White Town, Puducherry’s French Quarter, is perhaps the most sought-after tourist destination in the union territory. With beautiful and palatial houses converted into heritage hotels, restaurants and art galleries, this is an elite locality where some French families continue to live. It retains an old-world charm and is also cleaner than other parts of Puducherry. How can ‘White’ Town be impure?

But behind its façade of cleanliness, beneath the impeccable surface, lies the hard labour of sanitation workers – the kind that Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi celebrates Women’s Day with. Yet the celebration brings no change in their lives. The women continue to sweep through the nights, as silently as possible – readying the streets of White Town for the tourists the next day. Night life has a different meaning for them. They toil on the roads, collect trash and keep the town clean.

They are not direct employees of the Pondicherry Municipality – which has outsourced most such work to private agencies. The women in the photos are contract labourers – part of the nearly 1,000 engaged in this work across Puducherry. They earn, on average, around Rs. 6,200 a month each. While there are three shifts, the women in the photographs are almost always on the night shift.

They first caught my attention on a sleepless night in White Town where I had gone for a film shoot. Each day of the week that I stayed there, I observed their work, stunned by how they kept the colony clean, struck by the irony that pushed them to do it. I followed them through the nights, as unobtrusively as possible, yet driven by emotion to record their lives. Nights in India might have become unsafe for many women, but the garbage cleaners here go about their work from midnight to dawn without a trace of security.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

A woman stands alone in the dark after collecting garbage from the streets

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Through the nights, the women spend hours removing the garbage

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

As the night progresses, so does the sweeping and collecting of garbage

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Sweeping in front of an old house now transformed into an ice cream outlet

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

A sanitation worker pauses on the road she has just cleaned

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

A lone woman and a dog at the end of the road

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Despite not speaking to each other while working, the women seem to function in tandem

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

With just a few passers-by on the road at this late hour, they continue to quietly work to keep White Town clean

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

At dawn, the garbage is loaded on to trucks

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

And before daylight, it's taken away from White Town

M. Palani Kumar

M. Palani Kumar is a cinematographer and photographer who documents the lives of the marginalised. He was the cinematographer for ‘Kakoos’, a documentary on manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu by filmmaker Divya Bharathi. In November 2017, an exhibition titled ‘Naanum Oru Kuzhanthai’ (‘I too am a child’) showcased his photographs of the children of manual scavengers.

Other stories by M. Palani Kumar