rescued from the brink of devastation by her aggressive crusade against drug abuse. Many young girls dared to see in her a foggy inkling of hope that they could escape the half-lives their mothers had endured—an existence of thankless, backbreaking labour, child-rearing, senseless violence, and painful obscurity, all within the confines of a 10×10 room-house.

She was also the reason Rahat did not drop out of school. Over half-a-decade of painstaking counselling and persuasion, she had taught him to rein in the rage he felt at being rendered invisible and inconsequential by virtue of his religion, his status as a migrant, and his non-status as part of a worthy vote-bank.

Her increasing popularity with the residents was directly proportional to the surging chagrin of local politicians. Where they considered her only a minor annoyance when she was just starting out, they now perceived her as a sweeping threat. They didn’t want her there. They didn’t want anyone who could brew unrest, nudge dissatisfaction, teach residents to demand or question. She was dangerous.

When she first started lobbying for better toilets, they made her team’s existence miserable and their work nearly impossible. Could they sacrifice years of laboriously-earned progress at the altar of what was likely to be a wild goose chase for marginally improved sanitation? At the time, they decided they could not. At the time, Ms Kamble thought it pernicious to fight for too many rights simultaneously. The right to fight had not come easy. They had to be strategic. They couldn’t have it all, not all at once.

Now she knew better. She had also mastered the art of effectively countering threats and circumnavigating systemic filth.

“Listen, this is a difficult one,” she addressed the group she had jokingly christened the Toilet Task Force. They sat cross-legged in a circle around her, with the exception of Rahat’s Ammi, who sat in a red plastic chair because of her swollen feet, and Ms Kamble, who sat on a black wheeled one. “We could fight all our lives, and maybe your grandchildren will be lucky enough to piss with the lights on.”

It was a breezy December day, after Ms Kamble had wrapped up evening school, an opportune quarter-hour the women and their adolescent daughters had for themselves, wedged between the tail end of afternoon chores and the beginning of dinner preparation. The little group had been getting together every day that week in the small rented room to brainstorm their path towards that long-cherished dream—being able to relieve themselves with dignity.

Ms Kamble’s days in the ward office had given her crucial insights into the politics and business of building toilets.

“Sab dhanda hai,” she said. It’s a money-making scheme. “Everyone involved makes some when toilets are built anywhere.”

She recounted witnessing an interminable succession of hoops that ordinary citizens and activists had to jump through till they either got what they wanted or abandoned the pursuit altogether.

“They make you run from one department to the other till you are running in circles. Bring this paper, bring that document. Come tomorrow, sahab is busy today. Before you know it, tomorrow is a year later and you are still running,” she said.

“I’d be worried if they’d actually ever listened to the likes of us,” one of the women scoffed.

“We have to be prepared for the possibility that they will not,” said Ms Kamble, not one to euphemise. “See, I think they make it hard on purpose so you just give up. No one actually wants to be responsible for this work unless they look at it through vote-tinted glasses. And the money helps, of course.”

“They don’t even want our votes,” Rahat remarked, “So how do we do this?”

“Well… we chase them down and hope we tire them out before they tire us out.”

The most potent strategy, she explained, was to create pressure simultaneously on every level of political and municipal office—they would target anyone who had the power and jurisdiction to act or influence action. This was the only conceivable way that would grant them a glimmer of hope, a modest possibility of success. They would start with Ms Kamble’s contacts at the ward office, and follow the chain of command to the peak of her political connections, and beyond that they would find other means.

“Persistence is key,” she reminded Rahat when dejection inundated him. “They will swat us away like diseased flies, and we will still have to show up the next day. We only need to get one person to pay attention.”

When he was not at work, Rahat was busy being Ms Kamble’s right-hand man. She taught him how to write letters of demand and protest to people in authority. She taught him how to recognise a violation of his rights. He was slick with words, and particularly gifted at mobilising people in his community. He went door-to-door to collect signatures from one hundred and ninety-four people who were in aching need of this toilet. Together, they spent seventeen months turning every stone, exploring every avenue, and navigating countless setbacks and heartbreaks in their quest.

