While people come out of the toilet with a sense of relief, many don’t leave before complaining about how badly maintained the toilet is.

Invisible heroes Bearing the stench to eke out a living men who keep public toilets clean
Features Human Interest Sunday, October 09, 2016 - 17:37

This story is the second of TNM's 'Invisible Heroes' series. The series aims to give voice to the people who perform some of the most thankless jobs in our society.


Muthu sits in a small room which barely accommodates his rusty chair, the stench of the urinal inside not so easy to bear. There is a regular stream of people. Most of them pause at the entrance and scan the toilet before walking in. They come out with a sense of relief, very evident on their faces, but don’t leave before complaining about how badly maintained the toilet is.


Muthu’s usual response is a nod of acknowledgement.


For the past six years, this has pretty much been Muthu’s professional life, working to maintain one of the public-use toilets at Halasuru in Bengaluru.


“The man who used to sit here before me fled one day, and the toilet remained shut for weeks together. After I took up the job, I have been able to renovate at least some part of this toilet and clean the toilet once every day,” Muthu says.


He then dips his towel that had once been spotless into one of the buckets in the toilet. After dabbing the wet cloth on his arms and face, Muthu sits down to narrate his story.


“The water comes only two days a week, I cannot waste much water for my own use,” Muthu explains.


Sunday and Monday are mere words for Muthu, for he works all year. Illness or festival, there is no excuse for him to not run the toilet, or he has to shell out Rs 300 a day to his contractor from his own pocket. Over and above this, he has to bear the water and electricity expenses.


“If I don’t come here one day, the loss is only mine. My entire earnings of the month will be gone in compensating for a holiday,” Muthu says.


The toilet opens at six in the morning every day. A mop and a broom is tucked away in a compartment above his room. When the heat gets unbearable, Muthu covers the grills to his room with a cloth. An uneven opening, just enough for a hand to pass through, is made on the cloth to make the "transactions." 


Forty-five-year-old Muthu declares that he is satisfied with what he does. 


"After all, Thalaiva was a bus conductor before he went on to become a Superstar," he smiles joyfully, pointing at the many Rajnikanth posters on the aluminium door that separates his room from the public toilets. 


 Unlike the rusty doors of the toilets that speak for how old they are, the door to Muthu's room shines with many posters from Rajnikanth films. Thalaiva with grey hair, Thalaiva with a gun, and of course, Thalaiva as Kabali.


A few posters of actor Vikram also find a place. "That's Mani's doing," Muthu says, pulling his 17-year-old son close to him. Mani spends most of the day with his father at the toilet and goes to an evening college in Shivaji Nagar later.


"It is a relief that he is there to keep an eye when I take a break for a few minutes after lunch," Muthu says.


Occasionally, Muthu lets Mani ride his motorbike, which serves as a motivation.


“I have grown used to this work now, it has been so long," Muthu laughs wryly, the disappointment evident in his voice. 


Muthu's grandparents lived in Tamil Nadu, but he has never visited his hometown, as he was born and brought up in Karnataka. He used to be a goods van driver until a few years ago, when the vision in his left eye began to diminish. 


"I used to earn fairly well when I was a driver. But since I partially lost vision in one eye, I had to quit driving. I have been a driver all my life, and I never got a chance to learn something else. What option do I have other than to settle for this work?" Muthu asks.


His wife, who works as a domestic help, also supports the family of five. After her work ends in the evening, Pushpa sits at the counter along with her husband and son.


Though Muthu does not harbour any cinematic dreams, Rajnikanth films keep him company all day. 


"People don't generally make conversation when they come here. They pay, get their stuff done and leave. The only time people stop to speak to me is to complain how dirty the toilet is," Muthu says.


Muthu wants his son to land a proper job, unlike him: "Though it is a relief that he covers up for me at times, I don't want him to spend all his life in here.” It is the promise that tomorrow will be different that keeps him going, Muthu believes.


For 32-year-old Arjun Singh, a 5x5 sqft room inside a public toilet in Bengaluru doubles up as his home and place of work. For the last five months, this Bihar native has been running a public toilet located on a busy road at Jeevan Bima Nagar in Bengaluru.


Arjun came to Bengaluru eight months ago in search of a job. A month earlier, he’d fallen from a rooftop while repairing a broken pipeline and fractured his left leg. The surgery left his injured leg shorter than the other. At that time, Arjun was in Gujarat where he’d been doing plumbing work for four years.


“I don’t know the exact problem, but since then I have not been able to stand up for too long, or move around as swiftly as I used to. Because of this, I could no longer go in search of work every day,” Arjun says.


The decision to take the first available train to the city happened in no time.


“I didn’t bother about what the work was. All I wanted was to earn money as soon as possible, because after my accident and treatment, I hadn’t been able to send money back home,” Arjun states.


One of Arjun’s friends, also from Bihar, received a tender to manage BBMP-run public toilets and public parks in Bengaluru. He informed him about a job that wouldn’t require him to travel or walk around much - a security-guard at a park.


 “The work was fine, I had to guard the park all day. But then, I wasn’t being paid on time. Most months, the payment would come after ten days. I couldn’t afford to wait, because I had to send money back home at the beginning of every month, and this job wasn’t giving me that,” Arjun recollects. He left tha job in three months.


“Here I get paid on a daily basis. And it is convenient for me to send money to my family on time. That is all I care about at this point,” he says, pointing at the toilet building.


With the rates remaining unchanged for many years, the toilet charges Rs 2 for urinals and Rs 5 for “both”. A day’s collection would add up to nearly 400-odd rupees, out of which he has to pay Rs 400 to the man who has taken tender for the maintenance.


By the end of the month, Arjun manages to earn Rs 700. Out of this, Rs 600 goes to his family back in Bihar, he says.


The building has four toilets each for men and women, with Arjun’s cabin separating the two. A black handbag, two shirts and a trouser hang inside the room.


For most part of the day, Arjun sits on a stool placed outside the building.


“I sleep inside the room itself, sitting on my chair. Why would I want to spend the whole day in there? I sit here on the stool during the day,” Arjun says.


"I left home at the age of twenty, and have worked in many places including Delhi and Gujarat before coming here. I’m not educated enough to work elsewhere and I don't complain about that. This is my job, this is what helps me run my family, and that is all that matters," Arjun asserts.


 Arjun is uncertain whether fate will take him to another city. He says, “What do I say, for people like me, home is where there is work. And we have to do the work, whether we like it or not.”


Both Muthu and Arjun took up the job for the sheer lack of alternatives. The need for money was one compelling reason.


However, A Narayan, Founder Director of Chennai-based Change India believes that there is more than just poverty for their choice of occupation.


In a country where the caste and class equations are intricate, some communities are forced to take up and continue certain jobs - mostly sanitation works - that are deemed to be dirty and unclean.


“In places such as UP and Bihar, the alarming rate of unemployment forces them to leave their natives and go in search of jobs. These jobs may also be something they would never do in their native. The anonymity that a city like Bengaluru gives to them enables them to take up maintenance jobs at public toilets, something they might otherwise not do in their own home state,” Narayan points out.


With many organizations carrying out efforts to empower people from lower castes, the jobs they traditionally did is now open to people of other communities.


Also read: Invisible heroes: Food delivery boys and their hunger for a better life


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