Kaam Chalu Mooh Bandh

Veliyamma has dumped garbage in that very corner every morning, for the past 8 years. But today she had not done so. We asked her to come back later to help in the clean-up, and here she was! - Chapter 10 of The Ugly Indian book

Monday morning, 950am

Damn – why is the bus stuck here for so long at Mekhri Circle today?
I had left home at 9am with the intention of reaching the Spot by 10am, but looks like I will reach only by 11. Bangalore has this brand new bus system, the G-10, that has made commuting from far-flung suburbs to city centre so much easier. But it seems like everything collapses when a VIP is in town, as all the main roads of Bangalore leading to the airport are blocked this morning.

This is ridiculous – why should the overcrowded city be held up, at rush hour, because some dignitary needs to get to his meeting on time? Luckily, I had a book to read to pass the time. Inspired by my encounter with X & V on Sunday, I had asked Maji Gowda, the genial owner of Blossom Books, for a book on pop sociology, and he recommended the bestseller Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. This is the kind of book one always plans to read, but never actually does.

It was going to be a long wait in this gridlock – the only benefit of the city’s traffic jams was that you got to read! I flipped through the book and believe it or not, my eye chanced on the phrase “Broken Windows Theory” on page 62. What a happy coincidence! I began reading and got sucked into the fascinating story of how the New York subway authorities had found a smart way of eliminating vandalism and graffiti from their train cars.

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‘What are you guys doing?’, the well-dressed software engineer shouted above the din of rush-hour traffic. Kumar is a software engineer at Wipro, and walks along Church Street to work everyday, after getting a chai and cigarette at the tea-stall outside the Karnataka Pollution Control Board head-office round the corner. (The head office of the institution that manages the pollution of the entire state is within sniffing distance of this dump, but that’s another story!).  He had got so used to the smelly dump at the corner, that he instinctively took out his handkerchief to cover his nose as he rushed for his Monday morning meeting. But today was different – there was no garbage around (and no stench), the entire place looked dug up and rearranged, and two ‘decently-dressed’ guys were working away with pickaxes and shovels – while in the corner, a third person was busy preparing a cement mix.

Something about the set-up made it look different from a government department at work – maybe it was the clothes of the people working, or the equipment they were using. Kumar couldn’t tell – but he found himself asking a question, in English, to these two strangers.  ‘Hello – what are you guys doing?’ he asked again in a raised voice, when he got no response the first time. In India, you either look working-class or you don’t – judgments are made instantly from the clothes and equipment, and language and tone of interaction is chosen accordingly.

X looked up and smiled – ‘We are clearing this mess – would you like to join?’. Kumar persisted – ‘But who are you? Are you an NGO? X repeated – ‘How does it matter? We are Bangalore citizens clearing this mess. Would you like to join us?’ Kumar looked at his clean clothes, polished shoes and his designer watch – he was late for a meeting, and he would surely soil his clothes if he joined them.  ‘How long will you be here – let me try and come back around noon’. X nodded. Kumar was probably the fiftieth office-going person who had passed them that morning – many had given a second look, but he was the first to stop and talk, and offer to join.  There are many Kumars in Bangalore – dying to plunge in and be part of the change, but just not sure how and where to start.

X and V had arrived at 7am that morning, fully armed to ‘fix’ the Spot. Their toolkit was fairly simple – a spade, a shovel, rubber gloves, face masks, several empty cement bags. Bought in the local hardware store for under Rs 300. They had also borrowed 2 bags of sand and a crowbar (iron rod) from the neighbouring construction site, and brought along some cement. They had befriended an elderly gentleman (let’s call him P) at Ramanna’s tea-stall, who turned out to be a part-time mason at a worksite nearby, and had requested him to join them for a couple of hours before his workday began at 10am.

They first cleared what little garbage had come there over Sunday, and then ‘took charge of the spot’.  As predicted, the daily procession of garbage dumpers began at 715am – 14 people came with their garbage to the spot, starting with the Wipro Security guard. As he was going to empty his load in the corner, V went up to the guard and asked him to dump it into an empty cement bag he held out in front of him. The guard was confused. Who was this guy trying to ‘receive’ his garbage!
V explained that a ‘new system’ was starting from today and that nobody was allowed to dump on the ground anymore. “No Garbage on Ground” he repeated slowly – in Kannada and then in Hindi, when he realised the guard was an immigrant from North India.  He then showed him the camera footage of him dumping here on Saturday – the guard was clearly scared – he had been caught red-handed!  X assured him that they were not here to harm him or tell his boss – all they wanted was that he stopped doing this, and could he please walk all the way to the bin inside the Wipro premises and dump it there.

He nodded in acceptance, but retorted–‘ everyone dumps here, what difference does my little amount make?’ The classic Ugly Indian argument.

X told him, again politely, – ‘You do your job, we will ensure others do theirs. Don’t you want this place clean? Is it like this in your native village? ‘

The guard smiled at the mention of his hometown – he was from Assam – “Sirji, Bangalore is very dirty compared to my village”. The north-east of India, which sends lots of migrant workers to Bangalore, is probably the cleanest part of India, and the guard was echoing something many others from his part of the country say – once you ask them.

X continued – ‘We understand. So let’s make this city at least as clean as your village. But, if we find any Wipro garbage here tomorrow we will complain to your boss”.

In the same way, every person who came (always a maid or a housekeeping employee), was told politely, but firmly, that if their garbage was seen here the next day, it would get reported.  Politeness is important – the class of people who is sent to take out the garbage is rarely treated with politeness by anyone, least of all their employers. The camera was casually flashed to show that they could be caught, and their garbage could be clearly identified.

Some asked – ‘But what do we do – this is where we are supposed to dump, isn’t it?’ Dumping here seemed a perfectly rational thing to do! They were told to ask their boss this question, and also to get the name and phone number of their boss when they come the next day. They were also provided the phone number of the door-to-door garbage pickup auto and asked to co-ordinate with him. Their names (and employers’ names) were noted in a register.

The message was clear – whatever they did – their garbage was not to be found on the road the next day.  ‘No Garbage on Ground’ was the simple message. Interestingly, the message was received well – as it was made politely, and with sincerity. Everyone instinctively understands why garbage should not be dumped on the street. Cleanliness is a universal aspiration, whether you are rich or poor.

X made a point of writing the names of the employers and housekeepers in a big register while V spoke to the dumpers, but in a non-threatening way – these little things count. It made them look official, even though they were not. These were low-paid staff doing their job – it was not their garbage, it was of their employers’.  If you gave them a new system to follow, they would do it – no questions asked.  In the world’s outsourcing capital, garbage dumping too is an outsourced activity!

When Amir arrived at 915am in his truck – on the dot, as usual – all the garbage was neatly packed in 10 big bags. There was nothing on the street for his team to clear. X and V waved to him, and threw the bags in his truck themselves.  It may seem like a small thing, but handling garbage always wins you respect from the sanitation staff – as many people in India have severe hangups about ‘touching’ someone else’s garbage. Amir had to stop for barely 40 seconds – in fact he did not have to turn his engine off, or park the truck!  His team had no work to do at all. It was probably the first time in decades they did not dirty their hands at this spot!  Amir smiled, and said, predictably – ‘What about tomorrow? Will you come here every morning and do this?’ So typical. ‘We’ll see’, shouted V, as Amir roared away towards the next Spot.

This was an important victory. Not only had they personally met all the dumpers and appealed to their better senses, Amir had actually benefited from time saved. But the job was far from done. Only if the place looked clean, nay beautiful, would the dumpers be deterred from dumping here the next day.  Otherwise they would resume the moment anyone stopped objecting. Garbage always finds the point of least resistance – and because V & X objected, the place had remained clean that morning. They could not do this everyday and had to solve the root cause of the problem.

It was time for the ‘action’ part of the SpotFix. They had about 3 hours to make a dramatic impact –before the lunchtime crowd began. It was 930 am and V, X and P got down to work.

Once you get down to working with your hands, and keep your mouth firmly shut, it isn’t that complicated.

The first thing they do is to clear the place of all debris and rubble – it takes 20 minutes of hard work, working with shovels and bare hands, to put everything into 5 big bags and keep them aside. This little act of tidying makes a visible difference, and the place looks quite neat and orderly already.

The next step is to repair the footpath – it’s like a large jigsaw puzzle. The footpath has been broken by the electricity company BESCOM to lay a cable beneath. When agencies break the footpath, they do so rather carelessly and the footpath slabs and kerbstones always lie about and add to the mess. The concept of work-in-progress is a permanent one on Indian streets – civic repair jobs rarely look finished, and often never are.

This is actually an advantage when you go to do a fix – as the required materials are generally ‘lying about’. With some skill and patience, it is possible for amateurs to locate all the missing slabs and kerb stones and place them as required. X and V have never repaired a footpath before, so they have brought along a specialist, so they can learn on the job.

P has been doing masonry for 30 years, and he likes his new wards – they do all the hard work while he provides the orders and finishing touches. He is always pushed around and yelled at by his contractors, who show no respect for his age or skill – and here are two urban amateurs treating him with respect, dirtying their hands and wanting to learn. In an hour, the jigsaw is done, the footpath is repaired, and the place actually looks quite clean and neat. It’s really not that hard once you get down to it.

