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Mahatma Swachh Bharat: ‘If surroundings are not clean, we can’t be at ease… Gandhiji taught us this’

| Mumbai |

Published: October 4, 2018 1:19:41 am

Vithoba Teli readies the mats inside the mosque at Khilafat House, Mumbai. (Photo: Amit Chakravarty)

THE SWISH of the hard broom against the tiled floor fills the premises of the All India Khilafat Committee (AIKC) in Byculla, Mumbai. The teacher training institute and the computer training centre in the complex, commonly called Khilafat House, are closed for Gandhi Jayanti, but Vithoba Mahadeo Teli, 48, is here to clean the 94-year-old ‘Ladies’ Mosque’, a prayer hall in the complex — unfailingly, the way he has for the last 14 years.

In the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, the historical significance of the complex is not lost on Teli, among the thousands of workers at the frontlines of Swachh Bharat, the flagship cleanliness scheme launched on Gandhi Jayanti four years ago.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat Part I | ‘I have been called a sweeper, it hurts… this is a temple, I am doing God’s work’ 

“I have to clean the mosque every day, including public holidays. If our surroundings are not clean, we can’t be at ease. This is what Gandhiji taught us,” says Teli.

Growing up in the Bombay Improvement Board chawl near Khilafat House, Teli recalls the time Indira Gandhi visited in April 1981 for the inauguration of the renovated complex. “I was a boy then. I stood on a concrete block under an electric pole so that I could get a glimpse of her. After that, I have seen Rajiv Gandhi, Sharad Pawar and most recently, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal,” he says.

“I have to clean the mosque every day, including public holidays. If our surroundings are not clean, we can’t be at ease. This is what Gandhiji taught us,” says Teli. (Photo: Amit Chakravarty)

In 1919, it was from here that Mahatma Gandhi and Khilafat leaders Maulana Mohamed Ali and Shaukat Ali launched the first countrywide struggle against the British. The movement brought together Hindus and Muslims against the British, coalescing two key events — the British threatening to oust the Ottoman Caliphate in Istanbul from the guardianship of the holy Mecca and Madina, and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat Part II | ‘I am just a safai karamchari here but this police station depends on me’

On regular days, by the time Teli arrives at Khilafat House by 7 am, he has already been up for around 4 hours — having delivered 250 litres of milk and slipped newspapers under 150 doors in two highrises of Byculla.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat: ‘What makes me happy is the fact that my struggles were not meaningless’

At 3.30 am, Teli and his son Rutik, 17, step out of their 180-sq-ft chawl tenement with a bunch of nylon bags on their bicycles. While Rutik pedals well ahead of his father, Teli walks alongside his bicycle. “I have always been scared of riding. What if I fall and break an arm or a leg?” he laughs. They pick up milk packets from a dairy near their chawl and over the next hour, complete the deliveries.

All this work is within a few hundred metres from his home, which allows him breaks between each job. After resting for about an hour, Teli has a bath and steps out for his first task of the day at Khilafat House — cleaning the mosque, built in 1924 by the Ali brothers.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat part-III: ‘Why do people think that someone else will be there to clean up after them?’

Getting the prayer hall ready, every day

Dressed in a striped half-sleeve shirt and grey trousers, Teli grabs a bunch of keys and his red-handle grass broom from the staff room of the teacher training institute and heads towards the prayer hall, sliding open the grille gate and walking past a large Ashoka tree.

Inside the small prayer hall, Teli rolls up three green-and-white mats spread across the length of the floor and rests them against at least 15 others in a corner. He then begins sweeping from the far end of the room. That done, it’s time for a quick “cutting chai” break before Teli steps out to get a mop and fill an old paint container with water from near the staff room. He dunks the mop in the water, wrings it hard and drops it on the floor. Clutching it between his toes, Teli scrubs the floor in short, practised strokes.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat part-IV: ‘What makes me happy is the fact that my struggles were not meaningless’

The floor dries up in a few minutes and Teli now unrolls the mats and spreads them out, straightening their ends. He pours out the dirty water and refills the bucket from the tap near the arched gate of Khilafat House.

