What the Jharu Embodies

If the forced identity of Pakistani Christians has become sanitation workers, then the symbol most commonly associated with them is the jharu.


The Pakistan Army has rectified an error they made in June. In an advertisement offering sanitation jobs in the army, they specified that only Christians could apply for these positions. After receiving criticism on social media, the Pakistan Army re-issued the ad, this time without any religious criteria. Christians comprise less than 2 per cent of Pakistan’s population and yet 80 per cent of the country’s sanitation work is performed by them, according to World Watch Monitor. 

Pakistan has a long history of associating Christians with janitorial work. Some, such as Alice Albinia, the author of Empires of the Indus, writes that Muhammad Ali Jinnah himself delegated this task to the Christians.

Adverts such as the one mentioned above have been popping up in newspapers from Bannu to Karachi for decades. The discriminatory association is so deep that Jo Beal, a researcher from the London School of Economics looking at solid waste management in Faisalabad notices with dismay, that in everyday speech the terms ‘Christian’, ‘Churha’ and ‘sweeper’ are used interchangeably. And if sanitation work has become the forced identity of Pakistani Christans, then the symbol most commonly associated with them has become the jharu. The jharu is never missing from the Christian’s hand whether one can see it or not.

In South Asia, the jharu embodies our most deeply embedded civilisation tropes: thousands of years of caste-consciousness have transformed ideas about pollution and purity into common sense; about what, and who, is dirty or clean. It’s something so ordinary, so inconsequential, that we would rather have/pay others to use it for us: non-Muslims, and most often, Christians.

The jharu, an object that is touched, seen or used in every household in South Asia, encompasses the natural matter that constitutes it and the labour that goes into it. It can be made of a variety of grasses, shrubs, fibers, reeds, date and coconut leaves. With each blade of grass there’s the inner stem, the outer layer, the flowering tendrils, and the blade itself.

There are no witches or wizards on brooms in our story but myths around the jharu are no less spectacular. They include of the role of jharus as intercessors with the divine.

The jharu passes through many hands on its journey from field to floor. The skill required to separate a grassblade from its tendrils requires paying attention to the minute botanical details and anatomy of the blade of grass, and surgical precision. The process involves every limb in the body, from the toes on your feet which grasp one end of the blades of grass, to the teeth which are used as a lever in the whole process. The grass is then tied up and covered with a plastic handle or a piece of string. This makes it easy to perform the hand-swishing movements.

In the book Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas says that objects constitute social systems and would have no recognisability if they didn’t. Douglas says that “dirt is essentially disorder” and “matter out of place”. Dirt that is tolerated in one setting is abhorred in another, while both dirt and hygiene are largely socially constructed. But things are not considered dirty in and of themselves, and she explains that this is decided based on where they stand in a system of categories and a symbolic universe. Forming a bridge between the inside and outside of this symbolic universe are particular categories of people who are deemed ritually polluted and born to work with dirt.

Thus the jharu is not a neutral or passive object. It is certainly not an innocent one. The jharu writes a story of precarity — its own and of all those it encounters. The clarion call of our present times is for citizens to take responsibility for their immediate precarious surroundings — make them sustainable, resilient, developed. The jharu reminds us that our created messes continue to haunt us with their omnipresence even as it sweeps the evidence out of sight.

Sweeping Sensibilities

Don’t hit your kids is advice that rings hollow in South Asia. A fellow journalist recalls that when he was about 10 years old and living in a village not far from Lahore, his grandmother walked in on his mother hitting him with a jharu. He must have done something exceptionally naughty for his mother to leave her breakfast and run after him with a broom. But instead of telling the child off, his grandmother chastised her own daughter.

There are laws and conventions that govern the use of a jharu and the mother had broken a serious rule: you don’t hit people with a jharu. In fact, superstition warns us to walk around a jharu and never let it touch our feet. “Warna bacha kamzor hojaye ga.”

The jharu is used to sweep dust and other unsanitary material and is crawling with germs, diseases and skin ailments. But mothers hit their kids with shoes too and while shoes worn across town are filthy, this weapon is far more acceptable than the jharu.