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It’s almost 11 am, and I am rushing to the spot after getting off at the Chinnaswamy Stadium bus-stop.  It has been a slow journey, but I was able to read a fair bit of my new book and I am hooked. When I turn off MG Road towards the Spot, I am greeted by an amazing sight. The place is clean, the footpath actually looks restored and I see X, V and a third person sweating profusely and having a chai.

X waved to me–‘Hi! Glad you came. Here, take this brush and get to work’. He handed me a paint-brush and asked me to start painting the footpath kerb.

‘Hello? I have never done this before. How do I even start?’ I exclaimed. I hadn’t really planned to ‘do’ anything though I had an inkling that these guys would be up to something like this. One could tell they were the hands-on types.

‘Oh, just figure it out. Paint it alternate black-and-white’

I have never painted before. Ok, I may have done some water-colouring and craft work in school and college, but never really painted a wall of a house, or a footpath – that too, on the street! I took the brush hesitantly, put on a pair of gloves, dipped the brush in the paint bucket and dabbed a bit of paint on the footpath.

‘Wait!’ X yelled –‘you’ve got to brush off the dust first!’. He handed me a wire brush, and showed me how to get rid of the dust from the footpath stones. I scrubbed away with all my might and created a huge dust cloud – gosh, the streets do collect a lot of dust. And after I got a nod of approval from X, I began painting.

It is hard to describe what a special feeling it is to paint a footpath in full public view on the street. There is something about the transformative value of paint on stone that is magical, and I found myself enjoying it within minutes. I completely forgot where I was, and was soon sitting cross-legged on Church Street painting the footpath outside the Times of India building! Totally oblivious to passing pedestrians and traffic.

Suddenly an old lady walked by and greeted us –“Namaskaara!”  X greeted back “Namaskaara, Veliyamma, hegiddira? How are you?!’ X handed her a paint brush and asked her to join me. ‘Please show her how to paint’ he said and pointed towards me. Veliyamma laughed loudly and bent down next to me and started painting.  She looked quite frail and bent, was carrying a broom in her hand that she kept to the side, and from her dress and appearance I figured that she was a housekeeping maid. She inspected my work, nodded in appreciation, and together we finished painting the entire corner in the next 20 minutes.

Needless to say, this scene attracted several onlookers. Women don’t paint footpaths in India! Especially a youngish urban type in t-shirt and jeans and an elderly lady with grey hair in a red saree! But we worked on undeterred – there is something powerful about doing ‘good’ work quietly in full public view. X has asked me not to make eye contact with anyone who passes by, and I follow the instruction faithfully.

As we paint, Veliyamma tells me her story. She is a freelance housekeeping maid, who sweeps and cleans several shops on Church Street and was on her way home. She used to dump garbage in this very corner every morning, and has been doing so for the past  8 years. But today she had not done so after meeting V & X in the morning. They had asked her to come back later to help in the clean-up, so here she was!

When she was younger, she had worked at Koshy’s Bakery for over 20 years – now that her children are settled and she has 5 grandchildren, she has time on her hands. She gets bored at her home in a little slum colony in Cambridge Layout, so she works for 6 hours everyday here on Church Street. She suddenly mentioned Singapore – Bangalore can be like Singapore she said! Seems like all the city’s sweepers and housekeepers have been sold on the Singapore story!

It is very humbling for me to see how keen she is to see a clean street – it’s fascinating that she used to dump garbage here for the past several years and now she is part of the restoration. She was highly complimentary of V & X – she said, since these ‘saars’ have started showing interest here, the street has become so much cleaner. She asked if they were my friends? I said – ‘No, I work nearby and was passing by and just joined in. I don’t even know their names’.

She did not find this odd at all.  Seems like this is V & X’s modus operandi – passersby just join. I asked her – ‘so where did you dump your garbage today?’ She smiled – ‘I have a secret place to store it – and it will never be found on the street like this anymore. I will give it directly to Amir tomorrow’. She stood up – ‘at my age it is difficult to bend like this for long periods’, and picked up her broom and bag and got ready to leave. ‘We can keep this street clean, if the public co-operates’ she said, and walked towards the bus stop, for an afternoon with her grandchildren.

It’s 12 noon and the place looks like new already! This is brilliant, and I take a step back to survey my work. I see that V, X and the others have completed the footpath slab work, tidied up the area, and are now straightening out the fence. I feel so…proud, excited. Am dying to take photos and post them on FaceBook, but I have been warned by V that this  is ‘against the rules’.

