No equal spaces

Every journey holds within it a commentary on the world we inhabit. But ‘we’ are not people of the whole of planet Earth; we are residents of a tiny microscopic construct that we think of as ‘our world’. We see, feel and even listen to the ‘rest’ from within this paradigm.

Last week I travelled to two places for two very different reasons but inexplicably they got intertwined. My friend Nityanand Jayaraman took a few of us to Kodungaiyur, a suburb situated far away from middle and upper-middle class Chennai; to its ‘due North’. In Kodungaiyur is located one of Chennai’s main garbage dumps that receives the majority of the garbage generated by ‘us’. Living within and around this dump are communities making their living by segregating plastics, metals and selling the city’s waste. The sight is astounding; acres and acres of garbage, rising to a height of over 25 ft. Nearby flows — rather does not flow — a narrow toxic canal. The sight and stench are revolting.

I live in a South Chennai apartment complex. We like to think of ourselves as being an eco-friendly community. We segregate garbage and harvest rainwater. I even use solar power! But at the Kodungaiyur dump, in contrast, everything from below the surface to the smoke-filled sky was polluted.

By whom?

Their garbage is not theirs, but ours. What they live with is what we throw out of our homes. Our every act of avaricious consumption is an act of violence on these people. We have dumped our filth on Kodungaiyur and we call it a dump, meaning a place for valueless objects. Are the people who suffer our excesses also valueless?

For a child born around this dump, the aroma of life means something different from what it does to my daughter. To her, what we discard at home is something that goes into the waste bin. For the girl in Kodungaiyur, what we discard becomes her ‘common’.

Many believe that discrimination on the basis of caste is an over-exaggerated preoccupation of the self-flagellating left-leaning liberal. But if we do not realise that Dalits and other lower castes live amid the most polluting and hazardous filth, which is not created by them but by others we are truly inhuman.

A few days after experiencing Kondungaiyur, I travelled to Mumbai. Travelling for a concert is ‘secure’. We arrive at an airport, stay in a comfortable hotel or with a close friend, perform, lap up all the praise and money and head back. This Mumbai visit was no different until I came across this notice in an up-market apartment complex.

“Lift No 1 & 2 to be used only by the client & architects. Any labour or contractor found using these lifts will be fined Rs. 2,000.”

This must have been put up when the building was being constructed; may be still some work is in progress. But, really! The labourers build every inch of your house, craft your interiors, carpet your flooring and decorate your bathrooms. They make that place you call home classy for you, yet they are not classy enough to travel in the lift with you! If this is not apartheid, what is? In the Nirbhaya documentary, the rapist has said what many think. Here the notice only put into words what many feel. We do not want to travel in the lift with a worker or house help and they know it, which is why many will not enter the lift when the ‘malik’ does.

What was even worse in this notice was the accompanying fine in case of violation. Equality was made a punishable offence! We will be given many reasons for this posting, like labourers spit out paan indiscriminately or carry tool kits that may damage the lift. I wonder if we will stop the owner of the house from carrying golf kits on Lifts 1 and 2?

The hard truth is that we look at this class of people who work as labourers, domestic help, electricians, plumbers, painters as being unfit to share ‘our’ space. They are there only to serve our needs for which we compensate them. We cannot be equals; we have all the rights and power and it is up to us to decide and choreograph their place in society.

Within a few days I had seen two different environments connected in an unusual way. Places like Kodungaiyur soak up our filth to keep our surroundings clean. The labourers, whom we treat as lesser mortals, work for the upkeep of our homes. It is ironic that dignity, beauty, elegance, and functionality are stripped out of the lives of the ones who provide them to us.

Originally written for The Hindu

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