The Trashman Cometh

by Pam

We Americans are prissy about our trash. Once we put it in the trash can, we don’t ever want to think about it again. Where it goes, who takes it there, what is done with it when it arrives. In our culture, trash just goes away. Here, in our quaint, quiet, middle class neighborhood, the trash men come every day, usually around the time I settle into working.


I can hear the whistle blowing from a block away; I grab my trashcan and run down three flights of stairs. Every day I am embarrassed: my neighbors bring out their tiny waste baskets with a few cellophane wrappers and some dust in the bottom, while I stand at my gate with a five gallon bucket of refuse. Juice boxes, plastic soda bottles, food that has gone bad, half a pineapple we forgot to eat. This shameful illustration of our wastefulness pains me.

In the street below a small dump truck arrives. There is one man driving, one man taking the trashcans from the neighbors and dumping them into the back of the truck, and a third man sitting in the bed of the truck, ankle deep in garbage, sifting barehanded though each and every piece of rotting stinking trash that has been hurled into the truck. We are horrified by this, all of this. We are not sure what is worse – having our trash so thoroughly picked through, or the fact that it is done with bare hands and bare feet.

He tears open tiny bags and scrapes out boxes. Everything is recycled by someone, somewhere along the line. Anything of value is picked out, cleaned off, fixed, reused: one afternoon I watched three small girls prying the metal rings off of a four foot mountain of liquor bottles, tossing the glass in one pile, and the metal in another. Plastic bottles never go to waste; they are used for petrol and refilled with water for bathing, or drinking. What isn’t used is bundled together with the other plastics and sold to the recycler. Any remaining food scraps are tossed in a field to feed the cows and pigs.

Wasting food in India is a cardinal sin. Each day I try to do better, to shop better, to use what I already have, and feed what is left to Kali. Still, sometimes I sneak out at night and dump our extra leftovers on the street corner for the emaciated street dogs to eat, and to save myself the disgrace of having it show up in our trashcan.

This garbage arrangement isn’t a city service, it is a private enterprise. I’m not sure how it works with other people, but when we first moved here the young man took my trash, and asked for money. I thought he was asking for water, and ran upstairs and got him a glass. The next day I gave him a hundred rupees, around two dollars. I’m pretty sure I overpaid, because since then he’s been my best friend. He blows his whistle in front of our house, and waits for as long as it takes for me to get downstairs with my garbage. Kali races downstairs when she hears his whistle, and wags her whole body until he scratches her head and gives her some garbage-love.

I cringe when I watch these young men dig through the filth. But they are the trash men, and this is what they do, it is their birthright. It’s what their fathers did, and what their sons will do. And along the way, if any one of them should aspire to do something different, it’ll be a long slippery climb out of the garbage pit; and this is the New India. The New India with a growing middle class. The New India that has abolished the caste system and child labor. The India with education and opportunity for all.


It’s easy to send a message of booming progress overseas when all evidence to the contrary is safely obscured by a distance of several thousand miles. But spending any real time on Indian soil will likely challenge the fashionable narrative that this place is on the verge of becoming the next economic powerhouse. When an eight-year-old serves you tea, you’ll question how successfully child labor has been abolished. When it happens the next day, and the next, and when you see a ten-year-old at a sewing machine in the market, or changing a tire at the ‘puncher shop,’ you might stop believing the hype altogether. When seven kids behind a cash register have the same look of total befuddlement, and you start to figure out that a large percentage of the population is barely literate, and then you see the disdain with which the upper classes treat the lower classes, you may even come away from the experience questioning whether India should even be allowed to even sit with the grownups yet.

This isn’t to say that America doesn’t have its own problems; it surely does. And we can start by learning from India’s example, and being more a lot careful about what we throw away.

5 Responses to “The Trashman Cometh”

  1. Mahesh says:

    Nice post! I read your blog now and then as it gives me an interesting glimpse into a foreigner’s perspective of my city (and country). I’m an expat myself, doing graduate school in the US. Here is a delightful talk by a Nigerian author, for everyone in this world who is trying to understand cultures different from their own.

