It may surprise some if I say that I was engaged as a pourakarmike since the age of 14. That is the stipulated age for labor. Otherwise, I would have been initiated into this work from the time I could hold a broom. Not that I had not held the ‘broom’ till 18. I have held it from the time I was 5, perhaps. Not that I never went to school. I had been in one until the age of 13. I was sent, not because my mother wanted me to study but because we got food and uniforms in school. I did understand English as I had friends who spoke English. They came from convents and I was forced to speak to them in English and this was a boon.
I was whisked out of school and suddenly found myself becoming a ‘sweeper’ of streets. The contractor seemed to take a fancy for my good looks. “She is a pretty girl!” I heard him telling my mother. It scared me in the beginning, but as my mother felt that I should not make a big fuss about it, I had to accept it. Babu Sir, as we called him, initiated me into this sweeping job and I had no choice. He never misbehaved with any of us and so I was not scared of him. He would look at me with a sympathetic expression and I wondered why?
Any Amar, Akbar or Antony on the, Seetas, Geethas ad Meethas in the vicinity of our work could take advantage to throw expletives at us and we could not say a word in return. It could be a watchman, a housewife, or any man or woman on the streets, who could shout at us for something or the other. People would scream at us whenever they felt that we had been responsible for the muck in front of her houses. Though it had never been because of us, we had to keep our mouth shut and clean them up. That was our fate. Frankly, it would never been our fault. Some Rama, Krishna or Hanumanta would throw garbage in whatever place they liked ad we, the sweepers were the targets and had to take the brunt!
Whenever I came home and complained to my mother about such abuses, she would say, ‘Kuppi, this is our way of life. Take it in your stride and just keep silent; otherwise you will lose your job. Mother had told me that she had lost her husband soon after my brother was born; but I found out from other sources that my brother and I had different fathers and my mother was not married to either of them. Whether they were dead or still alive, I knew not! Mother would shoo me away if I asked any questions about this. The supposed father of mine was also a sweeper; a drunkard and a debaucher. She tells me that she is happier now without him. Why did you get into a relationship again and have a son? I had questioned. “That’s none of your business. I needed money very badly to bring you up and he provided me with some.” – She had said. “Was he a nice man?” “No not at all. He was worse than your father.” –“He gave me more money than him and so I stayed with him.” “Where is he now? Why doesn’t he take responsibility of his son?” – I would ask. “Didn’t I tell you not to ask such questions? – She would silence me.
I hated this kind of conversation with my mother. To get myself out of it, I started thinking about myself. Yes. I knew I was good looking; though we did not have a big mirror in our house I could see myself in the mirrors in some shops. Yes. Surely, I was pretty. I had a good figure. But who cares for all this when I was just a ‘road sweeper?”
One day the contractor, whom I called Babu Sir, gave me a bag all of a sudden. “Go home and open it and use it.” –He said.
When I came home and opened the bag I could see some very nice bright colored modern stitched clothes kept in the form of salwar-kameez. He handed over a box to me, inside which was another small box. He told me to open it only at home. I went home and opened it and was surprised to find a make-up kit and and some more nice clothes. Though I did not know how to use some of the make-up things, I just powdered my face and wore the lipstick. Yes. I was at an age when such things fascinated me. I felt a bit unnerved when I saw the dresses. Hope he does not have any ill intentions I thought! Somehow I was prepared for the worst. When my own mother was prepared for things that were not right, what about me? All I wanted was good dresses. I went to meet Babu Sir and asked me why he gave me all that... He said he would take me in a taxi to a place where I could make a lot of money, if I worked hard. I agreed with a bit of hesitation. The next day without letting my mother know, I accompanied him in the taxi with 3 more girls. Yes. They all looked good too! But I think I was the prettiest! Though my heart was pounding against my ribs, I consoled myself saying that if I had to survive in life, I had to learn to swallow certain things. The taxi stopped close to a big building and I saw a board ‘Dance Academy’ where we got down. I felt happy that I was going to learn dance.
