This is a story about an itinerant garbage dump. He moves but only within the neighbourhood, much like me. Over the last 15 years we have become friends. I call him GD and he calls me PM.
I know restless people for whom movement is meaning. They will hop on a cab or a bus or a train or an airplane, on an impulse. Perhaps, they travel to escape. I, on the other hand, like to stay put. I follow Seneca: “You are not journeying; you are drifting and being driven, only exchanging one place for another, although that which you seek—to live well—is found everywhere.” This is also GD’s truth.
When one lives in a neighbourhood over a period of time, one makes friends—with the street dogs, the chowkidar, the kirana store owner, the speedy lady with the wheelbarrow who collects the garbage at the crack of dawn, and the garbage dump itself.
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Let me tell you about GD, an obstinate character if ever there was one. He made his home in a quiet corner of Dehradun, where three narrow streets intersect. He had a home—a dumpster—and friends: two cows (always sitting), a pig mom and her piglets (always foraging), a gentlemanly, stately bull (always standing), and a ragpicker (always rummaging). The lady with the wheelbarrow fed GD daily with the choicest refuse. Once in a while, a garbage truck would come and scoop up the rubbish. GD welcomed these monthly baths.
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan came and went, but GD stood his ground. When the Swachh Bharat van went past singing its song, “Swachh Bharat ka irada kar liya hamne/Desh se apne ye vada kar liya hamne”, GD snored a stubborn snore.
When elections came around, GD’s girth was larger than ever, with the garbage spilling over into all three streets. It was almost like he was cocking a snook at the policymakers sitting in Delhi: do what you will, I will not be dislodged from my perch. If at all, I’ll only expand. As I walked past GD on my way to cast my vote at the local high school, I gave him an approving thumbs up. He winked back saying: “Who are you voting for this time, PM?”
Governments, by nature, are remote. Their policies work on paper. While GD survived the national cleanliness drive, he faced a clear, present, and more immediate danger from the retired cop whose house was bang opposite GD’s. He’d pulled many strings trying to kick GD out. One fine day, as I was going to get a strip of lozenges from the chemist, I noticed that the dumpster had disappeared. My heart sank.
The wall behind the dumpster had been plastered over with white bathroom tiles featuring Hindu gods. I put two and two together and figured that this must be the retired cop’s handiwork. I got his train of thought: if you put gods on the wall, people will not throw garbage out of respect. No such luck. A pile formed in no time, and a couple of days later, the dumpster was back in its usual resting space, GD sleeping contentedly inside.
The cop was in no mood to relent. This time he got the dumpster removed and installed two private security guards at the site. The next day, a small food van miraculously appeared, occupying that very spot. The momo and chowmein van took off, becoming a crossroads hub for college students. The dumpster, with its halo of rubbish, was nowhere to be seen. GD had vanished temporarily.
The thing is, you can take someone’s home away, but where will that person go? I still see GD at various spots in the neighbourhood, albeit stripped of his grandeur. As he told me: “These folks, they made me, now they don’t want me. And yet, they keep remaking me. Earlier, I had an identity; I was a venerated landmark. People would give directions to friends visiting—take the left after GD. Now, I’m a nobody, a football being kicked around.”
“GD, nowadays, is an itinerant ragamuffin, a phenomenon of spontaneous formation. His existence begins with a used syringe and a sanitary pad, before taking on a life of its own.”
For the retired cop, GD is like a terrorist group. You bust him out of one place and he regroups in another. The policeman doesn’t mind, as long as the trouble is no longer in front of his house. To me, GD means different things—a mutable entity. On some days, he’s a flitting butterfly. On others, he reminds me of a tortoise without a shell, making his way from one end of the hood to another. He is a refugee without a home.
GD, nowadays, is an itinerant ragamuffin, a phenomenon of spontaneous formation. His existence begins with a used syringe and a sanitary pad, before taking on a life of its own: empty cigarette packets, punctured bubble wrap, wet cardboard, half-full bottles of cola, ripped cellophane, limp condoms, broken glass, yesterday’s newspaper, Styrofoam, Tetra Pak, a broken chair leg, broken eggshells, empty egg crates, wrung pizza boxes, chicken bones, goat bones, crumpled suicide notes, vegetable stumps, spent batteries, fused bulbs, diapers holding baby poo and granny poo, a loaf of white bread addled with fungus, an empty quarter of Old Monk.
It’s a curious paradox: people don’t want to see GD, but they keep on feeding him, then push him out of sight. Sometimes, I wonder about the millions of faceless GDs floating around in our country. I salute them all.
Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park: Fifteen Stories of Love & Destruction and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India.
Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta.