Text: Monika Joshi | Photographs: Paresh Gandhi
Usha Chaumar stands in the lobby of the Millennium UN Plaza Hotel that overlooks the green-tinted glass tower that is home to the United Nations in New York.
Chaumar and 19 of her co-workers, who arrived in New York the previous day from Alwar, Rajasthan, move in unison in their uniform saris, creating a sea of blue. They have just got their United Nations passes, pinned to their shoulders. Over the next two days, they are scheduled to make two appearances at the UN, including walking the ramp with fashion models at a reception.
Prompted by our photographer, they crowd the hotel's revolving door to pose for pictures outside with the UN as the backdrop. Many urge him to click a solo image as well. Then, the women come back in and wait for the elevator to go upstairs.
"Normally, you won't see me like this," Chaumar says. "I keep my face half covered with a dupatta or an end of my sari. And I don't wear my sari this way -- with the pallu pinned to the left shoulder. I wear it the traditional way, with one end falling to the right -- like hers"; she points to a co-worker.
Till about four years ago, Chaumar cleaned toilets, scrapping human waste into metal baskets, a practice that continues in India today despite several states banning manual scavenging. While at work, she met Bindeshwar Pathak, who brought her to Nai Disha, a vocational training centre where former scavengers are trained to stitch clothes, embroider, prepare pickles and papad, and work as beauticians.
Image: Members of Sulabh International at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Also see: The naked face of casteism