We followed him to a hall where a man had a register and wrote down our names. “My name is Kuppi,” I said with some hesitation. By the time we gave our names and came back to the verandah, Babu Sir had disappeared. I felt a sense of gratitude to him as he did all this without expecting any undue favors from us. ‘God is there!” I said to myself. May God bless Babu Sir. I prayed silently.
A well-dressed lady came from inside and told us that she would teach us dance and that we would be taken as a group for a film that was being produced by a big producer. Babu Sir was a part of the production team! It surprised me no end!
“But ma’am, I can’t dance,” I said with all innocence.
“That’s why you are hired. I know how to make you all good dancers. You are all pretty and YOU Kuppi is the prettiest of all. See what I’ll make out of you. You will become very good dancers in the next one month. We only need good looking girls with good figures” the lady said confidently. ‘You are the most beautiful.’ – She said again looking at me.
She stood right in front facing us and arranged us into a group, we stood in row like how we used to stand for a PT class in school. There was no pause after that.
She took us inside to a room and served us tea and snacks. What more could we ask for!
Now, all of you come to the hall. There are 7 more girls there. You will all do whatever I ask you to do.” – Her tone was gruff.
“I will start now. One, two three…
She started. She showed us the steps, the hand movements, the facial expressions and the speed at which we were supposed to change our postures. I was amazed at the way I picked up her instructions and was doing a very good job though it was my first day in the class.
After two hours of dancing to her command of one, two and three, she switched on a record and now we were asked to repeat the same movements in a rhythm to the music being played. I never knew that I could dance so well!
’Now, I will show a video. You must see that and learn some more from that.” – She said.
The video was on for nearly 40 minutes. It was really very entertaining! It was a group dance sequence from one of the old Hindi movies that some of my other friends had seen. I did not have the privilege to watch any movies as the tickets were priced high and mother had no money other than for our food and clothes.
We were tired and hungry; the lady came to me and patted my back and told me that I would become a great dancer! I really jumped with joy. We were given very good food which I had never eaten in my life.
You will be paid Rs.300/- per day and you need to be here every day. After taking permission from your homes you can stay with me in the dormitory so that you can practice whenever you have the time.
Rs.300/- was a lot of money for me in those days. It became our routine.
“Ma'am, what will happen to our old jobs?” I ventured to ask.
“What jobs; Sweeping jobs? Do you want it?” –She asked
“No Ma’am. I don’t need it.” – I said boldly. But, what will Babu Sir think of us? It is true that sometimes we get paid sometimes the he does not pay us anything. I would rather not go back to my old job; but shouldn’t inform Babu Sir? He is a nice man.” _ I said.
“He brought you here isn’t it? I have bought you all from him. He will not even come back here again. Don’t worry,” – She said.
“Bought?” – I was rather confused.
“Not necessary to talk about Babu Sir. And you, Kuppi, will be called Mala from today. I followed her into a room with trepidation. She sat down on a sofa and looked at me as though I was a showpiece. “Yes. You are not Kuppi anymore. You are Mala and I will give different names to all of you. You will all be called in different names.” – She finished.
“Ma’am, where are we?” – I made bold to ask.
“I am glad you are bold, Mala. We are now in Hubli. Yes, you are 20 miles away from your home. You were sweeping the roads of Hubli everyday and you were being brought to the city in a lorry by a contractor. Satisfied? Now, forget the place you lived and forget everything.” – She said.
“But Ma’am, I cannot forget my mother and brother.” – I said.
“You need not forget them. When you become rich and when you can afford to bring them to keep with you, you will bring them. I am happy you have gratitude to your mother.” – She said.
“When will that be?” – I was a bit impertinent.
“Will you stop asking me questions and start working?”
Yes Ma’am” – We said in a chorus
She looked at me and said. “Mala, how would you like to stay with me in my quarters and train yourself for more number of hours? You have the looks and the talent that I have been looking for. You will be a great dancer. You can even become a STAR one day. I gasped!