Holding her by the hand he almost dragged her along, as he staggered on, drunk on cheap toddy. An incessant stream of incoherent babblings issued from his mouth, words that she could hardly recognize. Did he have to get drunk all so often! Though she was too small to fathom what toddy was, she knew enough to hate it desperately. She would rather have her father sane, coherent, his breath fresh, and not reeking of toddy. But in the world that she dwelled in fathers were expected to be inebriated much of the time.
Marching through the town they reached the house, from which someone emerged to take her father to the back of the house where a septic tank was horribly clogged. The smell was so bad that she could hardly breathe. Her father told her to stay back while he staggered to the tank.
He had no gloves, no masks, no protective clothing. All he had was a stick, a shovel, a bucket- the bare tools with which to somehow extract the muck. She must have been about 7 years old then, and this was the first time her father had brought her to work. She wanted to run away with shame and disgust, wanted to puke. She could hardly bear to watch.
‘Dr. Malti Ram, will you grace this audience by taking your place on the stage please,’ the voice fell on her ears, but lost in reminiscing her own past she didn’t realize that it was she who was being addressed.
‘My father had no alternative, he had to be intoxicated for the kind of work he was made to do,’ she murmured quietly to herself, ‘only someone intoxicated out of his wits can survive the noxious and putrid vapors from the septic tanks he was made to clean.’
‘Dr. Malti Ram, would you please come up and take the stage,’ the voice echoed again. ‘Dr. Malti RamÃ¢Â?Â¦’
When she failed to react to the second and the third entreaty, a dignitary sitting next to her nudged lightly on her shoulder, breaking her reverie instantly and she noticed that many eyes were focused on her. ‘Oh I was lost in my own thoughts,’ she blurted. She rose from her seat and walked up to the brightly lit stage.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ the lady on the stage said, ‘I have the honor to present our chief guest Dr. Malti Ram who, as we all know, has done the medical fraternity in this country proud by her path breaking work in the field of geneticsÃ¢Â?Â¦’ The loud claps that burst into the hall drowned rest of what was said in Dr. Ram’s praise.
Dr. Malti Ram took the place behind the microphone. ‘I thank the Medical Council of India for giving me an opportunity to address this august gathering,’ she began. ‘I amÃ¢Â?Â¦’
Quite suddenly an uncertainty dawned on her face and she lapsed into a silence; to the audience it seemed if she were being racked by some sort of confusion. Tears welled up in her eyes and began to roll down her cheeks. There descended a hushed silence in the auditorium, what had come over the chief guest, was beyond everyone’s comprehension.
Then Dr. Malti found her voice again. ‘I know that I am here to speak about my research in the field of genetics,’ she said, her voice unpredictably mellow, ‘but on that I will have to disappoint you all. Today I would rather introduce you to a Malti Ram about whom no one knows. I want to talk about the life I led before I became a famous doctor. I want to tell you about my family, about my father, who dared to dream that his daughter should be a doctor. My father Gobar Ram was a scavenger in a small town in BiharÃ¢Â?Â¦’
The seven year girl looked on with dismay as her father shoveled out the putrid mess from the septic tank and dumped it into the bucket. Maybe because of the toddy, or because of the tank’s foul smell driving him mad, or a combination of both, he was clumsy in his work, letting some of the muck slide down on his body with every shovelful he unearthed.
The bucket was filled in no time, but there was still much muck left in the septic tank. ‘Wait here,’ he babbled, ‘I will be back after emptying the bucket.’ Frightened that he may touch her with his soiled hands she crouched behind a tree as he walked past her carrying the bucket filled with muck on his head.
He returned in few minutes to resume the chore of emptying the septic tank. Again when the bucket was filled he marched off with it on his head and returned after emptying it. This process was repeated five times before the septic tank was finally cleared. For his efforts he got paid a paltry sum of two rupees, but even that paltry sum was necessary to keep his family from starvation.
She walked few feet behind him as they marched back to their house in the other end of the town where the scavenger’s colony was located. On way he washed himself in a small pond which was meant for use by the town’s scavengers. When he emerged from the water the muck was no longer on his body, but the stink remained. She could still smell the putrid mess.
He tried to grasp her hand, but she drew away from him. He grinned at her discomfiture. ‘Oh I am clean now,’ she heard him say. ‘Be a good girl and come into my lap.’ But she chose to run away from him, she ran as fast as her small legs would carry her. Behind her she heard his laughter, his drunken voice calling her name, ‘Malti, Malti, stopÃ¢Â?Â¦.’ But she stopped only when she was in her home, where her mother was boiling rice on a wood fire. Panting for breath Malti flung herself into the safe environs of her mother’s lap.
Few hours later the effect of toddy had worn off from her father, as had the foul smell that he had imbibed from the septic tank, and they were sitting outside their hut in the scavenger’s colony. She mustered courage to say, ‘why do you have to work in such filth?’
‘That is how we get our food,’ he said disinterestedly.
‘But why can’t you do something else.’
‘This is what our people have done for ages. This is what scavengers always do.’
‘I won’t,’ she snapped through a fierce determination. ‘I won’t clean septic tanks.’
Gobar looked at his daughter with surprise. ‘How will you earn your food if not as a scavenger like me?’ he said.
It was her suppressed anger at her father’s plight that made her blurt, ‘I will be a doctor.’ The moment the words were out of her mouth, she was filled with anxiety that her father may make fun of her dream, or worse berate her for harboring farfetched ideas.
