Before the first titter of birds in the aal maram tree, before the first light of dawn, Pushpamma Dasan, 52, temporary cleaner at the Vaikom Mahadeva temple, has stepped out of her chappals and burst through its west gate. She walks briskly through the inky darkness — it is not yet 4 am — picks her wooden broom, bought with her own money (Rs 50), and gets to work.
For 45 minutes, Pushpamma sweeps the share of the temple grounds allotted to her, gathering the fallen leaves and the occasional Lottopie wrapper into a basket. This is a routine she follows daily except when she gets her period. “During the floods, we were in the relief camp for about eight days. But I still reported for work,” she says.
Vaikom: where Mahatma Gandhi led a satyagraha in 1924-25
Pushpamma Dasan, 52
Job: Temporary temple cleaner
Salary: Rs 9,000 a month
Work hours: 3.45-4.30 am, 7.30 am-4 pm; no off days
Cleans: A portion of the temple courtyard, the temple kitchen, including vessels and lamps
In many ways, Pushpamma is one of the countless footsoldiers of Swachh Bharat, the flagship initiative of the Centre inspired by the creed of cleanliness espoused by Mohandas K Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary falls this year on October 2.
“We don’t touch that at all,” says Pushpamma, who belongs to the Ezhava caste, when asked if she polishes the brass knobs and Nandi figurines on the outside of the main temple. For centuries, the thought of Pushpamma’s ancestors working in the temple was sacrilege. Dalits and Ezhavas did not even have the right to walk on the town’s public roads. Moats constructed near each of the four gates of the temple were meant to keep the Ezhavas away; if Dalits ventured within a km of the temple, they had to call out a warning.
In 1924-25, the Vaikom satyagraha, carried out on the road that radiates out of the west gate of the temple, hurled a major political challenge to caste orthodoxy. It was Gandhi’s and the Congress’s first successful mass movement against untouchability. Dalit, Ezhava and “upper-caste” Nair protesters broke the law by walking on the road. Gandhi visited Vaikom in March 1925, to support the satyagrahis and to convince the Namboothiri Brahmins of the cause. The peaceful agitation had also drawn Ezhava reformer Shree Narayana Guru and Tamil firebrand Periyar.
Pushpamma joined the thin staff of cleaners, nearly all contract workers, at the Vaikom temple five years ago. Her husband, Dasan, 58, was working as a construction labourer at a school when a fall dislocated his shoulder and injured his hip. “It was a very difficult time. We had to find some way to keep going. By (lord) Vaikyathappan’s grace, I found this job. Things are slightly better off,” says Pushpamma, who is paid Rs 9,000 a month (without any PF or health benefits.) She is the primary breadwinner of the house, with her two daughters married. Unable to do physical labour, Dasan now sells lottery tickets.
As the first temple bell rings, Pushpamma disappears into the darkness. She will return in three hours, for her second shift, having cooked lunch for the family, and packed a flask of coffee and a small lunch for herself.
She hasn’t stopped to consider herself a part of a countrywide grand Swachh Bharat mission, which to her is “photographs in newspapers of politicians”. Of Gandhi, she knows only that he was here and that he fought for freedom. But cleanliness remains a personal creed. “I don’t know about this mission. But I work with sincerity every day-I keep the temple clean, I keep my house clean. Whenever I can, I try and educate people about the need to keep our homes and towns clean,” she says.
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On her second shift, which begins at 7.30 am and ends around 4pm, Pushpamma works inside – polishing the brass lamps with tamarind, and soap, cleaning the temple kitchen after the daily lunch for the 300-odd people has been served, and then serving food to the administrative staff. The food at the temple is still cooked on clay stoves lit by firewood, ensuring that the vessels are left blackened with soot. “These ones take time,” she says, bent over a vessel the size of a small child, scouring it expertly with ash and soap, and finally hosing it down till it is a gleaming silver.
Pushpamma is always on the move, and that is how she would like it. “Ask your questions quickly, I have work to do,” she says, when we accompany her back to her home in Madeparambu. It is a neat concrete structure built a year ago, with two tiny bedrooms, a living space and a kitchen. There is no television or fridge. “I have clothes to wash and dinner to cook,” she says, fretting, even as she calms down the angry mutt in the shed, Jackie, with gentle caresses.
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She recalls her life as a child in a nearby village. Her parents were poor and uneducated, and would often be in debt. “But it was a happy childhood. I went to school and loved sports. You should have seen me do the long jump and the high jump,” he says.
At her doorstep is a poster of Shree Narayana Guru, who led the anti-caste movement in Kerala in the early 20th century. In her living room, too, a large photograph of the Ezhava reformer is the most striking thing, dwarfing the pictures of Pushpamma and Dasan, and her daughters, both married.
The Vaikom satyagraha was called off in November 1925, when the Travancore royals decided to open roads on three sides of the temple to backward castes. In 1936, all temples were declared open to people of all castes – what Narayana Guru had agitated for. But it is not his political, anti-caste message that resonates with Pushpamma. It does not bother her much that there has never been an Ezhava priest or that members of her community are still on the margins. “Ezhavas have to first get educated and learn the Vedas before we can think of that,” she says. For her, the message of Narayana Guru boils down to self-respect. “Whenever there is difficulty, we have to work hard and rely on ourselves. That is what he taught us and our community,” she says.
Of her two daughters, the eldest, Divya, works at a tailoring shop in Vaikom, while the younger one, Deepti, is a Master’s in Science and works at the lab of a private hospital in Kochi. Pushpamma says she is driven to work round the clock because of the debt she has incurred in building her house and educating her daughter. “You ask me why I work so hard, from 3 am to night. But how else can I pay off these loans?” The family is yet to receive the Rs 10,000 relief promised to those affected in the recent floods.
Who cleans the narrow lanes in front of the house? “No one does. When it gets too dirty, we do. The municipal workers are responsible only for the main road, not our neighbourhood,” she says. In the absence of septic tanks, however, they have to call workers once a year to clean the ring toilets that fill up quickly with waste. “We have to pay them with money and alcohol,” she says.
Pushpamma retires in four years, and it’s not a comforting thought. Sometimes, when she is weary of making ends meet, she does hope for miracles. “I buy lottery tickets once in a while. But not from my husband,” she says, laughing. The biggest stroke of luck, however, she says, would be if her daughter gets a permanent cleaning job at the temple. “That’s the only thing I have to ask of Vaikyathappan.”