It’s 9am and the sun is already high in the sky, stirring up life in the alleyways, releasing the many odours of the earth.
Outside the front gate at number 172, a woman crouches over a bamboo stick, curved blade in hand, shaving off impossibly thin slices then splitting each of these into dozens of skewers.
Two roosters peck through the breakfast scraps in the gutter and a man passes by with a push-cart full of golden mangoes. In the alley opposite the three-story Freeset building, a small child sits beside a running tap. She wears pink shorts, a bar of white soap at her feet as she carefully lathers herself, smiling, absorbed in this ritual.
Step through Freeset’s metal gates now, into the relative cool of the interior. Supriya* (*not her real name), the building’s guardian, has swept clean the foyer and is making a meal in her small, colourful room.
Soon, the women begin to arrive in a flock of colours – emerald, ochre, violet, crimson – their bracelets clinking, tiffin cans hanging from one hand, the other raising their sari hem as they climb the stone stairs.
Ceiling fans whirr, rubber jandals scuff, scuff, scuff along the verandahs and a clear voice belts out a verse of a Bollywood hit. A silver anklet with bells, chimes its way to the top floor, where its wearer works as a screen-printer.
The mothers with children settle in the central courtyard, waiting for the on-site creche to open. One plays hide and seek with her pallu, the loose end of her sari. Another feeds her toddler with torn-off pieces of roti. The chatter is lively and constant, floating up through the central, open space of the building, mingling with the purr of sewing machines and the cooing of a pigeon on the windowsill.
There is a line in front of the water-cooler, where bottles are filled, jokes shared and faces freshened. By 10am everyone has made their way to the ground floor, where they sit shoulder-to-shoulder for a short time of music and sharing.
An older woman closes her eyes and, opening her palms on her lap, turns them towards the sky.
Voices rise in song, bringing both a declaration of freedom and a message of joy.
Written by: Sophie
This story was originally published by Freeset and is republished with permission.