The Ugly Indian who seemed like the leader asked if anybody had brought a camera. He wanted the "before" and the "after." That settled, he exchanged thumbs-ups with us before going off to guide another group to take on another "problem." We'd been instructed on the dos and don'ts. We set to work on the outside corner of the Chinmaya Mission Hospital, which the hospital shares with a large public transformer.

Minutes later, scraping off the muck on the ground with an acrylic board, I recoiled from the stench of dried urine that resented the disturbance and struck back with force. Quite soon, as with the other Ugly Indians, I got used to the inconvenience and went on working, mindful of the stink but newly stoic. I'd have liked to capture the smell — "before" and "after." There's no recorder for that but the written word — and I am not skilled enough for that.

The Ugly Indians will not have you sharing names of other Ugly Indians, or their methods, or phone numbers. You reach all the members of the core group at a single email-ID, theuglyindian@gmail.com. After they've verified that you are compliant with a near-sacred demand for anonymity, and once they're sure you fit the "Mooh Bundh; Kaam Chaalu" credo, you're in.

When you meet, they shake hands and exchange first-names, but that's all. No phone numbers are offered or asked for, and no one says what they're the big-shot of, or which school or vocation they dropped-out from.

It was hot, and we were all sweaty. And cheerful in our silence that was occasionally interrupted by murmurs. The man on my left was tall and hefty, the young man on the right was lean and tall and bright in orange tees. The senior citizen behind me stayed still and silent until time came for painting, and the four teenage kids at the far end worked rapidly, aiming to paint the wall all the way to the far end. Young and old, man and woman, boy and girl, everyone worked solemnly, speaking the minimum that the work on hand demanded.

In the end, the stench, the hideous wet and dry garbage, and that sense of shame that's our lot in India — all evaporated. Into their place came pride from labour done by hand, proof that there exist Indians who care, and will act. Like a gust came renewed love for community — and we were refreshed by it.

The good feelings are not all unalloyed, of course. Where will the guys who've been pissing on the wall take their leak tomorrow? Won't people dump garbage again here? The veteran Ugly Indians say "Yes" even before you ask, that your labour will be littered on sooner than in 24 hours. But they also affirm that a few of them will work on the "problem" again, and again.


The mess we'd gathered up was hauled away by hired hands (not the volunteers). They had nice faces, I noticed. They took the heaps onto a tall truck and compacted the stuff there, with nary a tool to ease the fatiguing task. The thought came, "What of these chaps?"

But of course. You demand more solutions when a good thing gets going, and you expect more from those who've demonstrated how they can help. But for the moment, I'd say the decent thing is to emulate The Ugly Indians or join them, and begin the change, each in their street, on their corner. That would give a limb to other civic solutions that are thrown up during armchair conversations.

Yes, indeed. “Kaam Chaalu; Mooh Bundh.”


This post was shared on the Facebook page of The Ugly Indian. The link on their post to this page has broken over time.