It was an unlikely choice for Rinku Dey. She was trained as a nurse with a degree in Hindustani classical music. But for the last ten years, she has been working as a cleaner at Hyderi Manzil in Kolkata’s Beliaghata, the place where Mahatma Gandhi stayed in the countdown to Independence.
With the nation marking the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary on October 2, Rinku is one of the countless footsoldiers on the ground of Swachh Bharat, the flagship initiative launched four years ago to turn Gandhi’s vision of cleanliness into reality.
For the 42-year-old, who is employed by a private contractor on behalf of the West Bengal Public Works Department, this choice was an act of love — for her husband.
“When I got married, my husband was the only staffer at Hyderi Manzil. He would look after everything, from the garden to the cleaning to guarding the property. Seeing him sweep broke my heart, so I offered to do it in his place,’’ says Rinku.
Hyderi Manzil is now Gandhi Bhavan, and Rinku’s eight-hour work, which starts at 10 am, includes dusting the exhibit cases, sweeping and mopping the eight rooms and the large hall in the building, sweeping the front yard of the complex and tending to the garden once a week.
In between, she gets to sit on the floor for a while when she cleans Gandhi’s wooden sandals on display in a small glass enclosure near the spot where he used to sit and pray daily.
Rinku’s husband, Dilip, 48, helps her clean, although he is a security guard at the Bhavan, also on contract. The last time the couple received supplies to clean the Bhavan was a year ago: Two litres of phenyl, acid, two large packets of bleaching powder, 20 packets of naphthalene balls, dusters, a mop and four brooms.
“Most of this is over, so we clean with water the best that we can. When we ask the contractor, he says he can’t give us the supplies because he doesn’t get the money for it,” says Rinku. There is no trash can at the Manzil but with hardly a score of visitors every month — Gandhians, academics and the odd tourist – Rinku’s daily challenge are the layers of accumulated dust.
Cleaning the Manzil
Over the years, Gandhi Bhavan has become the fulcrum of Rinku and Dilip’s lives — even as Hyderi Manzil receded to the annals of the freedom movement, reduced to mere GPS coordinates on an Uber ride.
In the chaos that is Beliaghata, a colony that connects the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass to the Sealdah station, the Manzil is marked only by a mud brown gateway that says ‘Gandhi Bhavan’. There’s a Mahatma Gandhi bust behind a large peepal tree. And the gateway leads to a narrow bylane that meets a resplendent white mansion, with a small garden, a large hall encircled by seven rooms and a dilapidated museum.
Managed by the Purba Kalikata Gandhi Smarak Samiti, Hyderi Manzil is believed to have belonged to the Dawoodi Bohra community that travelled from Surat for trade and bought extensive properties in Beliaghata. But when Gandhi arrived here, the property was deserted and in abject disrepair, the Muslim inhabitants having fled in wake of the Partition. The colony at the time was known as Mianbagan, representative of the large Muslim population that lived alongside Hindu neighbours.
With India at the threshold of freedom, and the “Calcutta Killings” refusing to abate, Gandhi arrived in the city on August 9 to try and douse the communal flames. At the Manzil (see box), Jugal Chandra Ghosh was one of the rioters who surrendered his sword to Gandhi. He later became a Gandhian and bought the property, helping in its upkeep.
“It was Jugal dadu (grandfather) who hired me to look after the property. He used to give me Rs 200 a month. I had just finished B Com at the time. I used to distribute newspapers in the morning and then come to the Manzil and look after it,’’ says Dilip.
Little has changed for Dilip over the past 28 years. He still leaves his house in Sankar Bazar, a 10-minute walk from the Manzil, at 5 every morning, gets on his bicycle and distributes newspapers to 80 households nearby, for Rs 1,000 a month. He reaches home at 8 am, where the couple has tea and biscuits before reaching the Manzil by 9.30 am. “I have had offers for other jobs, but because of my attachment to the Manzil, to Gandhiji and to Jugal dadu, I have refused them all,’’ he says.
