Literary Fiction

Sweeper Woman

By Reena Shah
3,348 words · 13-minute reading time
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Gayatri’s last day working for the Jhaveris began like any other. She woke in her one room shack to the smell of stale urine and fried cumin seeds and overly fermented alcohol. Mrs. Jhaveri had a ladies’ luncheon planned for the afternoon, and Gayatri arrived knowing that she would have to work late into the evening. She scraped clean the western-style commodes, washed the previous night’s dishes, and wiped windows clear of fingerprints. After lunch, while the women drank tea in the living room, Gayatri swept and mopped, waiting patiently for them to life their legs so she could reach the space underneath their pedicured feet.

As the women prepared to leave, the largest of the group began searching frantically for her handbag. She cast a sidelong glance at Gayatri, who was dusting the dining room fan. “Apana tyanna visvasa karu sakate nahi,” you just can’t trust them, the woman lamented, clutching one hand with another. Gayatri continued to wipe each blade clean. She had been working for the Jhaveris, a standard diamond-wearing, ghee-eating Gujarati family, for over a decade. Though her status was well below the live-ins and nannies, she was, at least, a step above the street cleaners and multi-family maids. She was also thorough and trustworthy, resisting the typical temptations. First a 500 rupee note found lying, half folded, on a dresser table followed by larger trophies: a stapled stack of bills in an unlocked cabinet, a pair of studs in the washroom, a misplaced solid gold bangle. Gayatri took pride in being the kind of dependable help Mrs. Jhaveri could brag about. She waited now for her employer to proclaim her innocence, perhaps even sharing the story of Gayatri finding her daughter’s wallet under a pillow only to return it. Not a paisa missing.

Gayatri caught her eye and smiled, but Mrs. Jhaveri, who privately inquired about Gayatri’s children and regularly plied her with freshly laundered hand-me-downs, regarded her silently, the way she might an unfortunate blemish.

The purse was eventually found tucked away and forgotten on a bookshelf, and the women laughed at their forgetfulness. Still, at the end of the day, Mrs. Jhaveri made no offer of leftovers or the extra hundred rupees that her guests usually left as a token of their appreciation. She remained cold and distant.

That night Gayatri could not slip easily into her usual dreamless, exhausted slumber. She tried to work out what she’d done to cause the change in Mrs. Jhaveri even though she knew no reason was required; madams were allowed to be fickle. She shivered despite the heat and listened to the thick snores of Aditya and Yash, her grown, unmarried sons asleep on the floor beside her. She had hoped that by now they would have married simple, able-bodied women who could lighten her own burden. But Aditya was too shy, and Yash, her youngest, liked no one.

The next morning, Gayatri stepped through her community’s gate and across the city’s commercial artery, a dusty highway choked with tire shops and chicken coops and dense exhaust. Normally, Gayatri looked forward to crossing into the Jhaveris’ leafy neighborhood. The riot of red flowers that adorned the gulmohar trees. Banyans with their ropey, tangled vines. But as she drew closer, she felt a weight inside that threatened to sink her into the earth with each step. Her loyalty had meant nothing, even less than ash that floated then disappeared in the wind.

She reached the Jhaveris’ intersection and halted. What if she didn’t show up? She imagined Mrs. Jhaveri staring helplessly at the piles of dishes, her disgust as the soles of her feet collected dust. A panicked excitement stirred in Gayatri’s chest. She turned around and headed home. She walked quickly, and more than once she paused, imagining that the coconut vendor or rickshaw-walas on the corner could guess her mind. That they would chide her impulsiveness or scold her for thinking the events of the previous day were anything more than the expected flow of their lives. But Gayatri kept on, and by the time she pushed aside the torn curtain that marked the threshold of her home, she’d constructed hopes of finding an office cleaning job in the glass buildings across the river, a step up that also avoided the superficial intimacy of another person’s home.

