Mornings arrive inside the lanes and bylanes of Kolkata with a lazy, almost lethargy induced gait, winding it’s way through the twists and turns, knocking on one door standing hand in hand with the cleaning maid, flying into another house sitting atop the newspaper aimed to perfection by the newspaper vendor and hopping with the sparrows and crows as they move about looking for scraps of food on the kitchen window sills and verandahs. The influx of people over the years into these lanes and bylanes have resulted in filling up of vacant spaces. Today there are houses standing with their backs to each other and literally at arm’s length from each other. Some of the houses are new and they stand out from the older ones, their fresh coat of paint gleaming the morning light as if sticking their tongue out at the peeled, weather beaten walls of the older houses. Trees have been cut down to make way for the new dwellings, the green grassy patches and the haphazardly growing wild shrubs have given way to the monotonous black of bitumen paving the lanes and the artificial garish colours on the concrete walls.
Amidst this growing jungle of concrete, the stray dogs and cats try their best to adjust and survive. The lanes and bylanes are their playgrounds, their dwelling abode, bereft as they are from the grassy patches and tree enclosed plots. Out in the open and amidst the concrete jungle, it’s a tough to eke out a survival, fighting against the weather while trying to scourge for food. They have no options but to depend on the residents, to try and co-exist with the humans, their survival instinct having taught them to do so for past centuries.
Each new day brings with it fresh pangs of hunger. Whatever pain was endured yesterday is forgotten as each stray rises up, stretching their limbs and then getting ready for a jog along the winding lanes with their noses millimetres apart from the ground, trying to smell out any morsel of food that may have been left accidentally by the careless humans on the ground.
Mornings also bring with it the garbage man. With a cap on his head, possibly to beat the glare of the sun and pushing a hand cart ahead of him, he moves from door to door reminding residents of his existence by blowing on the whistle that has been given to him by the municipal corporation. One shrill blast of the whistle and out come the people from their flats and houses, holding plastic packets in which they have accumulated all the refuse generated by them during the previous day. The stench from the left over food and the blast from the whistle are music to the strays of the locality and out they come in droves from wherever they had been lurking or resting, like iron filings to a magnet.
Then follows a cavalcade just like the one that must have occurred when the pied piper played on his flute. The garbage man in front pushing his iron cart, with the iron wheels creating an occasional sharp pitched clanging sound as their rolling is rudely jolted by the potholes, while the stray dogs following at a trotting pace, some behind while some beside him. The cavalcade winds through the lanes as the residents come out in response to his cries for dumping their garbage into his cart. As the cart fills up, the stench changes from mild to intense till it jumps out of the cart to displace the neighbouring air and begins to pervade in the space instead. This brings in more strays while exciting the existing ones to the point of impatience and they resort to short intermittent barks and whines in a bid to attract the garbage man’s attention. The garbage man is however unimpressed and he addresses the band of strays lovingly in a bid to placate them. The end of the lane is now in sight and the cart is almost full. It is now time!
The garbage man parks his cart by the side of the lane and takes position. Amidst the whining and excited barks of the strays which surround him, he placates all of them with his soothing yet firm voice asking them to maintain silence. From his pocket he extracts two plastic packets which he then proceeds to wear on his hands. Having taken care to en-sheathe his hands, he then dips into the pile of garbage and begins to search for items of food! From heaps of garbage that he has collected from the houses in the locality, he separates scraps of food and then begins to feed the hungry strays. Ignoring the stench of the garbage, he stoops low, searching for that piece of bone which is the favourite of his “Lalu”. Having found the piece, he beckons Lalu with a nod of his head and lets him pick the bone from his hands while the other strays watch. It is “Neku’s” turn now to get a piece of stale bread and he jumps up to receive it from his hands. A piece of roti is discovered hiding under piles of broken saucers. The garbage man fishes it out and thrashes is on the sides of the cart to ensure there is no broken bits of porcelain sticking to the roti. Having ensured that, he proceeds to break it into two and feeds it to “kalu” and “Buri”-the mother daughter duo who wait patiently albeit with drooling mouths.
I watch this spectacle unfolding before my eyes every morning. There is something so beautiful in this relationship that it brings tears into my eyes. In a world that is turning insensitive by the hour, such acts of compassion evokes a sense of optimism and hope. As long as people like this garbage man exist, the world would remain in a state of balance and humanity will not run the risk of being swamped by insensitivity.