Today, Rinku is sweeping the floors while Dilip mops up. There is frantic activity at Hyderi Manzil — it is to be declared a heritage property on October 2 by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, and the PWD, which has looked after the maintenance of the property since 2007, has gone into an overdrive. Debris lies everywhere as labourers chip away at broken walls and climb ladders to fix electric lines.
‘Bapu did his cleaning himself’
At home, deeply religious, Rinku’s mornings are spent doing puja and cooking meals of rice, dal and vegetables. The single-room home for which they pay a monthly rent of Rs 3,500, holds their entire world, clean and well maintained despite the clutter.
A queen-size bed is backed against a corner, with a closet and shelves holding dozens of idols of gods and goddesses — Kali, Durga, Shiv, Ram, Hanuman, Ganesh, Saraswati, Lakshmi. A gas stove is tucked beneath a window at the entrance alongside a small basket, which holds two tomatoes, four onions, half a cabbage and some ginger. A small glass bowl holds two goldfish and a cage houses a red-crested yellow parrot that Rinku calls “Tushi”.
“My mother was very religious and we had our own small Kali temple inside our home. Amongst us — two brothers and five sisters, including my twin sister — I was the most religious. So I dropped out of school in Class IX to help my mother with the temple and the pujas,’’ says Rinku. Dilip’s younger sister, also a singer, would frequent these festivities to sing. Rinku, in turn, would go to Dilip’s house to invite them for the festivities. And that’s how the two fell in love.
But her marriage to Dilip and her work as a cleaner has been a matter of contention with her family. “My family opposed my marriage because my husband is not a Brahmin, although he is from an upper caste. But when they realised what a good man he is, they agreed,” she says.
“Then, when I started working here, my family was horrified for years. I had to explain to them that I am not working in anyone’s home. This is Gandhi Bhavan. It is like a temple. So it is like doing God’s work. Now, they no longer object. There have been instances that I have been called a sweeper. This hurts. Chhoto kaaj kore keo chhoto hoye jay na (No one becomes small by doing menial work). Bapu used to do all his cleaning himself, and he was the Father of the Nation,’’ says Rinku, even as memories of past humiliations bring tears to her eyes.
Every evening, after her duty ends at 5 pm, Rinku starts her second job, going to the homes of her students to teach them singing. She has ten students now, and with the Manzil overrun by workers, decides to hold one of her music classes early. “I love being surrounded by my students,” she says.
Rinku makes Rs 500 per student, which is in addition to the Rs 3,000 she makes from her cleaning duties — all of it goes into paying rent. Dilip makes another Rs 5,000 as the security guard. “A couple of years ago, we had not been paid for 20 months. We had to take a loan of Rs 25,000 from Bandhan Bank just to survive,’’ she says.
After over an hour of classes, Rinku returns to the Manzil. The PWD officials have left, and Dilip and Rinku open their tiffin boxes. Like every other day, they are having a meal of rice, dal and mashed potato. After work, Rinku will head out for her classes once more. She will return home at 10.30 in the night.
“We know about Swachh Bharat,” says Dilip. “For some, it is an event once a year, when they come out on to the streets with brooms and start sweeping. For Rinku and I, this is something we do every day.”
So who cleans the street outside their house? “Workers of the municipal corporation… but I don’t know who. How would I? I spend my life at the Manzil,” says Rinku.
On August 15, 1947, Mahatma Gandhi was in Kolkata, having left Delhi in the wake of the violence that preceded Partition, to travel in riot-hit eastern India. He moved to Hyderi Manzil in Beliaghata, which had witnessed largescale violence, on August 12 at the request of H S Suhrawardy, the then Bengal premier. When his attempts to bring peace failed, Gandhi embarked on an indefinite hunger strike on September 1. After 73 hours, on September 4, the rioters, both Hindus and Muslims, surrendered their arms before the Mahatma. Days later, Gandhi set out for Delhi.