Satnam rose early. He was having his bath in the mori.( A concocted version of a small bathroom in a chawl).His three year old son was in deep sleep well covered with blankets at one corner of his single room living space.The December winter was cold. His wife was busy preparing his breakfast, tiffin for lunch and his morning tea. As he toweled himself dry his eyes shifted back to his only child. It was his sons birthday today. His mind was contemplating on what gifts to buy the child today.
Satnam was a driver at the garbage collection company. His shift started at 7.00 am and got over at 3.00 pm. His schooling was only upto tenth standard . His parents were farmers with small land holdings who had to work in others fields in their village to keep the embers of the chulla burning. They were five siblings, life was hard and poverty ridden. Satnam had left his village after his tenth standard for the city where he worked as a cart puller, then learnt to drive and got temporary ,poorly paid jobs as a driver . He was miserly in his spendings as he needed to save money to send some every month back home. His parents got him married and inspite of his initial reluctance he was happy. In a years time his wife gave birth to a son. This boy was a lucky charm for Satnam. He got the job with the garbage collection company the month his son was born. Now he was happy, unlike his previous jobs the company paid better. Now he could spare more money again to send to his parents and siblings back home.
Satnam was now ready in his uniform, his wife placed the plate of chapatis and cauliflower curry on the floor. He sat down cross legged and had his breakfast in a hurry. She pushed his cup of black tea towards him which to he gulped. He got up, bent over, kissed the child on his forehead, picked up the bag containing his tiffin , put on his identity card and rushed out, his hands waving a bye to his wife . It was 6.30 am. He had a bus to take to reach the garbage companies parking lot.
He got on to the bus , it was on time and there were hardly any passengers. He took a seat and as the bus went along, his thoughts wandered back to his sons birthday. He would buy him a couple of dresses , a , a toy car some chocolates and a small cake. He had kept aside money for all of this .
The bus reached his parking lot. Satnam got off the bus and walked into the parking lot. He went straight to the biometric rooms and pressed his thumb onto the machine. 6.50 am. He was early as usual. The parking lot was buzzing with drivers and attendants coming in, getting their biometrics and taking out their garbage vehicles. The place really reeked of stench, wafts of the cold air carried the stench all around. With over 300 garbage vehicles including compacters parked here , it was not surprising.
Satnam took the keys to his garbage van and started the vehicle waiting for his attendant to arrive. She came soon, Surekha was in her thirties and a widow. She was the attendent on his van. She hopped in pulled shut the door and the van slowly moved out of the parking lot.
Satnam knew his route well . Route number 3, a total of five trips, approximately 500 houses per trip. So he was collecting garbage of over 2500 households daily. The route was a mixture of bungalows and societies. The stench of yesterday’s garbage, though the van was washed after work daily still lingered in the air. As the van moved in the cool morning winter the smell was more obvious. Three years of working with garbage van had blunted Satnam’s olfactory senses. As the van stopped along the routes people came and emptied their garbage dry and wet into the separate compartments. The atentend Surekha got down to help them. When the van would be full she would press down the garbage with a long stick. Satnam too at times got down to help. As the van filled up the stench too would at times become unbearable . He had no choice , the pay was good, he could feed his family, he could dream of a good future for his child. He was happy , he had no regrets.
His first trip was complete , 500 households had emptied their garbage into the van, he slowly maneuvered the van towards the secondary collection centre a couple of kilometres away. When he reached there he positioned his van, and tipped all the garbage first wet and then dry into the respective bins. It was nearing 8.30 am. He drove towards his second trip start point of his route. On the way he stopped at a handcart selling tea. Surekha and Satnam both had tea, which now was their daily routine. He took a glass of water washed his hands dug them into his pant pockets , took out a pouch of tobacco , put some onto his left palm, took some lime from a small plastic packet and rubbed it vigorously with his right index finger. Then he gently patted the mixture in his left palm with his right and took a pinch of it out placed it into his mouth behind his lips. He patted his hands and ushered Surekha into the van, got onto his seat and whoosh he was on his second trip for the day.
This trip too covered around 500 households. At times there were arguments with the citizens who wouldn’t segregate the garbage. Some hurled the choicest abuses at him and the attendant. They never uttered a word, just accepted it as a part of their duties. This trip had many societies and hence it got over faster . Again he drove back to the secondary centre to empty the van. The bins at the center was now brimming with garbage. The smell was worse ,it was in fact nauseating. After having emptied it he drove back to the next point to start his third trip for the day. It was 9.15 am.
The sun was out and it was quite warm. Satnam was feeling heat and was sweating, his clothes felt sticky, the stench in the driver cabin was getting worse. He lit an incense stick to mask the stench and kept going. This trip covered mainly small societies , it took time as the housekeeping staff took their own sweet time to empty the garbage into the van. He was thirsty. He pulled ot the bottle of water kept in his cabin took a couple of gulps and passed it on to the atentend , she too was thirsty. Society after society he drove to collect garbage. At one society a kind lady offered them some tea. Some residents were rude, some chatted with him, others have him dirty looks, he didn’t bother to mind all of this . His hands now felt greasy, his face was full of perspiration. This trip was taking a lot of time, he had two more trips to go. Ultimately after 2 hours the trip was done and he was back to the secondary yard to empty his van. Rag pickers had gathered there and were rummaging through the garbage for recyclables that would fetch them money. He was happy that he was better off than them. It was now 12.25 noon when he started he penultimate trip.