    I do not totally agree with what you say about how the children and grand children of the garbage guy will continue in that profession. To an extent, there is a possibility of that happening, but in general, the prevailing social construct does not impose caste system on today’s urban Indians. And by urban Indians, I am referring to the poor as well as the rich- to the garbage men and the investment banker.

    But yeah, it is very disturbing that trash collection and other such tasks are done in extremely unhygienic conditions.

    Social change is a very slow process, and as a country, there is enough progress on that front in the last many years to make most Indians highly optimistic about the future.

    The narrative about India and China is not as much about their current state, but about the growth, development and the potential for the same.

  2. Phil says:

    Mahesh, thanks for posting! How long are you in the US? I will watch the TED presentation as soon as possible.

    India is endlessly fascinating for us precisely because social change is occuring all around us, and on such a long arc, with so many points on that arc juxtaposed against one another… we know it is slow, we know that so much has been accomplished already that this country is justifiably very proud of, and we know that our experience of India is but one tiny diagonal slice of time, and India is hard to know even with a lifetime of immersion.

    So for Pam, the choice is: “Do I let that fact paralyze me, or do I share my experience as candidly as I can through my writing?” Obviously she chooses the latter, and the great thing about that is that we learn even more when people like you chime in and contribute to the experience :)

    Stop in anytime, and I hope your time in the US is as rewarding as our time here has been :)


  3. Mahesh says:

    I’ve been in the US since 2007. My time in the US has been great! Living in a liberal university town in central Pennsylvania, amidst farm animals and forests, seems to be far easier than it is for an American in Bangalore :D. It is very interesting, growing up in India, I rarely thought much about the unhygienic conditions in which “servants” seemed to work. It was almost natural that every household in my middle class neighborhood had a billion people going around our house doing a billion things- cleaning our vessels, doing our laundry, cleaning our toilets, re-potting our plants, etc. It is only after I came to northeastern/liberal US (in spite of my prior exposure to American culture via Hollywood and reruns of “Happy Days” and Friends) that I started to realize that the concept of servitude was indeed disturbing. Most Indians take it for granted that they will always have someone else doing their work for them. While my last comment was about the general assessments about India and Bangalore, I totally understand the fact that someone from a Western society will be aghast at the prospect of a man in casuals using his hand to forage through the garbage looking for something useful. Hopefully in a few years, these men will get gloves, boots and cleaner trucks. Actually in my neighborhood back in India, I always remember the garbage guy wearing thick canvas gloves and boots.

    Regarding child labor, it is not just in India that it happens, but in most of the developing world- India. It is unfortunate, but we are all victims of circumstances. While it is no excuse to not enforce the ban on child labor. We repeatedly see in the history of civilization that money is a prerequisite even for basic human rights. It is only when the industrial revolution reached a mature phase and the economy of the western world improved on the whole that child labor disappeared. It is difficult to envision India as a social utopia when the country still has an enormous gap between the rich and the poor and a per-capita income of $1070 (per person per year). But I’m optimistic- we will get there in the not-so-distant future. :)

    I don’t think it is anything to do with the society or the government’s will to fight it or anything. It is all about the economics. when many American companies that have factories (aka sweatshops) in India have been documented as employing child labor. It is just that the economic conditions create a supply of child labor, and this is used by companies that obviously profit from this practice.


  4. kumar says:

    Yeah even at my place the garbage collection used to be like that.. What I used to do was have 2 garbage cans at home. On for all the plastics and metals and the other for waste food and biodegradable stuff.

  5. Lavanya says:

    I think one main difference is that America has been a grownup for a long long time now while (independent) India is just 60-odd years old. The garbage man and the 8 year old chai wallah will have his day soon. Baby steps, it may well seem, but the country is still young yet.