On the third day of the eighteenth month, Ms Kamble showed up at Rahat’s doorstep at 7 am. His shanty did not have a door, only a threshold cleaved from the outside by a dark beige floral-print curtain; his Ammi’s choice. She called out his name to announce her arrival, and as he stepped out he was greeted by gleaming eyes and joy she could not contain. They had just had their first major breakthrough. The corporator was coming to survey the toilet with his engineers the day after tomorrow.

***

Rahat has been lucky today. He has found a freshly-vacated seat by the window on the right side of the bus, the prime viewing spot for performing a most treasured activity—watching the whirling-past of Marine Drive; the air thick with the intermingled smell of salty sea and heavy humidity. It enamours him that no matter what time of night or day it is, no matter the steaming sun or bitter rain; the promenade is never lonely, never unpopulated by lovers, families, or friends. He is fascinated by the idea that for someone who sits and dreams and watches the city go by at Marine Drive, he becomes a part of their orbit if only for a fleeting second.

Rahat feels all-round lucky today. Months of perseverance, unabashed badgering, desperate measures, high highs and low lows, were all culminating in the corporator’s visit today. He knew that they were far from the end of the road—it was nowhere in sight—but this felt momentous. They got someone to listen, to acknowledge their need, to take action. This felt like a crucial battle won, an end in and of itself. Making sure the toilet gets built would be a struggle afresh. But this victory gave them the strength to continue, a renewed hope that fighting was not futile.

His reverie is interrupted by his phone bellowing the tune to a Punjabi song that was all the rage these days. Ms Kamble is calling him. He frowns, then his heart sinks—did the corporator cancel? A flood of emotion overwhelms him at the mere prospect; all recent optimism drains out of him in one fell swoop. The exhaustion of injustice, temporarily hovering above his shoulders, weighs down heavily on him once again. He picks up the phone. Ms Kamble is hysterical.

“Rahat…” she says between tears. “Something terrible has happened, Rahat.” She can barely get the words out. She can only say his name.

“Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out okay? Like we’ve done so far, together.” Rahat frowns. He can’t fathom what nature of toilet-related incident could elicit this kind of reaction.

“Just come back. You have to come back now,” she said.

“Okay, okay, I’m getting off the bus. Can you tell me what happened?”

“Rahat… your Ammi… it was all so sudden… nobody could do anything,” she sputters, making conspicuous her struggle to string sentences together.

As she reveals fragments of what has transpired, punctuated by her sobs and the insufferable pounding of his heart, he gets up and pushes past a throng of men and women waiting to de-board at the next stop.

“Have you completely lost it?”, a man cusses at him in Marathi, but he only registers it as vague, muffled, distant background noise, as if in a drug-induced trance. Before the bus screeches to a halt at Wankhede Stadium, his feet find solid ground and quicken their pace to match the speed of the bus—sheer force of habit. He is incapable of any voluntary movement or thought. It is all over.

His Ammi was using the community toilet at her usual 8.15 am. Five minutes later, almost around the time Rahat was boarding the bus, another woman in the toilet heard a loud thud and a brief scream from inside one of the cubicles. She called for help. Help arrived and discovered that the floor of the cubicle that his Ammi was using had collapsed underneath her, plunging her fifteen feet into the overflowing septic tank below. She had drowned in human excreta.

“They’re all on their way, Rahat,” Ms Kamble said, her voice ringing in his ears, over and over, unbearably shrill, “they’ll be able to get your Ammi out in a few hours.”


Sanaa is a Literature graduate from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and a Master’s graduate in Public Policy from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. She works as a development communications professional in Mumbai. Her fiction adopts a sociological lens, and is inspired by her work with low-income communities across Bombay and Delhi. Through her writing, she hopes to explore identity, conflict, survival and power structures via the exposition of myriad nuances and manifestations of intersectional deprivation in India’s wealthiest cities.

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