She fished out a flat key she kept tucked in her blouse and quietly opened the sea green, metal wardrobe, one of the few gifts she’d ever bought for herself. She counted 17,000 rupees and some change, enough to survive three, maybe four weeks before they’d be forced to move to a settlement further up the highway with no public toilets. Gayatri looked around the room. In their first year of marriage, her husband had filled their charpoy with buckets of flowers that he refused to throw out until the room smelled sweet with decay. He was dead now and Gayatri didn’t miss him, though some nights she could still smell the moonshine he used to brew in rusting aluminum vats by the door. He had wanted to escape this room and had dreamed of one day owning a flat in a proper building. Over the years, Gayatri realized that his conviction was misplaced, that her bleary-eyed husband would never penetrate the community’s business class, none of them moonshiners themselves, but esteemed owners of unmarked black-market liquor shops that lined the gullies and opened after dark. She had resigned herself to this room, to these belongings, all so precious now, so easily lost.

Gayatri realized that no one would have sympathy for what she’d done or for the kernel of pride tucked in the back of her throat. The Jhaveris paid double salary a week before Diwali holidays, allowed their servants to eat hot food, and even took care of their children’s uniforms and school fees. Who was she to leave a rich family like that? When Aditya and Yash returned that afternoon from their own menial labor, Gayatri lied. “Madam wanted younger maid,” she said, even though she knew Mrs. Jhaveri regularly advised her friends against hiring one (“Young girls know nothing, just move dust here there.”). But the truth was impossible.

Gayatri gave herself two weeks to find any better position, if not an office job then one tending a small fruit stall. Nothing turned up. The security guards at the office buildings wouldn’t let her cross their gates. Her neighbors eyed her warily and provided no leads, except that the Jhaveris had, without issue, contracted another maid.

In the end, it was Yash who found her work. Yash was a lazy but able gardener at the park who spent evenings spitting red betel juice into bright, flower-shaped stains. He had Gayatri’s dark face – her hooked nose and full cheeks that would one day droop below his chin. For years, she had favored him over Aditya, her obedient elder son, a fact she now regretted as it led Yash to believe he was smarter and more handsome than other boys. She had hoped this wrong impression would evaporate with time, but it hadn’t, making him a defiant, leering fixture in their community’s narrow, potholed gullies littered with dead rats and rotting vegetable peels that slid into the open gutters.

“I spoke with Mukesh bhayia,” he said, looking triumphant.

Gayatri wiped her brow with the back of her wrist and shook her head. “Why do you bother with that man?”

“Ere, Ma, I asked him for some job for you.”

“Job?”

“Job avasyaka, nahi, Ma? No one gives you job, no?” Yash said as he kicked his worn sandals to the corner. “Go tomorrow and he will find something.”

The next day, when Mukesh gruffly offered her a sweeper position, Gayatri took the work without meeting his eyes. Mukesh was the park ticket collector and supervisor, a big man who wore office clothes and barked orders at others. He was 29, the same age as Yash, but looked years younger: his black hair oiled and lustrous, his belly a solid mound, a sign of being well fed and cared for by a wife. He had grown up in one of the few cement structures in their community that rose above the corrugated-roof shacks that huddled around them like begging goats. Gayatri remembered him as a child, a boy with stick legs and shiny school shoes who called her “Auntyji” with automatic deference. On occasion, when he appeared at her door with fresh bruises, she applied hot compresses and gave him slivers of sweet jaggery, a treat she rarely offered her own children. He was among the handful of boys she knew who had passed 10th grade, at which point he stopped calling her “Auntyji” and acknowledged her only with a nod of his head. Yash was certain he had cheated on his exams, but what difference did it make? He was now an employer who could dole out favors.

The job was not the step up she’d hoped for. Gayatri’s five-hour shift began when the park closed at 10:00am for the prime hours of sun and heat. She was not used to the stifling air, the white sun threatening overhead. As a maid, she had glided across granite floors in a squatting position; here she had to bend at the waist to collect the clipped branches that Yash and the other gardeners left behind.

But she didn’t mind that no one greeted her, including Mukesh, and imagined her anonymity a form of respect. When Mukesh blew the first whistle that marked the beginning of her shift, Gayatri promptly collected her straw broom from his office, a crude, cement hut by the gate, and went about her work as if compelled by her own volition.

A week into her new job, Gayatri arrived a half an hour early. Sweepers were supposed to wait outside the gate until the park officially closed, but Mukesh appeared indifferent when Gayatri stepped over the threshold. She sat on a park bench and rubbed the dead skin between her toes into slim snakes.

