Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Shambhu the coffee-loving sweeper politician

"What you doing here now? Me want coffee in cup."

His breath coming in gasps, coughing in strangled spells of time, he would enter through the backdoor. He loved coffee, or really Nescafe. Milky and sweet, he would get it poured into his cup until the brim. Sometimes he asked for and got another cup.

I wondered why he brought his own cup...or rather an old, thick porcelain cup that was part of a long-depleted set that my mother had given him. After drinking his coffee he would wash it and stash it somewhere under the stairs that led from the indoor patio to the terrace. He would retrieve it for his next visit.

I asked about it but was gently told that since he spent his days cleaning toilets it was better if he drank from his designated cup. Better for who?

I wondered why he sat on the floor but somehow I knew not to ask.

All the servants sat on the floor, even if as a child I would ask them to sit on a chair or on the bed. Interestingly their children (some of whom I played with) and now their grandchildren had no problem lounging with me where I sat or lay.

But Shambhu was not even a servant. He was a dalit--a chamar I think-- and for him it seemed to be enough that we included him in our archaic 11 o'clock coffee ritual and that he could practice his broken English on us and we would talk with him.

But while for us he remained a jamaadar, outside he was also a railway employee (all railway sweepers moonlighted cleaning private toilets once they were made 'permanent' and were assured employment). And more importantly he was a politician. He was called 'netaji' and people would greet him with folded hands and give him a chair to sit on while they stood. He was head of a sweepers association and made speeches and apparently brought about some changes. I wonder if they got him coffee instead of 'chai' at these functions. Hhe was in the Hindi paper 'Dainik Jagaran,' with a garland of flowers around his neck, surrounded by people. He showed it to us.

Once while I was going somewhere, I saw three men walk up to him on the street, bow deeply with folded hands as he patted them on the back and talked with an authority I had not seen in him before.

He was severely asthmatic, an ailment he shared with my mother. So, in between talking about "the dogini give birth to puppies,' and 'I tell him, you listen here, I am neta of place not you. You go dafa from here mister,' they discussed their asthma.

"Begum sahib," he would commiserate in hindi, his face serious, "it is very difficult to breathe these days. You seem better."

"No, no, Shambhu, I had a bad attack a week ago but this Tedral is working. Did you get that inhaler I told you to get."

"Haan, this Ventolin," he said, taking it out of his pocket,"I use it but still this way of breathing. What can I do?"

"Are you using it correctly?"

He was not. My mother showed him how. But eventually all medications would stop working well for him. Perhaps it was his job, sweeping the railway platforms caked with Allahabad's prodigious dust and filth. Cleaning the flush toilets was not too bad but he also cleaned the receptacle-based toilets in some of the servants quarters. With a cloth tied around his nose and mouth, he would go in and retrieve their shit in an old bucket, the flies already swarming on early summer mornings. Mostly his wife, Kamala (also a moonlighting railway worker) would take care of these houses of the poor.

Each time he showed up, his breath whistled like a steam kettle, each word punctuated by painful pauses. Sometimes he was better, sometimes worse.

He died a few years ago. He was a postscript in our lives. I am sure, that the by now retired netaji, got more than a few accolades in his consitutency, and I am sure his wife, Kamala, and his children eventually went on with their lives.

I wonder what kind of death it was. Did he struggle to breathe till the end? Was there relief at the end, when he could finally give up the fight to bring air into his lungs? Did someone give him one last cup of coffee in the days leading up to his death.

Why am I thinking about him today?

Because I am my mother's daughter in at least this one thing. I am developing asthma. Today I am struggling to breathe. That lung thing I picked up in Cairo has morphed into a full-blown attack. The last time I had an attack was seven years ago so I guess I am luckier than my mother or Shambhu. I am on a course of Cortisone and some kind of inhaler but there is no positive change, after more than 3 days.

And each time I cough and cannot stop, each time I hear my breathing whistle in and out like a tortured banshee, and I hear my own voice sound strangled and weak, I can smell Nescafe and I can hear Shambhu.

It makes me wonder about him, think about him. The human mind is a selfish, self-obsesseed thing. At least mine is.


Sujatha said...

Jawahara, I had replied to your response to my first e-mail (Aug 1). Just sent it again. You've sent one response to me so far, right? If you sent a second one I did not get it. Booo hoooooo!!

Sujatha said...

Hope the medicine starts working soon Jawahara. And yes, it's happened to me too. I think about long-forgotten people and things only in the context of something happening to me.

Judy Bussey said...

I think of the ad that says, "when you can't breathe, nothing else matters". It's a real struggle. My father died with 25% breathing capacity and his wish was not to slowly smother. Thankfully, he died of a heart attack in his sleep. I'm glad you honor Shambhu Your recognition of him is significant.