But she need not have worried. Her scavenger father’s eyes brimmed not with derision, rather they brimmed with awe. ‘If you become a doctor,’ he said dreamily, ‘then you will be the first scavenger in this area to attain that level of greatness.’
‘Doctorni memsahib, told me that anyone can become a doctor if she studies hard,’ panted the young Malti. The lady whom the she knew as the doctorni memsahib was a doctor, who was particularly concerned about the health and wellbeing of the town’s scavengers. She visited their colony on every Sunday and working from a makeshift clinic prescribed treatments free of cost.
Since the day Malti had been cured from fever by the doctor’s medications she had been in awe of the doctor. She made it a point to rush to the clinic whenever the doctor was in the colony. The little girl would watch with interest the doctor’s ways, she particularly enjoyed listening to the friendly and kind way in which the doctor talked to the patients. The doctor did not mind Malti’s presence at all. Rather, she encouraged her by involving her in the clinic’s work.
She would give Malti small chores like fetching clean water from the hand-pump or picking up some vials of medicines from the shelf. The stethoscope was a source of great mystery for Malti. And once when the doctor let her wear the stethoscope and listen to the sound of her heartbeat, Malti’s amazement knew no bounds. It was from her small efforts at the clinic that Malti earned the nickname of nurse in the colony. At times even her father and mother mirthfully used that nickname to address her.
Nothing pleased Malti more than being called a nurse, the very sound of the word arose in her the pleasant feeling that she was somehow closer to her ambition of becoming like her idol, the doctorni memsahib. One day when the doctor seemed to be in a particularly good mood, Malti choose to come forth with her secret ambition. ‘To become a doctor like you what do I have to do,’ she said tentatively.
The doctor was amazed by Malti’s query, even more so by the tone in which it had been put. It was as if Malti was articulating her deepest desire. Suddenly it became clear to the doctor why the scrawny little girl, always dressed in threadbare rags, preferred to linger in the clinic rather than play outside with tots of her own age. ‘You want to be a doctor?’ asked the doctor.
‘Yes,’ said Malti.
The doctor knew that it was quite difficult for a poor scavenger’s daughter to get into a medical college, but there was a ray of hope that through some extra efforts and lots of good luck Malti might be able to achieve the impossible. Because she didn’t want to break the child’s heart, she said, ‘to become a doctor you got to study very hard. I am sure you can manage that.’
‘I will study hardest of all,’ whispered the little girl.
From that instant a new bond formed between Malti and the doctor, who became a mentor of sorts for the little girl. On a regular basis she would bring fruits and sweets for Malti. On an occasion she even summoned Malti’s father to the clinic to tell him that he should make sure that his daughter never missed even a day of school. Malti was embarrassed by the state her father was in when he arrived at the clinic.
The foul smell emanating from the body made it obvious that he was just back from cleaning another septic tank in the town. The toddy that he had imbibed was active in his system making his voice slurred and difficult to comprehend. But the doctor managed to hold a coherent conversation with him and he left with the promise that he would never do anything to hinder his daughter from attending school.
At the municipal school, where Malti studied, education was absolutely free, and in addition the students also got free books, notebooks and also food during the lunch period. But there were other problems that Malti faced. Some students, who knew that her father’s job was cleaning filthy septic tanks, made fun of her by making derisive remarks. The barbs hurt like sharp needles but she took them in her stride and carried on.
Her determination to be a doctor infected her family, and subtle changes in the atmosphere at home became palpable. Her father was lot more considerate towards her, he began to reign in his toddy drinking habit and started making sure that he was completely clean before he reached home, so that she didn’t have to find him smelling foul. Though there were many years of education ahead of her he was already of the firm belief that his daughter would one day be a doctor, as was her mother.
Few years down the line when her school education was over and the time came for her to get entry into a medical college, financial problems raised their head. Her father didn’t have the wherewithal to pay the college fees, nor did he possess the means to send her to the city where the college was located. He ran from pillar to post trying to raise money, but the moneylenders he narrated his problem to, scoffed at the idea of a scavenger’s daughter becoming a doctor. One moneylender put it bluntly enough, ‘if the scavengers become doctors then who will clean our septic tanks.’
But the doctorni memsahib at the clinic and few teachers at the school, where Malti had studied, were not biased as the moneylenders. They petitioned the various state government institutions on her behalf letting them know how deserving a student she was. From their efforts her scholarship got arranged and that is how she was able to come to Ranchi and enroll in a prestigious medical college. Her brilliant performance at the college opened new doors and she could opt for a major in the field of genetics.
Sadly, her father didn’t live long enough to see his daughter becoming an internationally acclaimed geneticist. Years of cleaning badly infected septic tanks had taken its toll on his body, which was ailed by all sorts of respiratory and digestive ailments. He died six months before his daughter passed from the medical college.
The audience of celebrities from all walks of life sat hushed and still in the hall. Dr. Malti Ram’s voice was heavy with emotion when she uttered, ‘today the world knows me as a geneticist, but hardly anyone would know about my scavenger past. I am a scavenger’s daughter, a scavenger, who had the courage to let her daughter dream of becoming a doctor. I dedicate everything I have today to my father and to the community from which I have comeÃ¢Â?Â¦ I find it disgusting that even today people have to manually clean up the septic tanks in many parts of the country. To change the situation for the nation’s scavengers we, all of us, have to work togetherÃ¢Â?Â¦’
Finishing her speech Dr. Malti Ram wiped tears from her eyes and slowly stepped down from the podium even as the audience rose to give a massive standing ovation.