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11May/09

The Permanence of Things

Saeed Urrehman

The smell of shit was everywhere. The pipes of the toilet next to the master bedroom had been blocked and the commode was throwing a thick slush of shit and water back on to the floor. I could have ignored the whole mess and closed the door. Forgotten. No problem. There were two other toilets in the house. But the acrid smell of what my body had expelled and what had now been rejected by the toilet was difficult to ignore.

There was no way I could have fixed the toilet on my own. I possessed no deep insights about drain pipes. For me, the complexities of plumbing were as great as those of the human genome project. I needed professional help.

I left the house, looking for someone who knew plumbing. Squinting and trying to adjust my eyes against the intensity of the midday Lahori sun, I started walking towards the shops where I usually bought bread and eggs. Near the shops, I spotted a group of young boys. They were always there, just like the footpath. They were loud and harmless, hanging between unhappy homes and Toyota Camry daydreams. I ignored them and walked up to the shopkeeper.

“Salam. I just wanted to ask if you knew where I can get a good plumber? My toilet is spewing out a huge mess.”

“Forget about the plumbers, sahib. Try to find a bhangi.”

“Bhangi?”

“Oho, the sewer cleaner, bhai sahib. The municipal committee-wala. The bhangi is the person who can really unblock your pipes.”

“Oh, ok. Where can I find a bhangi?”

“Just look around the khokhas over there. The bhangis usually spend their afternoons there.”

I walked over to the khokhas where lots of men were sitting around on rickety wooden benches, drinking chai.

I asked the chai-wala if he knew any bhangi. He pointed towards a man sitting on his haunches under a tree. I walked over to the man. A sweaty, sunburnt, moustached face with knife-sharp slits as eyes. A loosened turban on the head. On the ground to his right, a thick broom and a long bamboo pole with twine wrapped on the joints. In his long gnarled fingers were a cup of chai and a sweat-soaked filterless cigarette.

“Can you help me? My toilet is blocked.”

“Yes, of course. That’s what I do.”

“Okay. How much do you charge?”

“I’ll have to have a look. Depends on the job.”

“Ok. Are you free now?”

“Yes. After I finish this chai.”

I waited for a while, looking at the crows perched on the branches of an acacia tree. He finished his chai, rubbed out his cigarette and stood up.

We walked back to the house without saying another word. I showed him the toilet. He looked around the commode and gave a royal, sardonic smile. He was on his familiar territory. I felt I was his helpless slave.

“This is a real mess. Five hundred rupees.”

“That’s a bit steep. How about four?” Afraid of being swindled, I tried to negotiate.

After we had agreed at four hundred and fifty, he told me that he would need to go and fetch another man because the task was too big for him. It was fine by me as long as the fee would not change. It wouldn’t, he assured me. Okay. He left his broom and bamboo in a corner of the bathroom.

While waiting for Bhola, I spread some old sheets over the carpets in the lounge and the bedroom. After half an hour, the door bell rang. I went to see the door. He and his helpmate were already in the driveway. The helper was a willowy man, with a high-bridged nose, sunken cheeks, and drooping shoulders. The tubercular hawk was called Sitar.

They both walked over to the toilet. I watched them as they took off their worn-out sandals, waded through the fetid water and looked at the commode from all sides. Sitar pressed the flush button. The bowl gargled out more muddy slush. Bhola looked at the helpmate who looked back and nodded. I guessed it was serious stuff.

“Sitar will have to go and look at the pipes in the other toilets.”

“Why?”

“We need to look at how the pipes connect and where the trouble may be. He’ll have a look at the drain pipes outside of the house as well. And I’ll try to push the blockage from here with my bamboo.”

I got worried. Their working at two different spots in the house meant I couldn’t watch over them at the same time. Either could steal anything. The house was full of expensive decorative art pieces I had brought from my visits to different countries. At that moment, I decided that I would never again allow more than one worker in the house. It was already looking like a plot to me. If Bhola could clear the pipes with his bamboo, why did he ask Sitar to come along? Of course, one of them would try to pinch things while I watched the other. It seemed obvious.

I didn’t know what to do. I showed Sitar the other toilets. This was not my idea of getting help. How would I know what Bhola was doing while I was escorting Sitar around? This was worse than a shit-filled toilet. Two unknown men were moving around at different places in a house which I had never wanted to share with anyone.

Sitar finished checking at all the taps, shower heads, joints, knobs, buttons, and pipes in the toilets and went to the front yard as I was trying to decide if I should follow him or go and see what Bhola was up to. I walked back to the master toilet. Bhola was bent over the commode with his bamboo inside the drain pipe of the floor. Somewhere underneath the floor and deep into the pipes something needed to be pushed aside, moved, or broken into pieces and flushed away.

After a while, I came out on the drive way. Sitar had lifted the iron mesh off a big sewer pipe near the main gate and was bent over the hole, peering in the darkness and trying to listen to the sounds of the refuse and water. I stood there and just watched the concentrated look on his face.

Watching Sitar meditating the open sewer and listening to the faint sloshing sound of Bhola’s attempts to clear the pipes, I suddenly felt something like an insight breaking out and an immense calm filling my mind.. Nothing in the life of these two men would change even if they stole all the art pieces in the lounge or the blankets and sheets in the bedroom? I could replace everything I owned several times over and they would sell all the booty to have a week of drunken and well-fed leisure and would go back to cleaning shit again. Nothing major in the world of these men would change for a very long time. I almost wanted to laugh at my earlier panic. I gave up watching Sitar, stopped thinking of Bhola and came inside. With a relaxed buoyancy in my step, I walked to the kitchen and started preparing my afternoon cup of coffee.

Footnote:

Bhangi - Addict
Khokha - Tuck Shop
Chai - Tea

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The opinions expressed in this article are of the author and not necessarily of Vibes.

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