On a sultry afternoon, while taking a nap- Have you heard someone screaming ‘paper, bottle’ outside on the road. I am sure you have. You must be annoyed as the noise would have disturbed you and woken you up from your peaceful sleep. A mobile man on a bicycle with gunny bags on the either side, requesting you too sell the waste items- like paper, plastic and glass bottles, and at times metal. He is probably the only vendor on the street who pays you, in return of providing service of waste disposal. Kabadiwala – itinerant buyer, that’s what we call him. Have you ever thought what it is to be like a Kabadiwala -an urban nomad, moving around the city to fetch waste? What kind of life does he have? Does he have family and children like yours? What are the aspirations do those children have? ‘Bicycle Dreaming’ a novel by Mridula Koshy is a glance of Kabadiwala’s life and the aspirations of his daughter Noor and son Talib.
“Noor’s father was a kabadiwala. He rode his bicycle from his home as early as seven thirty on some mornings… Change was important in Mohammad Saidullah’s line of work. When he finished weighing the goods- stacks of old newspaper, used up school notebooks, not a blank page left and the covers fallen apart, glass bottles empty of ketchup and liquor, metal tins sharp edged at the rim- and named what he was willing to pay to haul away these discards, the householders all claim that they have no change. If he quoted Rs 18- a fair price for a good sized load that would earn him at least five rupees more when resold to recycling factory- they would pocket his twenty and shake their heads ‘no’. They didn’t have two rupees change for him.”
The given novel is the fictional account of a non-fictional world- which we term as informal economy, to be precise informal waste economy. Itinerant buyers like wastepickers and scrap dealers are pillars of it. They supply raw material- waste which we discard after it has no use left for us, to the manufacturing units. This is what Mohammad Saidullah does for his livelihood. He chose to be a Kabadiwala, the other worthy choice which he had was of opening a kebab shop. “He wanted to get as far away from the heat of a tandoor oven and the smell offal as anyone could get. He wanted a bicycle to ride on and the streets of Delhi to ride on.” He and his adviser friend -Lakshman, who suggested the profession, thought that this is the only way for their upward socioeconomic mobility. Instead of moving up on the ladder, Saidullah slid down. Private contractors, incineration plant all are to be held responsible. “The whole colony has hired the private contractor to collect their kabadi…The kabadi will be taken to an incinerator and the company will make money by burning it.” With that Saidullah is left with no option but to scavenge through the ashes or the left overs of incinerated waste to find something worth the value. In the times of Swachh Bharat (Clean India) and Smart Cities, when the emphasis is being given on incineration instead of focusing on recycling, think of many Saidullahs who will be left with very little.
There is more to the story. As mentioned above, the novel is as much as about Noor and Talib as it is about Saidullah. They too have aspirations and their aspirations and desires are very different from each other. Noor- the daughter, main protagonist of the story, wants to be a Kabadiwalli like her father, “and do work that is good for the environment.” The novel begins with her dream of having a bicycle and it moves in the contours of riding a cycle, growing up, desires for better life and discards. The prologue to the novel is an important junction for reflection especially at the point where the author states-
“He said this dump used to be good till the incinerator plant was built down the road and they started dumping ashes from it here…Malba, that fine dust left over from the constant reconstruction of the city, fogged the heap, but it did not do the damage the ashes did. Books could survive malba, but not ashes.
Would he sell the books for pulp?
The boy looked up, and even in the waning light, his anger was clear to see.
I can read, he said. I will use them for study.”
Do grab a copy of it! For those who are in Bangalore, we at Hasiru Dala shall be hosting its public reading soon, do come.