And labour is cheaper than plastic
[A longer story, but I hope you read it. – UBR]
The last time I felt like this, I watched a Thai family butcher a pig. The heat and guts and work of it moved me. I learned to stare that day, and by allowing me to watch them slit the stiff beast from throat to anus, empty its body cavity and season the meat, Mart’s family taught me something about food and life.
This time it wasn’t a pig. And I wasn’t brave enough to stare.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was dark, and the back yard was blue with a fluorescent bulb. For additional light, Aloysius plugged in a rusty desk lamp into a two-wire extension cord, then passed the cord to me though the cement grille that Beerappa and his crew had installed into the back verandah over the past two weeks.
The workers were still around even though the sun had descended behind the cool of the trees. The air remained warm and the back yard smelled of burning leaves, drying cement and human excrement. Beerappa and his crew had laid new pipe for the house’s two toilets and he’d created access points in the ground in case they ever got blocked on the way to the septic tank.
The contract was complete and paid for when Aloysius made a twilight offer to Beerappa, who passed it on to the four men.
I hadn’t paid much attention because the men had been at the house since I’d been there, and they worked silently and steadily, even when the temperature reached record November highs of 37 degrees Celsius. I’d catch a glimpse of the thin fellow with a white eye mixing sand and water while I poured myself a lime-and-soda; or the happy-faced stocky fellow digging holes while I wheeled out my bike.
But there was something about the way they stood in a group under that blue light that stopped me and made me ask my uncle what was going on. He pointed to a three-by-four foot square cement opening in the yard. I peered in and the smell of sewage met my face. A couple of lumps of fresh stool floated in a tank-full of black water.
“That’s the septic tank,” he said, “And it hasn’t been cleaned out since my father built this house in 1975.” He motioned to the front of the property. “The sewage truck hose won’t reach this far so I’ve asked this crew if they’d like to make some extra cash.”
This is India, where labour is cheaper than plastic. Five rupees buys you a complete flat tire fix. It is easier and cheaper to pay a man to do something by hand than to hire the equipment. And India is run by men and women who do things by hand so they and their families can eat and live.
Two days ago for example, the young fellow with a quick smile between back-wrenching axe swings on our neighbour’s banyan tree stump, collapsed in the sun and had to be taken to the hospital.
“Couldn’t they take a chainsaw to it?” I had asked Aloysius of the stump, “Or at least chain it for a couple of oxen to pull out?”
“That costs money.” Aloysius replied, “Labour is cheap.”
The beauty and the shit
Under the fluorescent bulb, the workers stood gazing at the hole. I stepped back and looked first at the entry to the septic tank, then at their dusty bare feet, then their faces. They seemed nonplussed, as if they were deciding where to lay another section of pipe.
I slipped inside and – though freshly showered – I felt filthy with privilege.
The contrast I’ve seen in India in my five weeks here has knocked me – fabrics and smiles that shine like mirror-flashes of sunlight. And heads and bodies bent dark with work or stupor. It’s a face slap that forces you to drop whatever morsel of Western-culture complacency you’ve been sucking on.
The next time I peeked outside Beerappa, the boss, was on his hands and knees reaching down into the hole with one hand to scoop up buckets of septic water. His clothes were patched in grease as if he’d been under a car to change the oil. He’d pass the bucket to one of the men who would empty it into a dirt crater in the corner of the yard.
I slid back into the house, picked up book brought it out to the front verandah. By its yellow light I watched a gray tabby flop herself under a papaya tree. I opened the book and then closed it. I heard Aloysius in the dining room and moved to join him at the table. I asked what he was up to.
“I’m looking for the feni,” he said, his arms in the teak cabinet. “I think they’re going to need it.”
Extra cash for extra effort
“Where’d they go?” I asked Aloysius when I got back inside.
“They went next door to Marie’s outdoor shower for a good wash-up. That one fellow – the short, chubby one?” I nodded, thinking of the one who always flashed me a smile in the morning. “He’s the one who went in.”
“What do you mean, ‘went in’?”
“After the liquid’s removed, there’s still all the solid matter on the bottom of the tank. It’s not sewage anymore because it’s – what do you call it? ‘Anaerobically decomposed?’ It’s manure – good for spreading on the garden.”
He gave a snort at the thought of this, not being a gardener. “Anyways, he’s the one who agreed to climb down into the tank to scoop the solid stuff out by hand. It was up to his waist at one point – all the water and guck.”
My chest hurt with stopped breath. I covered my mouth, and then my eyes. Behind my fingers I closed my eyes and mourned something that I couldn’t identify.
“Was he – ordered down there?” I asked in a half-whisper after a moment.
“Oh no!” said Aloysius jovially. “He offered to go down in exchange for some extra cash.”
The workers didn’t come back that evening so Aloysius put the feni back in the cupboard. He figured the boss took them out for a drinks, as he’d just been paid, which meant they’d be paid.
“Let’s have a beer, shall we?” offered Aloysius as he pulled a large Kingfisher out of the fridge.
The magic link
Later, I started reading that heavy book in the living room, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, and immediately connected to it. Writing on his experience arriving in Mumbai (under very different circumstances), Roberts suggests that when you go to India and meet its people, “…your heart always guides you more than your head.”
He writes about freedom, and magic, “…that trick that connects the ordinary to the impossible.” And I can relate to his half-joking with people that he’s a writer researching a book because it provides a useful explanation for his interest in everyday things. .
Freedom and magic, food and life. Those workers celebrating their paycheque – I wonder what food and life tastes like to them? They may think it impossible that the story of their ordinary day might be of interest to a foreign visitor hiding in a doorway, or a person sitting at a computer and reading an Internet blog – but here it is.