Nai Disha Restored Her Faith in God

By ANAND GOPAL JAISWAL, senior correspondent with UNI

“I missed nothing, as I took it as my wont. All I missed was my dignity… wasted down the years.’’ This is Lalta of Alwar in Rajasthan, mother of three and a widow. Former scavenger, today a proud woman. “Today I feel like being a woman, a human, a mother. Yesterday I felt like the dirt I carried on my head.’’

In her new incarnation five years back, 32-year-old Lalta shed a 4000-year-old ‘burden’ nee ‘tradition’ and came home to become a ‘woman’ from a ‘bhangin’* (woman scavenger) – a heathen, an outcaste, an untouchable. Today soaring 20,000 feet in the sky on an Airbus, dining a la carte meal in a luxury seven-star hotel and shaking hands with H.R.H. the Prince of Orange of the Netherlands is passe for a woman who just five years back lived on crumbs thrown – from a distance – by the gentry whose excreta (nightsoil) she carried on her head,  day in and day out, 365 days.

Lalta is a scavenger, but today she isn’t. Today she is confident – after joining Nai Disha in 2003. Initiated into the scavenging profession after marriage at the tender age of 17, Lalta found the very idea repulsive but was helpless. Her mother-in-law told her it was ‘our fate’ and that a tradition being followed through ages could not be just wished away.

“I just wished I could undo years of injustice. After all, I was also a human being”, she said with moistened kohl-rimmed eyes and yet a splash of smile on her oval face. Being a human being, the idea of scavenging the shit of another human being was so abhorrent and repulsive but “then taking it as ‘my fate’ I gave in,” she said, adding, “I puked, I cried, I had fever and then gave in. After all, how could I leave a tradition of more than 4,000 years thrust upon us?”

Hailing from an okay family where she did not have to scavenge for making a living, Lalta found the work even more difficult to perform at her sasural (in-laws’ place), but “I started doing it after being prodded by my mother-in-law because how else could we make our ends meet. We were too poor and I had no skills, no education, no other way out…’’

“All my four brothers were sent to school, I wasn’t, nor were my five sisters. It wasn’t the tradition to send girls to school.’’ In 2003 when Sulabh Founder, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, came to our village and asked us whether we would be willing to give up scavenging for a better life, it was too good to be true for Lalta and her neighbours. But all their apprehensions proved wrong. “It was a godsend opportunity and lapping it came as easy as a duck to water, because truly speaking it was too good to be true for not just me but all the 28 women who joined the first batch of emancipation”.

“From 600 rupees a month, for a 10-hour toil in the heat and dust of a hot Rajasthani day, to a respectable Rs. 2,000, I think I have come a long way. God has been kind,’’ says Lalta. “From a heap of humiliation to the heights of self-respect and self-confidence, I believe life has turned out miraculously for the good. I don’t ask for more, for today I can stand and face the world with respect.”

Someone who hadn’t seen a train until 27, Lalta now often travels to Delhi to ‘enlighten’ others on how ‘life does change’ if a noble thought crosses a noble mind – as she found out during her ‘learning years’ at Nai Disha on how someone was striving to fulfil Gandhiji’s dream of ridding people of untouchability.

“Last month I flew in a plane to Patna. O my God, I was on cloud nine. I cried once again. I couldn’t believe, ‘I’ – a nobody, who could hardly manage a square meal a day – could be here. Never thought of this happening in this lifetime.”

“Until all this, there was no happiness in our lives. It actually had no meaning,’’ she mumbled. “All the time it was either people’s filth on the head or its thought in the heart. What else…?’’ Opening her scars of 11 years of scavenging, Lalta said, self-esteem was paramount for anyone – even the most bestial of creatures. She narrated a story of a lion who one day, by mistake, killed a donkey belonging to an old woodcutter who earned his living by cutting wood from the forest, putting it on to his donkey and then taking it to the city to sell. The donkey was his sole means of earning his livelihood.

