Manickan was standing in that ditch, hip deep, covered in dirt; using his bare hands he was trying to clean that ditch full of human excreta and sanitary napkins.

Dear Manickan Im sorry the society and I failed you Thoughts on manual scavengingImage for representation.
Voices Blog Monday, June 19, 2017 - 15:33


by Veena Sethuraman

Manickan. That was his name. At least, that's how we called him. I don't remember exactly when he entered our lives. (1994? 95?) But I do vaguely remember that people used to call him ‘mad’ in the initial days.

Some ‘mad man’ has come to our village, they would say. No one knew where he came from and what his past was. In the initial days, whenever I used to see him passing by, I used to look at him with fear and discomfort.

Time passed and as people realised that he is not creating any trouble, and he is more than happy to just mind his own business and live his life.

He became a part of our village - but more like an electric post standing there than as a person. He was a common sight, but no one is bothered to stop and talk to him.

Sometimes, he was in a happy mood, and would hold a liquor bottle and sing aloud. Other times, when he was in a bad mood, he would have a serious argument with an invisible person next to him.

But whatever his mood, he never created a ruckus; he never troubled anyone else.

And I had a soft corner for him.

I used to ask him one or two questions about his past whenever I saw him sitting there quietly. And he would blabber something (sometimes in English) which wouldn't make any sense. So, I concluded that perhaps he had ‘lost his mind.’

But I was so wrong.

There used to be a ditch running behind my house which was a common ditch for many of the neighbours’ houses. And needless to say, it had all sorts of things running through it.

Once I was passing by that ditch and as I casually glanced at the ditch, my heart skipped a beat.

Manickan was standing in that ditch, hip deep, covered in dirt; using his bare hands he was trying to clean that ditch full of human excreta and sanitary napkins.

I couldn't bear to look at what he was doing for another second as I was afraid that I may vomit. I walked off swiftly from that scene.

But that scene stayed with me for a long time. It flashes in my mind every now and then. I just remember getting so upset that I thought of asking him why he did that.

I did ask him, and he flashed a Rs 20 note at me. With a happy face.

That's when I realized that he had been asked to clean it by my fellow human beings, including my own family of origin. I felt disgusted. Angry. But I didn't do anything about it.

I was even more upset when people used to make him do such disgusting work and pay him meagre amounts, and talk as if they have done him a big favour.

If at all I have any pocket money left, I would give him some of what's left, and he would take it without a word.

But he never asked me for money. He would take money from people for his work. But he would take only what was given to him. He would never negotiate.

Years passed. I moved to another city for my studies. And this chapter became a done and dusted page in my life.

That was until I came across an article in TheNewsMinute by Dhanya Rajendran on Manual scavenging. As I read it, Manickan's face flashed in my mind. I don't think I can forgive myself for not doing anything when I could have done something about it.

As I was travelling to Palakkad yesterday, I thought about him and decided that I would do something about him this time. If he still continues to do what he was doing, he shouldn't be allowed to do that anymore.

As soon as my grandmother woke up today I asked her, "Loolumma, where is Manickan?"

She said, "He became unwell. He was lying there for a few days. Then people got an ambulance and admitted him to a government hospital. From there, he was moved to an orphanage or an old age home."

Well, I am too late this time.

For a man who lived with integrity and lived with his hard earned money, who had the ability to be happy with what he had, who had the wisdom to just mind his own business, I don't think this life was fair.

Dear Manickan, it was not you who had lost your mind. It was the rest of the world who took advantage of your situation who lost their mind. And I am sorry for the life you lived. May you get a better life in the next birth.

A life you deserve.

With better people.

Republished with permission from Veena Sethuraman's Facebook page. Views expressed are the author's own.