He then proceeds to clean the area outside the prayer hall. He starts by wiping clean the five stools on which worshippers sit to wash their feet, in front of a string of four taps, before entering the prayer hall. Next, he sprays the entire floor with water and scrubs it clean with his hard broom. He then washes the mop and leaves it to dry on a stick behind the three toilets near the entrance.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat part-V: ‘I have work to do… I keep the temple clean, I keep my house clean’

Besides the mosque, Teli’s usual cleaning routine includes three classrooms, a library, a computer lab, the AIKC office and four toilets. Teli’s colleague Jesing Gohil, 53, cleans the open area of the campus and the three bathrooms near the gate.

At the beginning of the year, Teli is tasked with stocking up cleaning supplies — 12 brooms, 12 hard brooms and three big mops. The acid, detergent and bleach for cleaning the bathrooms need to be replenished every month and a half, he says.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat part-VI: ‘Born in year Gandhi died… cleaning all my life’

After cleaning the prayer hall, Teli goes home for breakfast and returns at 9 am, when classes begin. Over the next few hours, until lunch time, most of his time is spent running errands for the teaching staff.

‘I want to buy a washing machine’

A little past 1 pm, at his home that’s metres from the Khilafat complex, as Teli’s wife Vaibhavi, 43, lays out a lunch of ridge-gourd curry and rice, he talks about how he studied only up to Class IX and started working at 17, cleaning typewriters for Rs 5 each. He then did other jobs, working at an electronics company in Lower Parel until 2003 and briefly selling dosas on a cart outside Khilafat House, before he was offered a permanent cleaning job inside the complex for Rs 11,000 a month.

The Rs 10,000 a month that he earns from delivering newspapers and milk, besides the money Vaibhavi earns from providing tiffin services to two homes in the chawl, is a useful addition to the family income.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat part-VII: Meet Gitaben, she keeps Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace Swachh for Bharat, daily

As Vaibhavi calls Teli “haushi (Marathi for someone who likes to live it up)”, he laughs and says, “Last Ganeshotsav, I bought this 50-inch TV and last Diwali, I bought the AC… I want to buy a washing machine but where do we keep it?”

Vaibhavi says she wants her son Rutik, a Class XII commerce student, to get a job in a bank some day. “Archita (their 16-year-old daughter) is in Class X… she has time to decide. But good education costs money,” she says, turning to Teli. “We have the OBC certificate. Hopefully, the children will get some fee concession,” he responds.

After lunch, Teli usually goes back to Khilafat House. Around 3 pm, as the crowd of mostly women students start to leave the teacher training institute, Teli is ready with his red broom.

He starts with one classroom, switching off its six fans and freeing up space by lining up the chairs on one side of the room. In swift, easy strokes, he sweeps up dust, waste paper and a few packets of chips. “They are just children,” he says indulgently.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat part-VIII: Outside Yerawada jail: ‘I was a maid, a slave… this is far more respectable’

Teli’s colleague Gohil uses his bigger broom to scoop up the waste in a corner of the room and stuffs it into black garbage bags. Teli and Gohil then take the bags to a nearby dump.

As he places his red broom back in the staff room, Teli says he believes people’s attitude to cleanliness has changed. “Earlier, all the walls on the streets used to be stained with paan and tobacco. Now it’s a lot better.”


The khilafat movement brought together Hindus and Muslims against the immediate backdrop of two key events — the British threatening to oust the Ottoman Caliphate in Istanbul from the guardianship of the holy Mecca and Madina, and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. Mahatma Gandhi saw the anger against the British as common cause between Hindus and Muslims and joined forces with leaders of the Khilafat Movement, including Ali brothers Maulana Mohamed Ali and Shaukat Ali, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Gandhi was elected president of the first All India Khilafat Conference in 1919 and led the first Eid-e-Milad procession from Khilafat House to Mastan Talao in then Bombay.

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