Devotees of the goddess Sheetala Mata, who banishes skin disease, point to the origins of this rule. Brandishing a jharu in one hand and a pitcher of cold water in the other, the goddess raises awareness among people to keep their surroundings clean. She reminds us that the jharu is also a device that spreads skin disease — pox, scabies, infestations — therefore, it must not touch the skin. Children especially are susceptible to skin infections and therefore must be kept away from it.

We all live with our contradictions. The myths and conventions around jharus are contemporary and of our times and we confront them and participate in them with all the contradictions we live and perform. If you’ve ever seen a jharu in a dream and wondered what it means, look no further for a Quranic interpretation. There are no witches or wizards on brooms in our story but myths around the jharu are no less spectacular. They include of the role of jharus as intercessors with the divine.

In God’s Hands

In the summer of 2007, an elderly lady would quietly enter the premises of our church every Saturday afternoon. With the large jharu placed in a corridor next to the building, she would sweep every corner of the church while praying loudly. The process lasted over an hour. She had been a widow since she was 40 years old, she had no sons and lived with her daughter and son-in-law in a nurses’ colony two blocks away from the church.

The colony was constructed in 1953 when Nishtar Hospital and Medical University in Multan were built. The accommodations were small and derelict but large families had squeezed themselves in there for generations. You could use these quarters as long as one person from the family was a nurse.

Around the corner from the block was the Christian sweepers’ colony, built around the same time for the hospital’s sanitation staff, with the same rules of occupancy as the nurses’ colony. The colony was a permanent eyesore on the landscape of the hospital premises and a source of consternation for the elderly lady who had to live right next to them.

Unlike the nurses’ apartments, the sweepers homes were twice the size but the architects had forgotten to consider sanitation facilities for the sanitation workers. Household waste bubbled merrily from gutters outside their houses flowed all the way to the nurses’ colony. The brick cobbled street connecting the nurses’ colony with the sweepers’ held overflowing gutters and piles of trash.

This is the path she would take on her way to church and would loudly complain about the smell, hoping that some sweepers’ families would hear her and clean up. She was proud of the fact that she had educated her daughters and that no one in her family had ever been a sweeper.

The jharu reminds us that our created messes continue to haunt us with their omnipresence even as it sweeps the evidence out of sight.

The congregation, however, whispered about her living arrangement at her daughters’. People gossiped that she had to earn her keep at her daughters’ house. If she didn’t do the cooking and cleaning, her son-in-law would kick her out.

One Sunday after service, I asked why she had started sweeping the church. For penance, she answered, the act of sweeping God’s house was the highest honour for His child. But then explained: “My daughter’s marriage is on the rocks. Her husband lost his job and they say they cant afford to keep me anymore. Where will I go? I spent my life working to educate my daughters and now I am old, and I have no one else in the world. I promised God I would sweep his house for as long as it takes for my son-in-law to get a job and I know he will answer my prayers,” she explained. 

To pray or sweep with a jharu requires strength and force, a conviction to change and be changed. Unlike most modern appliances, the jharu makes the sweeper confront the material that becomes their life. The jharu becomes the knot tied to the holy cloth at a shrine as a promise in exchange for redemption, a better life, salvation.

With the penchant for putting God’s house in order, we are forced to accept the entanglements of our finitude, death and remnants of past lives archived in the dust and the trash we sweep out of the house of worship.

The trash collected from the church would have candy wrappers, tissue paper, chips and crumbs, wads of paper, hair, buttons and things that fall off one’s clothes, but since it was in Multan, it was mostly dust. Dust is a source of infections and a jharu, like a surgeon’s tools or her prayers, tries to ward it off by removing it from one place and shifting it to another. The jharu, like prayer, gathers the dust, regrets and remnants of our actions, our existence and displaces them.

Sweeping the church highlights the affinity between the dust that is outside us and the dust that is us by forcing one to confront and examine themselves. In the aftermath of the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God declared, “Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return”.

The lady’s prayers were answered in one of the mysterious ways we hear God works in. Not long after our conversation about her sweeping, one Saturday morning, she woke up and made breakfast for her daughter’s family. After her daughter left for work, she did the laundry and folded all the clothes. In the meantime, she swept the living room and bedrooms and dusted the lamps and tables. She was cooking lunch when her son-in-law left the house to pick up his daughters from college. When they returned, they found her lying in her bed. She had passed away peacefully after completing a full day’s work.  

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