Suneetha Balakrishnan writes in and translates into English and Malayalam. Her latest publication is the Malayalam translation of Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. She is an independent journalist by profession and works from her home in Trivandrum, India. Her debut novel, set in her paradoxical home region, Kerala, awaits a publisher.
Jasmine headed for the bucket at the veranda and dipped her cup again, filled it to just quarter measure and poured it over her feet with prudence. The water in the bucket had to last till some twenty women working in the various tailoring shops in the building had their noon loo-break. Back at the shop, she looked down at her clean feet on the pedal of the tailoring machine. The red nail polish on her toes had almost peeled off and she grimaced at a black line of grime on the edges of one nail. Jasmine wished she could lie down for a couple of minutes. It was the time of her monthly cycle and she had severe cramps, but work waited. This dress on her sewing machine was a part of the ‘order’ of a wedding party, to be delivered that evening. And the Master had already cut and kept a couple of blouses ready for stitching. Others had already started on the post-lunch work session. Jasmine wound red thread through the bobbin and started to pedal, her hands guiding the unwieldy material expertly through the sewing machine.
At the courtyard, an older woman muttered as she unravelled the red and grey fabric and plucked out the poles for the day.
- When will the minister inaugurate that potty place?
She shovelled some more fresh mud over what had been their toilet and then sprinkled some water mixed with cow dung liberally over the area. The grounds now looked as fresh as ever. Their rest room was defunct for the day and would be reconstructed the next morning. The grounds belonged to the building owner, and he was not ready to let a permanent toilet stay on at a corner of a place where he could collect revenues for parking while the evening market buzzed. She stored their building material in one corner of the shop veranda and looked at the now almost empty bucket.
- Jassu, could you get some more water?
Jasmine grimaced, keeping her face down on the pretence of cutting the thread with her teeth. Drawing a full metal bucket of water up the well was not something she could do today; the cramps bothered her too much. But wait, how could one ignore this request from an older woman who did the hated ‘toilet’ duty every day? She did set their loo up first thing as she came in and dismantled it post lunch, everyday. Jasmine felt about with her feet for her chappals under the sewing machine and was about to get up when Master barked out,
- Thatha, you let Jasmine finish her work; the wedding clothes will have to be delivered in a couple of hours.
In the pauses of the whir of the sewing machines, Jasmine heard the creak of the pulley and the clang of the metal bucket against the well wall as Thatha helped herself, and then some heavy breathing as the older woman settled on the straw mat on the floor with the button box. The afternoon sun fell in leafy patterns on the mat, and the fingers that sewed on the buttons were swollen and ungainly, yet each stitch was even as the needle flew around the button and the holes. But the feet were far gone. Blue-veined and blotched skin stretching over protruding flesh, the reason she was reduced to a shuffle in her pace and relegated to the floor to sew buttons and hooks.
Dusk came to the street with the usual flurry of noises; the hiss of the petromax light of the roadside eatery, the caws of the crows settling for the night on the tamarind tree, shutters clamping down, chains dragged and locks being clicked and voices rising and falling in the crescendos of greetings and goodbyes. Sweat-covered men in lungis clicked their tongues with breath sucked in and walked behind their buffaloes, sharing weary gaits. Dogs barked at the shadows travelling down the dusty darkening lanes. Buses stopped, doors opened and shut and the clink of bells or whistles waved them off again.
Jasmine sat at a window seat on one of those buses that was waiting to weave its way out of humans and beasts. On the road, she could see the silhouette of Thatha shuffle home. The ticket collector tapped her shoulder with his pencil and rasped out,
- You got on at the Toilet Junction?
The man was new and was yet to know the regulars; she mentioned her fare and sat back with the ticket tucked inside her watch strap. Her body registered protest from the million foot-steps she must have taken in her day. The bus waited as red flags flashed past and arms punched the air. Slogans floated into the bus in fragments, as the horns blared and the pace of the street slowed down till the procession marched past them.
-Open up, open up, open up, open up
-Down, down, down with the conspiracy
An auto rickshaw dawdled among the loitering humanity behind the procession and announced how there would be a protest demonstration the next day. The reasons for it scattered in the evening wind, as the loudspeaker moved ahead in its shaky perch atop the vehicle. Jasmine squeezed her thighs tightly together in desperation; it would be another half an hour before she reached home. The bus started moving.
The loudspeakers were in competition the next day at the market, and the discussions hotter than the April sun. Budding leaders matched each other’s shouts which masqueraded as speeches, countering lashes of scathing criticism with promises of Utopia. The Master was not oblivious of the heat outside. But, brandishing scissors, he shuttled between rolls of clothes, his marker pencil above his ears. Wedding season meant money, and forgoing social niceties. The glass of scalding tea and a mouthful of refried politics could be postponed to a workless season.
That evening, as she folded up the red and grey fabric and pulled up the poles, the Thatha called out to no one in particular.
