Field Notes: Humanity Amid Suffering And Injustice


Even as they wept and looked at me with tired eyes, the family members of Karan and Pooran were nothing but kind and patient as they responded to my myriad questions about how the two men had suffocated to death inside a manhole in Lucknow on 29 March.

Only one autowallah —Mohammed Ameen—had been willing to bring me to the Dalit basti, Rajajipuram, where the two men lived with their extended families.

Not far from the manhole where he fell, Karan’s parents Sangeeta Bharti and Maikoo Lal Bharti spoke of their son wanting to leave behind manual scavenging, getting a different job, and living the life they never could. 

Twenty-nine years after manual scavenging was banned, Dalits are still cleaning sewers and septic tanks without proper protective gear, and dying as a consequence of being safai karamcharis (sanitation workers)

When I first saw the video of the bodies being taken out of the manhole, and then family members and bystanders shouting about whether they were still alive, my heart sank. I was also angry at the lack of coverage, so normalised the deaths of safai karamcharis had become. 

As aunts and uncles chimed into the conversation, it struck me that in Karan, they had not only lost a relative but a good friend. When I started clicking photos, his little nephews said they were posing like how Karan used to. It made me think about how grief is mostly the love a person leaves behind. 

Earlier that day, I had spent a long time negotiating the broken roads that led to the manhole where the two men had fallen. Surrounded by residential homes and two shops, the place was eerily quiet. 

When I met with the police, I could tell that even though the senior sub-inspector Syed Ahmed Mehi Zaidi had seen horrific crimes and scenes in his line of work, this particular incident had shaken him. "I couldn't cry then, but I felt devastated for the family," he said.

When I met with Pooran’s family, his three children struggled to express their grief. When his daughter Poorva started talking about him, she started crying. Wiping away her tears, she said, “Papa bahot acche the." (Papa was a good man).

As I sat writing my notes, the grieving families offered me refreshments. After some workers got angry as I recounted the version of events given to me by the accused and supervisor of the private company contracted by Lucknow Water Works department where the two dead men worked, the others pacified them and we continued talking. When it was time for me to leave, Karan's father and three workers walked with me to the main road from where I could catch an auto.

I’m still thinking about the humanity and fortitude of the families withstanding so much suffering and injustice. 

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