I see him often, walking purposefully in the flat compound, a smile ready to show up under the thin moustache.
I smile and say kem cho, a generic greeting that means little but just hello. He smiles back, making me smile wider and more honestly in return.
Three times a week I meet him in the lift, at 6:00am, as I head out for a workout, a broom and a plastic bag in hand. He collects garbage from the flats, picking up the those remains of our lives that we've thoughtlessly discarded.
Sometime back I was at a mall close to where we live, struggling with bags of groceries, a very cranky Nino refusing to walk unless carried. I was flustered, tired and hoping for a miracle.
Bhabhi, Bhabhi, he yelled, running towards me in a clean yellow and green tee-shirt and cap, the logo of a shop on the tee, worn like a tag of acceptance. He helped me towards the car, God-sent in his timing and enthusiasm. You work here, I asked him, and he smiled and said, here and four more places.
This Friday, I opened the door to a lobby littered with garbage - street dogs had come looking for their food and the dustbins are an easy prey. There's dog shit on the door mat. Cursing, I get a plastic bag and wear in my hand, intending to pick up the crap, unaware that he's already at work in the dark corner of the lobby.
Rehva do, bhabhi, ae to maru kaam che, he says.
Leave it, bhabhi, its my work.
He smiles and gets back to picking up the litter, the shit, scrubbing the gravy stains, pushing the vegetable peels into his bag. Thank you, I say. Tamaru naam shu che? What's your name? Bhagwan, he says. God.
Later that morning, in the parking, I see a middle-aged neighbour screaming, 'Bhangi, bhangi'. I'm a little shocked at the use of the word, shocked more to see Bhagwan running towards the man. Sweepers and garbage-pickers are always a particular caste here, a vocation that is thrust upon them by destiny.
Bhangi's have been India's worst-kept tradition since the medieval times. 'Untouchables' delegated to cleaning toilets, collecting garbage and handling dead bodies. It's a malaise that cannot be cured - it's a caste you're born into, that no amount of prayers or education can wish away or change.
Mahatma Gandhi coined a term for them, Harijan, people of Hari, or God, but the words did little to dilute the stigma, the vicious racism that they live with everyday.
I wonder what his parents thought of when they named him Bhagwan. Generations of people who had accepted or given in or were forced into their fate of being the keepers of India's dirt, tangible and that of our minds. Was it hope for a better future, faith in a God who treats them no better than society does?
It's an irony that is more cruel than beautiful, and I wonder if he hated the name growing up, in municipal schools with classmates who were perhaps only reiterating the jokes and the slurs they picked up from their parents. He's a young man, less than 30 I guess, and I wonder if he's married, has children of his own. I wonder what he tells them, segregated so deeply from society, with a sense of submission so subconscious that they probably know no other way of life, have never had the freedom, the undeniable right of a human to 'choose', to make a choice. What has he named them, they who have a future that has been pre-determined before they were born?
3 hours ago