This trip covered a few slums and chawls. The stops were more and frequent. The incense stick had burnt out. The stench returned. The attendant too was sweating. Her overcoat was full of garbage stains, her gloves smelled as she sat on the helpers seat in the two seat cabin . By the time he completed this trip it was 1.30pm. He emptied the van and drove out to a tree nearby. Already two more vans had reached there.
He got off the van, took the 5 litre can of water in the van. He washed his hands clean. The attendant too removed her gloves and washed her hands clean. The drivers and attendants of the other two vans too had washed their hands. One of them pulled out a large plastic sheet from above one vans cabin and laid it on the ground. They all sat cross legged on the sheet and placed their tiffin boxes. They shared the curries they had. All of them started having their lunch happily. Inspite of their job profile there was camaraderie, each asked the other if they needed more of anything. In the shade of the tree under gods lovely blue sky they had their meals and were contended. Satnam pulled out his pouch of tobaco and rubbed it with lime before placing it in his mouth. He sat there a while and then got back to his van as did the others. The last trip of the day was due. It was 2.00pm.
The last trip was cool, the small societies of small row houses. His legs were itching from the grime and sweat. He looked to his feet as he drove, his chappals were worn out and needed replacement. He would do that today . This trip got over in 45 minutes and he was back at the secondary yard, after emptying his van there he returned back to the parking lot. Dot 3.00 pm.
Here he parked his vehicle submitted the keys to the supervisor and went to the biometric room. Later he went over the water taps and washed his hands , feet and face with the soap available there . He checked his pocket for the money he was carrying to buy the birthday gifts for his son. As he walked towards the exit gate the supervisor asked him why he was in a hurry today , he shot back ‘ it’s my son’s birthday’. The kind supervisor took out his purse and handed a hundred rupe note to Satnam. Buy him sweets from my side he said . Satnam was reluctant, but the supervisor insisted. He took the money and thanking him walked towards the bus stop.
Satnam got into the bus , took a ticket for the market, disembarked and started window shopping . After around 30 minutes he entered a cloth store and asked to see clothes for a three year old. The salesman was’nt very cooperative. Satnam’s uniform was dirty and the smell of garbage was undeniable. Satnam too could realise the reason for the sales mans indifferent attitude. He chose two pairs of shirts and pants for the child, paid for it and walked out. Next he went to the bakery bought a small nicely decorated cake. Got the words Happy birthday. Aditya, written on it, he smiled within, he was happy. He also bought some cadbury bars. Then he walked into the small shoe store and bought himself a pair of chappals. His eyes fell on a beautiful pair of ladies sandals and after bargaining the price , he bought one for his wife. He still had some money to spare.
He was now carrying quite some bags. He took the next bus home. It was 6.00 pm when he reached home. His wife was cooking. His son was playing with his toys. Oh! He had forgotten to buy him a toy. He kept the bags in the room and walked briskly to the toys shop nearby. He bought a remote controlled car. It was not cheap , the money he had wouldn’t suffice . He promised the shopkeeper that he would pay him later , the shopkeeper knowing him agreed. He handed over a kit kat bar and said, this us for your son , keep it.
Satnam now empty pocketed walked back briskly home. He kept the toy on the shelf and removed his clothes and went on to have a bath. He soaped himself vigorously. The Santoor bath bar was good, nice sweet smell . It took out all the stench of garbage. He emptied two full buckets of water on his body. Now he was fresh, he put on a kurta and pants . He pulled his son towards him, opened the toy box and the car. Aditya was thrilled, happy birthday..Satnam whispered , his wife smiled even as she was making those sweet puran poli’s Soon she was done with her cooking. She too freshened up. Then both of them dressed the little boy in new clothes. The mother took a clean steel plate, placed some haldi, kum kum and flowers on it. Then she lit a small oil lamp and placed it on the plate. They took Aditya plate in hand and prayed to god , she moved the plate in circles around Aditya praying for his wellness and good health and warding off evil spirits. Then they placed the cake on a small stool and let Aditya cut his birthday cake as they clapped and sang for him. Satnam took both of them close to him and clicked multiple selfies of the three of them with the cake.
Food was served early , puran poli,rice,dal fry and okra sabji. They said their prayers and feasted on the food. Satnam was happy and satisfied. After the food was over Satnam took out the cadbury bars and gave it to Aditya.He was so happy and hugged his parents.
After a hour Aditya was fast asleep holding the toy car in his hands. Satnam too lay down. He had to go back early to work tomorrow, again the same grind and stench. He stared at the tin roof of his room and decided that he must search for another job soon. He wouldn’t like to bring the stench back home daily , he son was growing up , he didn’t want to be an embarrassment for his child when he would start school. Thinking of all this he slowly dozed off, his body and mind tired but happy and contended. Another day in the life of Satnam as a garbage van driver was over.