“I got married when I was sixteen. My husband cleaned the toilets back in our village, so did my father and his father and his father too. This is our caste’s work. I hadn’t been to school, but I taught myself how to read a little. Some years after marriage, my husband and I moved to Delhi with our children.
He wanted to find better work here, and he didn’t want me to do the work our families have done. He was lucky because he had friends in the city. He was a peon in an office for almost ten years. He died of cancer when my eldest son was still in high school. I don’t know if it’s funny or sad, but life is strange. Here I am cleaning toilets.”
This is the story of Sakuntala, a fifty-year-old woman who cleans the washrooms at a Delhi University college. When asked about her working conditions, she ambivalently says, “It’s against the wishes of my late husband and my children don’t like it (her job) either, but at least I get paid more than our fathers. I have a roof over my head, food on my plate, and an assurance that I will have work tomorrow. That too in a city like Delhi, this is enough for me.”
However, she has a lot more to say about her relationship with the student body of the college. “You would expect educated girls to know how to use a toilet and be cleaner, but the work is endless. I am cleaning almost constantly during my shift. It never ends and by the end of an hour or two, it looks like I have done no work at all. To the in-charge, I am at fault. The girls call me aunty or didi, they are sweet when they ask me to do something for them, but most of the time they don’t notice me. Nobody is rude or disrespectful, I just get tired now that I’m old.”
The concept of caste purity is central to the caste system in India. It is believed that cleaning up after other people is dirty work and therefore unsuitable for people belonging to higher castes, who are inherently purer. It is astounding how, even today, decades after the abolishment of caste discrimination, the belief that maintaining hygiene and basic cleanliness is too degrading a job to burden ourselves with is as strong as ever in our minds.
Ghanshyam, a sixty-something old man who maintains the lawns, gardens and the fields, however, has next to no relationship with the students of which he could speak. “Entire weeks go by where we don’t talk to any students. They move when we ask them to (from the lawns during work hours) and sometimes we have to ask twice. Most of our communication is with the college. We are friends with the guards at the college gate, a lot of girls wish them a good morning and they usually don’t have any problems. We don’t mind, we are just here to work. It is a good job, my children are all working in better places, and my wife and I earn enough to run our home.”
“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears,” is a famous quote by Nelson Mandela. To the young, the educated, and the privileged, this quote perhaps suggests a choice – a choice to take steps towards goals and not just away from worries. But aren’t our goals and these very worries too constantly being shaped by our socio-political realities? An aim to make ends meet, as well as an aspiration, to obtain a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country – both have history attached to them.
We all have fundamental, constitutional rights to livelihood and education. However, we all differ in our ability to actualise these rights. Some factors influencing this ability are more widely acknowledged in today’s society, such as physical health and class. Other factors like caste and gender continue to intersect in complex ways, and we continue to turn a blind eye to them in our daily lives.
Hope seems like a basic instinct when there is much to hope for. Capital, both economic and social, buys us opportunities, respect, dignity, and perhaps most significantly – a voice. However, at a point in time where we have the opportunity to study about revolutions of the past and the injustices of the present, it seems grossly inadequate for our engagement with those less fortunate than us to be limited to simple niceties. Our understanding of oppression is as good and as bad as our understanding of the people around us, especially in places we consider equitable (because “at least we have reservation, no?”).
In our attempt to reconcile the archaic baggage of inequality with modern and liberal ideals, we sometimes overestimate how far we have actually come. We like to believe we owe those less fortunate than us seats for a few years, but we do not owe them our ears and every effort to rid our own minds of prejudice. All this, while at the same time dictating what reform needs to look like and what progress actually means. The tragedy of academia is that it is this absence of other, less privileged voices in our lives and subsequently our scholarly bubbles too, that perpetuates our woke hypocrisy.