Phuli squatted besides the railway track adjoining her slum in the darkness. It was just before dawn. Her water filled tin to wash off, clutched in her hand to her right. This was the only time permissible for the women in the slum to answer nature’s calls. She had a favorite spot behind a bush which overlooked the track on a rise where from she could see the trains pass by. Today she was happy and was humming a song to herself. The humming was lost as a train thundered by and she started to think how lucky she was in all of her 21 years.
It was one such train that had brought her here to the city of dreams – Bombay, from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh. Phuli was born Phoolmati into the house of Laloo Bhangi and was the sixth girl child to be born after her brother. Both her mother and father had cried when she was born. After Minnat her brother they thought they had discovered the secret position and measured strokes to procreate only male children, and then there was Phuli. She didn’t know any of this until an elderly aunt told her. At age 7 she had barely understood. Phuli was a happy child who had liked and been able to go to school. She was a pretty decent student too. She passed out of the ninth standard, but matriculation cost money & her parents couldn’t afford this. Bhangi is a caste who sweep and clean. And even amongst them Laloo' and his family were amongst the poorest, little wonder with so many young ones. Every able hand was put to work.
Her schoolmaster Radha Kishan Pandeyji a Brahman of higher caste, was open of thought and believed in meritocracy.This caste system did not stand high in his thoughts . He was genuinely sad that Phuli would have to leave school soon. It was inevitable with the children of his school and area. Here the parents didn’t spend on education but availed it till it was free and no more. He gave Phuli the same advice he had given to many students earlier "(Beta, Kam me dil lagao wohi tumhara suchaa saathi hai aur bahut duur le jayegaa) 'whatever you do, love your work, make it your best friend.Work done well is its own reward and shall definitely take you far in life. "Yes Master ji" Phuli had said with folded hands.
The same day coming back from school, on the road she had found a folded ten rupee note that she quietly tucked into her lehenga. She would have given it to her mother otherwise but for the last week there was a fair on in the village ground. Along also had come a travelling cinema and ducking work she had gone and bought a Rs.5 ticket to see “Dilwaley Dulhaniya Le Jayenge”. Phuli had never seen cinema before and she was lost in the magical world of Kajol and Shahrukh Khan. This movie changed Phuli forever. Though what stayed on in her memory were not the young and passionate romance of the lead pair but the extremely clean platforms and trains of "Foreign" (London). She had never seen clean trains in her life. Once they had travelled to Jaunpur to Lucknow the train bogey she had boarded with her family had betel nut stains on the walls and the compartments stank of stale sweat and urine.
Again and again she marveled at the stations and began to dream of the amount of work required to keep the stations so. She dreamt about being a part of that labor force which created cleanliness and hygiene. Dreams too have a funny way of flexing themselves around ones own frame of reference.
At eighteen, she like all girls there received a proposal for marriage .When she saw the groom, she was horrified. He was nearing 50 years and was Okayed by her parents because he was paying them money rather than demanding a dowry. She cried into her pillow long through the night. She bundled up her three lehengas and two blouses in a chunri, stole 200 rupees from her father’s shirt and ran away to the station and boarded the first train away.
When she disembarked at VT station after three days she was astounded at the size of this city Bombay or Bambaai as the locals pronounced it. Speaking with people and asking for jobs, it was now three years that she had settled in the slums of Matunga. She worked as sweeper for a few societies in the mornings. The rest of the day time , she doubled up as a substitute for a municipal sweeper. He parted with a portion of his wages while he ran a travel and manpower agency sending people abroad. Ganpat, the man whose work she did was mighty happy with her unlike the other sweepers because Phuli never slacked and did her job with diligence. Her roads did not need to be even inspected on his way back they would be spotlessly clean the garbage bins cleaned and lidded and a smiling Phuli would be there to receive her daily wages from him. Phuli also did not ask for a raise in his three years when she worked. He would on his own, give her more each year and she was happy. One day he had asked her what she wanted in life, wouldn’t she want marriage or kids and she quietly shook her head. Then what is your wish? He asked. Saab aap hasogey nahi to bataati hoon( if you dont laugh, shall tell you ), and her foreign dream of sweeping in London came tumbling out. The tone in her voice and her tentativeness reached out to Ganpat and touched him deep. Ration card hai? He asked her..haan saab said she..tu fikar nako karoos let me see what can be done. Angootha laga sakegi na? Phuli surprised him by saying Saab main sign karungi aur angreji bhi jaanti hoon “little little I speak. I am ninth standard pass. But I am bhangee”."Wahan yeh sub koi nahi dekhta hai...dont worry" he assured.
Ganpat in the next few months got her to sign a few papers.One day he was waiting for her,beaming. "Take this and keep it very safe" he thrust a blue colored booklet Phuli "Yeh tera passport hai". Phuli was thrilled and he told her "Agley mahiney tereko ek lot ke saath hum London bhejenge. Wahan humko labour contract milaa hai..tum saaf safai ke team ke saath jaaogi". Phuli burst out crying as no one had done so much for her and she touched his feet and he said fondly pagli.."Yeh teraa kaam tujhey aagey le ja raha hai". The words of her teacher came back to her and she sniffled. "Ganpatji you have done so much for a mere sweeper, a bhangee". Remember, said he solemnly “Just because one has roots isn’t one allowed to have wings? They aren’t mutually exclusive you know”. Then in a warm gruff voice “Be ready we leave tomorrow night".
She finished the water as she washed and got up with a huge smile as the sun rose in the sky heralding a bright new day. The clacking wheels of the passing train created a special rhythm, the melody of a bright new future.