After a few days of this, Gayatri attempted a stroll around the park’s 500-meter loop before starting work. She walked briskly and hugged the edge of the path, afraid of upsetting the patrons’ regular rhythm and routine. But, like Mukesh, none of them seemed to notice her, so she began taking her time, listening to chatter about holidays abroad and private school tuition and watching the fitful exertions of old men stretching on the green. She walked with a lazy, wide gait, her sari swinging between her legs, and crushed dry gulmohar flowers that fell from the trees like starched handkerchiefs. Though she would have to sweep them aside later, she enjoyed feeling the brown edges crumble through her flimsy soles.

As the days turned to weeks, Gayatri found herself paying special attention to one woman who regularly ran dozens of rounds counter-clockwise on the dusty red path, undeterred by the well-marked placard that pointed the other direction. A firangi-Indian from America or England, Gayatri thought, despite her dark Indian skin that suggested too much direct sun and too little Fair and Lovely cream. Gayatri caught others watching her too, often with tight-lipped disapproval or idle smirks. The jogger outran her male counterparts, each stride revealing well toned, teardrop-shaped calves, her fitted shirts betraying the faintest trace of belly.

Gayatri liked to stare at the jogger until she risked drawing the woman’s attention. She assumed that the jogger lived in one of the tall white buildings that surrounded the park and that she came here to jog after dropping off her son at school. She had seen the boy once during a school holiday. Light-skinned, brown hair, plastic red shoes. He liked to walk up the slide while his mother delivered a steady stream of reassuring sounds, as if the monologue were a form of nourishment. It was a curious indulgence; one Gayatri never had the time for with Aditya and Yash, not when they were small enough to benefit from such words and not now.

Gayatri guessed that the jogger was married, given the son, but she had never seen the husband and not a single ring adorned her slim fingers. Bones licked clean. The jogger disregarded the order of things with her fast, wrong-direction running and strong calves and too-kind mothering. She was a heightened projection of a person, like in the movies, unfettered, weightless. Gayatri herself could not fathom it. Her life was a series of stones with small discs of release wedged between the cracks – the freedom of festival seasons when she was a child, the taste of freshly pressed cane sugar, a bit of gossip that made her life seem above another’s. Gayatri imagined tripping the jogger and then rushing to her rescue, supporting the woman on her shoulders as gratitude washed over the foreigner’s sweat-stained face. The jogger would be hurt just enough to feel momentarily helpless: a gash on her leg dripping perfect, black dots on the red bricks. Gayatri would manage the wound with expert hands, using her sari to dab the surrounding skin and clear away dirt and gravel. “Thank you, Moshi,” the jogger would say as she wiped stray hairs from her wet cheeks.

Gayatri allowed herself only brief moments to consider the possibility before pushing the fantasy out of her mind. Nothing good could come of it.

And then one morning, the jogger rounded the bend and failed to slow down over a stretch of sunbaked petals. The woman slipped and skidded into the dirt, kicking up pink dust clouds and landing hard on her side. Gayatri felt a sharp jolt inside her, as if she had willed it true.

Nearby walkers gasped. One elderly Parsi woman carrying a parasol to protect her complexion exclaimed, “Careful!” But the jogger simply stood up, brushed off her backside, and continued on. She glanced at Gayatri, whose heart quickened, but the jogger showed no sign of recognition. Gayatri was unnerved by the needless disappointment this caused her. She took hold of a loose thread in her sari and wound it around her finger until the tip turned purple, then scratched her nose and ran her pinky finger through the folds of her outer ear.

Up ahead, Mukesh stood by the washrooms berating the toilet cleaners, two girls too old for school but too young to marry. “Kaam nahin kar rahe ho, eh? You think this is your father’s place that it should smell like stinking piss?” A gaggle of young men stood behind him, casually picking their teeth. Gayatri knew it was a show put on for whichever patron made the complaint, but the girls looked at the ground, chewing the hems of their dupattas and clutching their orange buckets. When the jogger approached again, the girls tried to hide a giggle in their scarves, but Mukesh paused his scolding to stare. He muttered to the other men, who nodded and grinned. The fall had done nothing to slow the woman’s pace, and the jogger soon disappeared to the other end of the park. Mukesh turned his attention back to the toilet cleaners and unleashed one last tirade. “You think there are not million girls who will do your job? Next time no more chances,” he said before walking back to his post at the entrance. The toilet cleaners scuttled back inside the washrooms.

