Monday, June 29, 2015

The Latch

"Arrey baba, you should go! Silly girl! It's been three days now, and you are still not going. You'll fall ill again. Again that means I'll have to sit at home looking after you. Just because my memsab is a kind lady does not mean I should keep taking leave because of you na! Chal chal, go now! Such a darpok you are!!"
How many times did she have to tell Aai that going right away was not needed? Why did she always eat like a bird if she was okay with going regularly? To top it off, it had rained last night. Who was going to jump across the now overflowing gutter a couple of feet from her house and walk all the way to that lonely place behind the bamboo grove that marked the end of the temple premises? It was bound to be all slushy and the disgusting; the wet mud imprinted by the feet, bare as well as chappal-ed of the many women who went regularly, and the grass squashed by the pots of water they brought along . The last time she went, an earthworm had begun crawling up her feet and had already made its way to her left calf when she spotted it, before she sprang up and sprinted homewards, leaving her job incomplete.  Just the thought of it made her recoil in disgust; as she got up from the floor where she sat, nibbling on a few grains of barely-cooked poha.

Sonali remembered those lecherous eyes that were not supposed to be present, but there anyways, when she or any of the young girls she knew, went. She vividly recollected the disgusted looks in the eyes of the passers-by, especially the temple goers, when they saw a woman emerging from the bamboo grove. She remembered how she had to hurry away many a time just because the sun was beginning to rise.  She remembered the stench surrounding her, she remembered closing her eyes to shut out all the dirty sights, she remembered keeping her ears open to detect even the faintest of footsteps approaching her. She remembered the flies buzzing all around her, she also remembered not being able to shoo them away because her hands were occupied in holding up her skirt with one hand, and holding the torch with another. 

She wondered how Rekha, Veena and the rest of the girls went with such regularity. “What is there to be scared, ha? Who is looking at you, everyone is busy in their own business. The ones who do look, will look at you no matter where you are and what you are doing, they are like that only! What to do, we only have to adjust!” Rekha had once told her, giggling. Sonali was appalled! Shameless only this Rekha was.

Sonali proceeded towards the public tubewell at the corner of the street, with a plastic pitcher pitcher on her head and a smaller bucket in one hand. Five trips to the tubewell, and she’ll have gathered enough water to last hr family till the next morning when she’d repeat her routine. At the tubewell she saw the men from the neighbourhood, dressed in nothing but their underwears, all lathered up with cheap soap, clamouring for their turn at the spout, to get washed. She saw women doing their dishes at a frenzied pace a little away from the tubewell, catching up on the latest gossip doing the rounds in the slum.  She saw girls like her with pots balanced on their waists and hips and in their hands.  There was a cacophony, everyone was eager to get to the tubewell first. Sonali did too, for she wanted to get away from the almost naked men bathing in public.


Panna Tai had once taken her to a public toilet. There was a queue outside, but Sonali didn’t mind- she’d heard that the doors here could be latched from the inside. But no sooner had she ented, than she realized that the latch was just for telling people. It was broken. She had told Panna Tai to make sure no one opened the door while she was inside, but Panna Tai suddenly spotted Aruna Tai in the queue, and the two had begun chatting. All of a sudden the door in front of Sonali had swung open and a bulky woman almost entered, her sari already held up to knee level. When she saw Sonali, legs quivering and hands busy pulling down her skirt, she shouted to her, “Moorkh mulgi! Kadi gele aahe tar dwaar bandh dhaaran! Hold the door shut if the latch is broken, you stupid girl!” Sonali had bolted out of the public toilet and vowed never to go back in there.  She preferred eating less to keep her bowels under her control.

Sonali looked at the hoarding behind the bus stop near her slum. It was advertising a brand of bathroom fittings. Not like she could comprehend how there could be curtains in somebody’s bathrooms- the only fabric she saw in hers was the jute from the gunny bags her brother had strung up on about four bamboo poles to make a makeshift place for her and Aai to wash inside. You couldn’t take off your clothes and pour a couple of mugs of water on yourself, somebody or the other was definitely looking. The loafer boys who roamed about aimlessly were ever on the pry. Her attention went back to the hoarding. There was a huge bathtub and a gorgeous girl in it- covered in soap and bubbles. Here in the slum, Aai cursed her because she demanded to use soap daily . “You are some raajkumari or what, that you want soap daily? Renu’s aai was telling me, in their house, one cake of soap lasts for a month. And here, the fair lady wants to make the soap company richer by finishing one cake in twenty days!”