Seeing the woodcutter crying the lion was moved and he paused to console him. He then said he would help him take the wood to the city everyday till he could earn enough to buy another donkey. As per his promise the lion would come at the designated time and place, and carry the wood on his back to the city for selling. In the evening, he would trail the woodcutter to his home where he would be fed by him.

And everyday he would hear the taunts of the woodcutter’s wife – cursing him for their state of affairs, despite the fact that he was trying his best to undo his ‘mistake’. But he always kept quiet and never said a word. The food given to him was more painful to eat because he had to listen to her curses, but he had no option as all day he would sit with the woodcutter and not hunt.

Nearly after a year, the woodcutter told him that he had collected enough money to buy another donkey and that now he could go. The lion thanked the woodcutter for setting him free from his obligation but asked him to pick up his axe and hit him on his head. A flabbergasted woodcutter started trembling but did as he was asked on being threatened. Reeling in pain and soaked in blood the lion went back to the jungle leaving the woodcutter puzzled.

Three months later the lion returned to the woodcutter, sat with dignity and showed him his wound on the head. It was healed. The lion then went inside the house, for the first time, and tore his wife to shreds. And then told the woodcutter that the wound of the axe was healed but the scars made from his wife’s words remained. And for this she had to be punished.

“The scars still remain. But I have forgiven. I will pray to God not to make anyone fall in the hell that I have lived through, though I know it’s wishful thinking”, Lalta smiles.

On her worst experience in these eleven years of scavenging Lalta said, “One day I tripped and fell and the human excreta on my head fell all over me. Disgusted at my wont, I cried and cried a lot and could not eat food for two whole days. I felt I was not a human, just another piece of dirt… Who could have shared my agony, my pain, my feelings? All in the family were sailing in the same boat, as were the neighbours. It was just God and my own self. But there was no way out. I felt so helpless, so small, so inconsequential…”

Despite the regular jibes and ill-treatment, which we were used to while receiving food, water or money from people we served, the quantum of hurt was never so ‘high’ and piercing as that day, but helplessness took the better of the self and I was once again back to the routine, she recalled.

And then this quirk of fate when the new dawn in her life came in the form and face of Nai Disha. It was another bit of miracle. “No one had thought”, she said, “that there was actually a way out for us too from this hell of scavenging. It’s catharsis, it’s transformation, it’s an unbelievable change”, she says of life now, adding that time was when she would weep on her fate despite having a loving husband and caring in-laws.

“In my nearly 5-year stay at Nai Disha I have gained training and hands-on experience in beauty care, stitching and food preservation. My confidence now stands firm. I wish the same for the other women like me, all over.”

“Tomorrow when I leave, I will have no regrets though I have lost my biggest support in these years – my husband. Then I had lost faith in God. I did not worship for months. But then I regained my faith once again as Nai Disha showed me how to come on my own. My confidence restored my faith… I do believe He listens. It’s because of Him I am here. I will at least start something of my own to fend for myself and my family and children. Thanks to the confidence and respect Nai Disha gave me in these years.”

A fan of Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Rani Mukherjee, Lalta is vehement and stern when she says, “I have a dream, but no last wish. What do I need now for myself?” At just 32, she does not even hope for a ‘happening’ life for herself anymore. “Nothing. Jo hona tha bas ho gaya (what had to happen is over now).”

Now I want my daughter, Manisha (8), to stand on her feet. I want her to study and I will do everything for this. I want her to be confident and to be treated with respect…” Perhaps that was Lalta in her elements. Dignity is what she strives for. “The rest she will manage.”

Reminding one of the great Hindi poets, ‘Dinkar’, who said,

“Seedhi hai unke liye, jinhe chhatt par jana hai:

Badlon par hain jiski drishti, usey path apna banana hai.’’

(The stairs are for those who have to go to the roof. For those who aim at the sky, making their own way is the only option.)

And Nai Disha just showed her the way.

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*The word has been banned by Government of India.