The jogger seemed to be running faster than before. Gayatri spied her on the opposite side of the park, hugging the outside rim of the loop. Gayatri veered closer to the edge so that the jogger would have to pass right next to her.

Just past the washroom, a group of children, barefoot and caked in dirt, hung upside down from rusted bars on the playground. Some darted back and forth across the path. Their black hair betrayed streaks of sun-bleached brown. Gayatri suspected the children had snuck in by jumping the low wall behind the toilets. As a game, they took turns walking up to different people. “Hello, Aunty” or “How are you, Uncle?” they said and then galloped away with shrieks of laughter. Gayatri was embarrassed by them and tried to scold them off the path. “Ere, who told you to come here?” she chided, but the children danced away from her. The jogger drew near and a skinny boy in a dirty, oversized shirt hurried up to her. The woman smiled and held out her hand in camaraderie. The boy slapped it, and his friends fell quiet before breaking into even louder laughter as she pulled ahead.

The jogger passed Gayatri again, this time close enough that Gayatri felt a hot breeze. But the woman still did not see her, as if she were running through a dark tunnel. Gayatri considered her own dry palms, the deep lines like cracks in the pavement. Why hold her hand out to these dirty children and not for Gayatri, too? Could she not understand that they would one day become sweepers and maids, trash pickers and toilet cleaners? How strangely, Gayatri thought, the lines were drawn.

She came upon the main gate and saw Mukesh at his bench, absently sliding the whistle around his neck back and forth in its chain. His friends surrounded him, reedy men in dust-coated pants. The dials of the large clock that loomed over the entrance inched toward 10:00 a.m., when Mukesh would take a deep breath and blow the first long, shrill signal that would echo off the surrounding buildings, indicating closing time.

A few visitors continued to trickled in. They hardly looked at Mukesh, even as they accepted his pink tickets, which they deposited in a trash bin not ten paces away. Mukesh placed each coin he received gingerly into a large change purse, and Gayatri knew that at the end of his shift, he would stand before another boss to hand over his day’s work. What a pity, Gayatri thought. Nothing softened his manner toward those who shared, more or less, the same bruised life as his own.

The woman jogged by, red dirt smudging her cheeks where she’d wiped away sweat. Dark half-moons ringed the armpits of her shirt. Mukesh watched, reaching one hand between his legs to fondle himself and making a small but clear “o” with the other. The young men around him snickered but failed to draw the attention of the patrons around them. Gayatri caught Mukesh’s eye and searched for a sign of shame there but found none, and, without warning, her palms glowed hot the way they had years ago when she was about to slap one of her children.

“Chi, you disgusting pig!” she said.

Nearby walkers turned in her direction. His friends trained their laughter against him. Gayatri felt bathed in a warm spotlight, at once exhilarating and uncomfortable. She kept her eyes fixed on Mukesh, who pushed a man closest to him and said, “You shut up!”

Then he stood, placing his hands on his wide hips. Gayatri steadied herself, fighting the urge to drop her chin and lower her gaze. She searched for the boy she once knew, the one who was grateful for her small kindnesses. He pointed at her, and she thought she saw a doubt, maybe even a vague recollection, flicker behind his eyes, until finally he said, “You stupid old lady. Kam karo.” Do your work. He sat down, adjusting his waistband.

The spotlight faded, and Gayatri walked past him, a hard satisfaction growing in her aching belly. She spotted the jogger weaving between casual strollers. When the second whistle pierced the air, Gayatri stretched her arms out wide, forcing the surrounding walkers to carve an arc around her. The grandmothers in white saris and diamond studs continued their quarrel on an adjacent bench. A child’s blue ball rolled by her feet. The jogger approached, and the whistle blew yet again, long and shrill. Gayatri shifted her weight from one leg to the other but steadied her gaze and waited, anticipating touch.

This story originally appeared in Origins Journal.


Author: Reena Shah

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