Sonali shuddered to think of what would possibly happen in a few months. Veena and Renu had started getting their periods a couple of months back, and they had told all the girls what a pain it was. Not just a physical pain, which by itself was unbearable, but it was also a big problem to go out during those days.  Panna Tai had told her that it would happen to her also. Sonali was shocked and scared- having to deal with more filth meant having to deal with more scoldings from Aai…


There is an exhibition being held in the municipality maidaan today, at a considerable distance from her slum. Craftsmen from all over Maharashtra will bring their wares- marble jewellery, stone artifacts, and kolhapuri chappals. There will also be food stalls where vada-pav, bun-maska and cotton candy would be sold. Rekha, Renu and Veena were all going with Panna Tai, but Sonali’s Aai was reluctant, lest she spend a hundred rupees there. It took three days of persuasion from Panna Tai to finally get her to agree. Sonali oiled her hairand tied it into two tight pigtails. She wore the frock her Aai’smemsab had gifted to her last Ganesh Chaturthi and almost emptied the small pink tube of Pond’s powder on her face. Then, she held Panna Tai’s hand tightly and tucked a fifty rupees note into the waistline of her skirt as she proceeded maidaan-wards. The girls ate cotton candy and bhelpuri, after which Panna Tai took them to the bangles and bindi stall. Sonali decided to buy a dozen of green glass bangles for Aai, and one of those little boxes which held multiple bottles of liquid kumkum in various hues, for herself. As she reached into the waistline of her skirt to pay the seller, someone from behind collapsed upon her.

Before she knew it, everybody was running helter and skelter because the camel that was used for providing joy-rides, had started running around. Sonali was now separated from Panna Tai and the rest of the girls. She shouted for Rekha and Veena and Renu many times, she screamed for Panna Tai to hear her, but in all the noise and confusion, she wasn’t heard. She stood there, darpok Sonali, ready to cry, when a fat old aunty caught her by the wrist. She was a kindly looking lady who tenderly stroked her head and left the maidaan with her. She comforted Sonali, and asked her who she was and where she lived. She then aksed Sonali if it was fine if she herself dropped her home. Sonali was more than grateful to this angel who’s appeared out of nowhere and promised to take her back to Aai. “But I have to go to my home first, need to pick up money for the auto ride to drop you off. Don’t be afraid, I live right here, across the street.  Come.”

With her hand still in the old womam’s hand, Sonali went to the bunglow the woman lived in. She was strangely not afraid of this woman, maybe because she looked to sweet. There was a big porch in her house and huge, wooden doors.  There were about seven rooms surrounding the courtyard with housed a Tulsi-aangan and a hammock. The aunty who got here here now went into one of the rooms to bring her money. Sonali looked at the rooms around her. There were exquisite rangoli patterns in front of each door, and bewitching red and white curtains at the windows. She heard a young child memorizing a Hindi poem from inside one of the rooms, and she saw one of the curtains move briefly.  Out of nowhere, a young woman about the age of Panna Tai walked into the courtyard with a basket of mangoes that were evidently in the process of being pickled.

“Panna Tai”, Sonali remembered! She would have searched for her at the maidaan after the stampeded had died down. Would she be waiting for her till now? No, she’s have gone home along with the rest of the girls. They must have told Aai that Sonali was not to be found. Aai would be worried. She’s be cursing herself for letting Sonali go to the exhibition.  “Such a frail, darpok girl”, Aai would be lamenting, “she must be crushed in the stampede by now”. Her brother would even have gone to the police, but she knew the police had better things to do than to look for a twelve year old slum girl gone missing. Sonali’s stomach suddenly began churning.

She didn’t know if it was the bhel-puri or her anxiety that was causing her stomach to hurt. Oh, wait! She felt the familiar pressure in her abdomen. She knew she finally had to go, after four days of holding it back. She looked at the big house once again. Such a big house, the toilets had to be good, usable. The aunty who got here was an angel, she surely wouldn’t mind if Sonali asked to use the toilet. Besides, if she went today, she’d be at peace for the next four days. So, when the aunty came out with her purse, Sonali asked her…

Zaroor Zaroor”, the aunty said, “arey Bindiya, just take her”. The girl with the mango basket came back and lead Sonali to a big room and opened the door. Sonali saw beautiful pink tiles on the walls and smelt a divine smell of the pink soap that made huge bubbles. “Go in”, Bindiya said.

Sonali was overjoyed. Panna Tai, Renu, Veena, Rekha, even Aai and her brother could wait.

As if in a dream, she did a little happy dance as she entered. And then she fastened the shiny new latch on the door behind her- really tightly! 


  1. Nicely done. In simple terms and a nice story, a tiny bit of message passed on...brilliant!

  2. Well done! You've wonderfully brought out the plight of many girls like Sonali who have no access to clean toilets. Hope this opens the eyes of many who don't see this as a big problem.