The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Big dream on little bird shoulders

Bally, April 17: Standing in the doorway of her one-room municipal quarters in the sweepers' colony in Howrah's Bally, Sandhya Valmiki, 23, does not have much time. She has to wash the tiny steel dishes in which she offers food to her household gods, perform puja and get on with the cooking.

The lane in which she stays, known as Methorpara (home for sweepers), is so narrow that when a truck enters, it almost crushes the people sitting outside.

It is also swarming with CPM cadre in white T-shirts that appeal in bold, blue letters to vote for Konika Gang-uly.

But like many other women here, Sandhya has trouble recalling the name of the local MLA. Like them, she also shies from saying anything critical about 'The Party'.

'They are always there,' she says, throwing a furtive glance at the men in Tees.

But Sandhya, though born here, was not born a Valmiki, like most of the residents in Methorpara.

The Val- mikis ' though many of them are employed by the municipality as sweepers now ' are what was traditionally called 'night-soil removers' (bhangis).

Five to six decades ago, they came from Delhi and settled here. Sandhya's father was a Rajak, of the 'washerman' caste. However, she fell in love.

'It was a love marriage,' she says, smiling and looking a little shy, drawing the blue dupatta over her head to protect her kajal-smeared eyes from the sun. She got married in '99 and has one daughter, Tanu, who is four years old.

Her mother-in-law is still a jamadar (sweeper), employed with the municipality on a salary of Rs 5,000 a month, but her husband is not.

He works in a soap factory. But Tanu is the key to the greatest difference between Sandhya and her neighbours and the previous generation.

'I have just got her admitted to school. It is called Little Birds' Educational School. It is close. It is nearby,' Sandhya says, pronouncing the name of the institution slowly, savouring every syllable. 'We had to pay Rs 1,500 first and every month we have to pay Rs 100 as fees,' she says.

'I don't know what she will do ' how good she will be in her studies. Perhaps she won't do so well. But I dream,' she says.

She would like a gas oven, but cannot afford it. She has the ubiquitous TV set, though, and a tape recorder, alongside a neatly stacked row of cassettes and a large clock fitted into the bedstead.

Her room is tidy. The TV screen is wide and the printed bedspread without a crease. There is a small temple between the TV and the music system. The wall is adorned with photographs ' her wedding pictures, she and her husband in a studio, Tanu staring defiantly at the camera.

Sandhya lives in this room with her husband and daughter ' outside, a small chaupai is where her mother-in-law and her husband's younger brother get their night's rest.

With four persons to look after, including a working mother-in-law, Sandhya has little time for personal care ' and less money.

'I hardly go out. We can't afford to. If I do, I only use Fair and Lovely,' she says, looking a little wistful. 'Sometimes I use Sunsilk shampoo for my hair,' she adds.

She would also think hard before having another child.

But she doesn't grudge it so much. She has invested heavily in the future.

Her husband and her mother-in-law have pooled resources ' her mother in-law has taken a loan from the municipality ' to buy a house for Rs 4 lakh. 'It's a house on one-and-a-half cottahs, in Durgapur, close to this place.'

The television makes up for the austerity of her life to some extent. In the evenings, Sandhya is glued to the small screen. 'I love everything by Ekta Kapoor. I love (Kyunkii) Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kumkum, Tulsi,' her voice trails.

She looks at the open drain at her feet and frowns. The CPM cadre, hovering still, break in. 'Ask her. Konika Ganguly is always there for us. No one from the other party ever comes here,' a T-shirt screams. 'Last night, she was there with us till 1.30 pm when RAF personnel went berserk at Bally station and two persons were injured.'

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