Around 1230pm, people from Wipro and Times of India start coming out for their lunch-break.  Church Street offers several lunch options, and all those who work in CBD typically walk out for a quick bite or some fresh air. The transformation is visible to all – it is such a dramatic change, it is hard to miss. Many of those who walked by in the morning, now come up to admire the work.

Great job, guys – some say. “It won’t last” say others. Everyone has an opinion, and they express it freely. Indians love to give advice and offer their opinions.  Just one guy says – can I help in any way? X was waiting for this – he hands him the broom – ‘go and sweep that corner’, he says.  The guy does as instructed, asking no questions. It is not easy to take a broom and sweep the street – in front of your colleagues, and in office wear. Urban Indians have all kinds of hang-ups about doing ‘menial’ tasks in public view. The ugly Indian always offers his unsolicited opinion, but rarely offers unconditional help.

X and V have figured that out of every 50 people who walk by, just one stops and offer to help – unconditionally.  There are many such people hidden among the silent majority in our cities – the trick is to find them.

Suddenly, Kumar appears, as promised.” Wow – what a change” he exults. “Wish I could have joined you…” He walks straight past me, picks up a broom and does some tidying up. He seems to have no hang-ups at all. This is great. There are now three new recruits to the cause – who have come in on their own steam. And several hundred others who have seen it happening. I learn later that there was a tactical reason that X & V chose to do this project on a working day morning – it is important that other urban office-goers see the change happening, and who is doing it. It is also important that they feel they can join in spontaneously – without being asked to. Somehow, work done by staff of civic agencies is never respected –if the same work is done by a regular citizen, it gets attention and appreciation.

It’s almost 1 pm. The team has been here for 6 hours and is quite tired. The response has been encouraging, almost heady. It would be easy to declare victory and go home now.

In fact, most do-gooders stop here. If this was a ‘clean-up drive’ – where well-meaning citizens came to do social work wearing T-shirts and with other paraphernalia associated with an organized event, this is the time when the refreshments are served, the photos are taken, soundbytes are offered to the invited media and everyone goes home.  Nothing wrong with that. But this approach is somewhat self-congratulatory and often self-defeating. Especially if things go back to square one the next day, and no real solutions have been found. Symbolism and self-congratulation are two major pitfalls of social work.

V & X are determined not to fall in this trap – in fact, they believe the difficult part starts now. They don’t think it is a big deal to clean the street – in fact they think it is their duty, and just a part of a larger problem-solving process. More than the actual work, it is the impact of doing it silently in front of others that counts. They plan to head to the Canara Bank canteen for a quick lunch, and ask if I would join them.

Sadly, I have to head off to office for my 2pm meeting, and am really disappointed that I cannot participate any more. I promise to return at 6pm after work. It has been an amazing experience – totally unexpected and incredibly satisfying. Almost therapeutic.

As I wash my hands, dust my clothes and head off to office, I feel overcome by a strange sense of nobility. It’s almost like I can hear the street applauding my efforts. The interaction with Veliyamma really touched a chord deep inside, and demolished many myths I held about the working class. I have never done any ‘social work’ before and I don’t really participate in the CSR activities of my company, so I guess I never really understood what it meant to ‘do good’. But this was not typical social work – which normally involves providing food, education, or time to underprivileged sections of society.

I had just helped some strangers repair a footpath on a major Bangalore road, which was the job of some civic agency or the other. Was this social work? Would it last? Was this even legal? I don’t know, and at this point I didn’t really care. I would find the time to ask V & X these questions later. It struck me then that I had no way of contacting them! But I expected them to be here at 6 – they seemed to be the kind of guys who stuck to their word.

I suppose I also found this whole anonymity thing very relaxing. I did not have to speak to anyone, share my name or number, shout slogans, or lecture to anyone – I just had to shut up and work. Kaam Chalu Mooh Bandh….Just Work No Talk – what a wonderful motto indeed. So simple yet so powerful. If only more people would do that.

When I spoke about this to my colleague later at office, she scolded me – But this is not your job. Why did you do it? Who paid for it?
What a spoilsport. I just stopped listening to her and changed the subject – there are cynics everywhere, and I was not going to spoil my happy mood with an argument. I decided instantly not to talk about this to anyone else. This was my little secret, and I was going to share it only with those who understood.

As I sat through the meeting, my mind drifted back to the Spot. What would these guys do in the afternoon? They said there was ‘lots left to do’. It seemed pretty complete to me! I didn’t realize it then, but I was slowly being drawn into the secretive world of the Ugly Indians. A world I would soon share with thousands of other like-minded souls in this wonderful city of Bangalore we all call home.

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