“HELLO, MA’AM, ma’am, ma’am.” Her voice startles a young Japanese tourist. Urmila points to the visitor’s shoes and waves her away from the sacred space that must only be accessed barefoot. Three hours earlier, Urmila had removed her chappals with little black flowers sewn on to them, at the bottom of the steps and walked towards the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead. Today, she will wipe down the stone that marks Gandhi’s last breath, and the seat where he sat every evening for his prayer, till his death.
For the last 144 days of his life, Mahatma Gandhi lived in a small portion on the ground floor of Birla House which is now on Tees January Marg in the Capital, a road named to mark his martyrdom. For roughly 2,500 days now, this has been 30-year-old Urmila’s place of work. A mother of three — Sejal (11), Navya (3) and Maanvi (1) — Urmila, who uses only one name, started working eight years ago, near Gate-2 through which visitors now access ‘Gandhi Smriti.’
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She used to sit on her haunches outside the toilet behind the information counter, going in regularly to clean it, or listen in on guides talk about what was so special about this large white house. Her routine was straightforward: “Wiper lagao, toilet paper de do aur thank you bolo (Use the wiper, provide toilet paper, say thank you).”
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Then she says, she climbed. From squatting and waiting for people to use the facilities before she could clean it up, her work expanded, over the years, from Gate-2 to Gate-4. From the point were visitors walk in, down the steps towards where Gandhi stayed, onto Kirti Mandap, to the back gate where packets of chai are transported mid-morning for a much needed break.
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On Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, with Swachh Bharat, the national cleanliness campaign, turning four this Gandhi Jayanti, Urmila’s contribution, every day, still starts with sweeping the pathways, dusting the chairs, and running a red scrubber dipped into a yellow mug with a mix of Harpic and water to clean the basin near the water filters.
Urmila was hired as a contract worker in 2010, three months after her husband, Surender Kumar, found work at Gandhi Smriti. Surender is from the Lohar community, and has never worked as a cleaner. Now, he cleans the neighbourhood he lives in, even trying to maintain a plot of government land that has turned into a garbage dump. As a Valmiki, Urmila says, she “had no choice”. At 13, she helped her mother clean toilets of Delhi’s municipal corporation.
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Six years ago, the then director of the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, the trust that manages Birla House, asked Urmila not to squat or stand to the side when authority walks past, but offered her a plastic chair and asked her to sit. “Our director madam asked us all to sit, no hierarchy, just sit around a large table,” she says.
“Then she asked me ‘What is your name? What work do you do? I said “Safai Sevika.” Urmila remembers being very afraid. “She asked, ‘Aapka pehchaan kya hai (What’s your identity)?’ She asked every single one of us.” After that, Urmila and Surender and 16 others in both Gandhi Smriti and Gandhi Darshan at Raj Ghat, were taken off contract work and employed as part of a trust. Seven hikes in eight years: Rs 1,800, Rs 2,250, Rs 2,500, Rs 3,200, Rs 3,750, Rs 5,200 and now Rs 13,884. In other words, Rs 534 per day for 26 days of work, four weekly offs a month, and Rs 250 for overtime.
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At work, she wraps her dupatta around her face to clean the toilet behind Kirti Mandap. She runs the wiper, scraping it hard against the toilet floor, scoops all the muddy water and pushes it towards the toilet. Water fills the bucket behind her, she pours phenyl in it, and dips the bamboo stick with a rag at one end into the bucket. The routine continues till the stench is replaced by the odour of disinfectant. Then, she scrubs the phenyl off her hands and feet, the whole time singing along with the children practising next door, “Hamare Hi Mutthi Mein Aakash Saare (We have the sky is in our fists)…”
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Back in their home in Ghaziabad, Surender and Urmila are candid. “On October 2, 2014 when the government announced the Swachh Bharat Mission, we had the same feeling like when we brought our newborn child home. But four years later, the pressure of the mission is almost exclusively on safai karamcharis,” says Surender.
To Urmila’s right, a cabinet with images of cartoon characters Motu-Patlu stands to one corner under their small television. Surender bought it from a secondhand furniture shop near Shastri Park, for their girls. But it could as well be for themselves: “We are called many things… Motu-Patlu, engine-dabba, minus-plus, hans-hansika,” laughs Urmila, who is quick to clarify that she had an arranged marriage.
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The proof of their growing family is in the inadequacy of their secondhand Hero Honda bike, which helps transport them — at least an hour one way — to their place of work. Last week, they had to let go of overtime wages to visit a car showroom in Patparganj, checking if they could afford a small hatchback model. “A silver car,” says Urmila.
Back at Gandhi Smriti, outside a VIP toilet that opens “only when a phone call comes from higher-ups”, Urmila says she finds her place of work peaceful. “There are no loud noises here. There are only two places where I feel really calm…here and the banks of the Ganga in Haridwar… there is definitely something about this place.”
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On September 9, 1947, Mahatma Gandhi, who had arrived from Calcutta, was persuaded to stay in a small portion of the 12-bedroom Birla House built by industrialist G D Birla. Gandhi had stayed there several times in the past, but this was where he would spend the last 144 days of his life, before he was shot dead on his way to the evening prayer on January 30, 1948.