- Don’t think this can go on for long; I could hardly walk home yesterday.
Jasmine glanced up from the sewing machine. Yes, she did look tired and her stomach looked bloated.
- What’s up with you, Thatha? Fever again? Get out early tomorrow and go to the hospital. I will take care of the emergencies here, if you want.
- Not fever, Jassu girl…
She stopped half way and came nearer Jasmine and spoke in a low tone.
- I need to go ‘there’ oftener, can’t hold it for so long now.
Jasmine watched the old woman shuffle away. How long before she would also feel like that?
On the other side of the street, across the lengthening shadows, the red and brown bricks of a new building looked lonely. Torn pieces of paper and placards were scattered on the chipped tarred road just in front and someone had hung a garland of chappals on the dirt-laden board that said Women’s Toilet.
The festoons were already up when Jasmine’s bus stopped at the market the next week. White, handmade cloth notice boards with red and blue writing proclaimed the inauguration of the new public toilet for women by the Minister.As Jasmine walked past the white clad men, one of them smirked,
-So, good bye to some dirty habits, eh?
Asshole, Jasmine cursed silently, pulled her duppatta firmly over her head and walked past the comment and the accompanying stares. The compound of the rickety old building which housed their shop was covered with a shamiana in multi-hues. Blue and red plastic chairs were strewn round in tall bunches. The master stood on the veranda supervising the tying of the end of the shamiana which passed in front of his shop. The red and grey fabric folded over the poles stood forlorn in the corner of the shop. The master came back for a moment and passed on a bundle of cloth to Jasmine and spoke in a conspiratory whisper.
- So finally looks like you can rest this makeshift toilet now
He gestured with his face towards the shabby bundle in the corner. Jasmine managed a smile and started sorting the clothes into sets. But the master had not finished his conversation.
- Women always get what they want, and we get to use the wall as usual. Look!
Across the road, a man in khaki shorts and sleeveless vest stood in front of the new red and brown building. He waved a broom and held a plastic bucket and was announcing to anyone who cared to listen about his intentions. He put the bucket down, searched in his shorts and brought out a pair of keys then bent down to open the lock that had kept the room away from public view. A couple of people on the street attempted to follow him, the broom was waved again, and the men behind stepped away hastily.
The loud speakers went ‘on air’ and popular songs and nasal, clipped, announcements were dished to the listeners in good measure. The hands of the clock soon merged and the announcements acquired an urgency that spoke of the impending visit of the VIP. Jasmine noticed Thatha getting up quite a few times from the floor, and shuffle with an urgency to the veranda to peep out or ask a passing person,
- Has the Minister come?
Once this had been repeated the fourth time, the Master winked and twirled his thin moustache before asking,
-Thatha, you share some previous acquaintance with him, eh? He is quite known for his fondness for fair women, and I have heard about your youth as well.
The old woman ignored the cackles that were echoed all round and went back to her mat. The master had not spoken his last word.
-If you want to see the inauguration from close quarters, go to the front and take a seat early. I don’t mind. At your age, what else is there?
Jasmine watched in surprise as the old woman who was trudging back to her mat turned around, glared at the Master and walked as briskly as she could to the veranda again. Her pace quickened with each step. In a few minutes a burst of fire crackers sounded outside and the Master also hurried out, calling over his shoulder,
-It looks like the Minister has arrived. You can all watch from here, don’t leave your work unattended, girls.
The commotion outside soon phased into some hundreds of people squeezed into their compound and the loudspeakers coughed into life again. The Minister walked into their midst like a brisk, fat, white dove and climbed onto the makeshift stage. He folded his hands and raised them high and added a high-voltage smile. His gun men kept a careful distance and watched the crowd like eagles. Jasmine was still seated at her sewing machine and her view was camouflaged by the human heads that gathered at their veranda; but through the small crack in the human sea out there, she glimpsed Thatha standing on the other side of the road, just in front of the new building.
The inauguration meeting finally started off. The local body representative lauded the Minister for his keenness to inaugurate this toilet in spite of his busy schedule and the fortunate speakers on the podium followed suit with verbal extravaganzas. This continued for a while. Finally, finally, finally, it was the time for the inauguration. The Master waved to his girls to follow him and they hurried out to witness the episode. Followed by the entire crowd the Minister was led to the ribbon, and the bus and lorry that were on the road at the moment stopped in deference of the great event.
Jasmine stood next to the Master, a few paces behind the guest of honour. She watched the Minister smile, reach for the scissors on the plate held out to him, and cut the rose coloured ribbon. There was a burst of fire-crackers again, and loud applause rose among the slogans for the great man and his party.
The Minister took a step forward, towards the building. He opened the toilet door with a firm push and the crowd cheered. Then Jasmine saw The Minister stagger back, and Thatha came out of the toilet…