Munshi Khairat Ali Khan was the inspector of Sanitation and hundreds of sweeper women depended on him. He was good-hearted and well thought of–not the sort who cut their pay, scolded them or fined them. But he went on regularly rebuking and punishing Alarakkhi. She was not a shirker, nor saucy or slovenly; she was also not at all bad-looking. During these chilly days she would be out with her broom before it was light and go on assiduously sweeping the road until nine. But all the same, she would be penalized. Huseni, her husband, would help her with the work too when he found the chance, but it was in Alarakkhi’s fate that she was going to be fined. For others pay-day was an occasion to celebrate, for Alarakkhi it was a time to weep. On that day it was as though her heart had broken. Who could tell how much would be deducted! Like students awaiting the results of their examinations, over and over again she would speculate on the amount of the deduction.
Whenever she got so tired that she’d sit down a moment to catch her breath, precisely then the Inspector would arrive riding in his ekka. No matter how much she’d say, ‘Please, Excellency, I’ll go back to work again,’ he would jot her name down in his book without listening. A few days later the very same thing would happen again. If she bought a few cents worth of candy from the sweets-vendor and started to eat it, just at that moment the Inspector would drop on her from the devil knew where and once more write her name down in his book. Where could he have been hiding? The minute she began to rest the least bit he was upon her like an evil spirit. If he wrote her name down on only two days, how much would the penalty be then! God knew. More than eight annas? If only it weren’t a whole rupee! With her head bowed she’d go to collect her pay and find even more deducted than she’d estimated. Taking her money with trembling hands she’d go home, her eyes full of tears. There was no one to turn to, no one who’d listen.
Today was pay-day again. The past month her unweaned daughter had suffered from coughing and fever. The weather had been exceptionally cold. Partly because of the cold, partly because of the little girl’s crying she was kept awake the whole night. Several times she’d come to work late. Khan Sahib had noted down her name, and this time she would be fined half her pay. It was impossible to say how much might be deducted. Early in the morning she picked up the baby, took her broom and went to the street. But the naughty creature wouldn’t let herself be put down. Time after time Alarakkhi would threaten her with the arrival of the Inspector. ‘He’s on his way and he’ll beat me and as for you, he’ll cut off your nose and ears! ‘The child was willing to sacrifice her nose and ears but not to be put down. At last, when Alarakkhi had failed to get rid of her with threats and coaxing alike, she set her down and left her crying and wailing while she started to sweep. But the little wretch wouldn’t sit in one place to cry her heart out; she crawled after her mother time and time again, caught her sari, clung to her legs, then wallowed around on the ground and a moment later sat up to start crying again.
‘Shut up!’ Alarakkhi said, brandishing the broom. ‘If you don’t, I’ll hit you with the broom and that’ll be the end of you. That bastard of an Inspector’s going to show up at any moment.’
She had hardly got the words out of her mouth when inspector Khairat Ali Khan dismounted from his bicycle directly in front of her. She turned pale, her heart began to thump. ‘Oh God, may my head fall off if he heard me! Right in front of me and I didn’t see him. Who could tell he’d come on his bicycle today? He’s always come in his ekka. ‘The blood froze in her veins, she stood holding the broom as though paralyzed.
Angrily the Inspector said, ‘Why do you drag the kid after you to work! Why didn’t you leave it at home!’
‘She’s sick, Excellency’ Alarakkhi said timidly. ‘Who’s at home to leave her with!’
‘What’s the matter with her?’
‘She has a fever, Huzoor.’
‘And you make her cry by leaving her? Don’t you care if she lives?
‘How can I do my work if I carry her?’
‘Why don’t you ask for leave!’
‘If my pay is cut, Huzoor, what will we have to live on?’
‘Pick her up and take her home. When Huseni comes back send him here to finish the sweeping.
She picked up the baby and was about to go when he asked, ‘Why were you abusing me!’
Alarakkhi felt all her breath knocked out of her. If you’d cut her there wouldn’t have been any blood. Trembling she said, ‘No, Huzoor, may my head fall off if I was abusing you.
And she burst into tears.
In the evening Huseni and Alarakkhi went to collect her pay. She was very downcast.
‘Why so sad?’ Huseni tried to console her. ‘The pay’s going to be cut, so let them cut it. I swear on your life from now on I won’t touch another drop of booze or toddy.’
‘I’m afraid I’m fired. Damn my tongue! How could I….’
‘If you’re fired, then you’re fired, but let Allah be merciful to him. Why go on crying about it?’
‘You’ve made me come for nothing. Everyone of those women will laugh at me.
‘If he’s fired you, won’t we ask on what grounds! And who heard you abuse him’ Can there be so much injustice that he can fire anyone he pleases! If I’m not heard I’ll complain to the panchayat, I’ll beat my head on the headman’s gate–‘
‘If our people stuck together like that would Khan Sahib ever dare fine us so much”
‘No matter how serious the sickness there’s a medicine for it, silly.’
But Alarakkhi was not set at rest. Dejection covered her face like a cloud. When the Inspector heard her abuse him why didn’t he even scold her? Why didn’t he ~re her on the spot! She wasn’t able to work it out, he actually seemed kind. She couldn’t manage to understand this mystery. She was afraid. He had decided to fire her- that must have been why he was so nice. She’d heard that a man about to be hanged is given a fine last meal, they have to give him anything he wants-so surely the Inspector was going to dismiss her. They reached the municipal office building. The pay began to be distributed. The sweeper women were first. Whoever’s name was called would go running and taking her money call down undeserved blessings on the Inspector and go away. Alarakkhi’s name was always called after Champa’s. Today she was passed over. After Champa, Jahuran’s name was called, and she always followed Alarakkhi.
In despair she looked at Huseni. The women were watching her and beginning to whisper.
One after another the names were called and Alarakkhi went on looking at the trees across the way.
Suddenly startled, she heard her name. Slowly she stood up and walked ahead with the slow tread of a new bride. The paymaster put the full amount of six rupees in her hand.
She was stupefied. Surely the paymaster was mistaken! In these three years she had never once got her full pay. And now to get even half would have been a windfall. She stood there for a second in case the paymaster should ask for the money back. When he asked her, ‘Why are you standing here now, why don’t you move along!’ she said softly,
‘But it’s the full amount.’
Puzzled the paymaster looked at her and said, ‘What else do you want–do you want to get less!’
‘There’s no penalty deducted?’
‘No, today there aren’t any deductions.
She came away but in her heart she was not content. She was full of remorse for having abused the Inspector.