Post 37, Abdullahpur Basti

6:00 p.m.: I am at Kamal Flour Mill, sitting on a drum while Vishnu and Dasharath operate one of the grinding machines. It's just the two of them today: I see neither Mevalal nor Ambika in the mill. A bell rings, an indication that one of the workers is needed to be at the counter, situated at the entrance of the mill. Vishnu hurls expletives against Birjinder as he gets up and proceeds towards the counter. His expletives are however

Dasharath smiles and complains about his employer: “He’s always ordering us around. Just rings the bell whenever he feels like, as if we are simply sitting idle. And if he does see us sit idle, he always invents work on the spot. If nothing else, he makes us sweep the floor.”

6:15 p.m.: Rachit comes to the counter. He picks up the school bag perched on it and takes it upstairs. The school bag belongs to Birjinider’s daughter. Since it is heavy, she hasn’t bothered to carry it upstairs, leaving that for Rachit to do.

6:30 p.m.: Rachit comes downstairs again with some shirts which need to be ironed. He and I walk over to the modest home of the ironing person who lives down the road. Rachit leaves the shirts with him so he can iron them at his convenience, promising to be back in a few hours.

7:30 p.m.: I am Mevalal’s room. Preparing the ingredients for his dinner, he tells me his waist has been aching which explains his inability to come to the mill earlier today. He has applied some Nurani Oil, a herbal-based body oil, to bring himself relief.

Vishnu’s brother Raju is here as is Shiv Kumar, their neighbour from their village in Gonda. Raju works at a grocery store nearby while Shiv Kumar has yet been unsuccessful in finding an appropriate job. At the moment, he is watching the Bhojpuri film Gangaputra.

Post 36, Abdullahpur Basti

6:30 p.m.: Vishnu, Mevalal and Dasharath work the grinding machine at Kamal Flour Mill. Ambika  has joined them today after six days of absence: he tells me he has been ill, at which Vishnu scoffs and says, “Arre don’t believe a word of what he says.” They exchange the choicest expletives for a few minutes, after which both get back to work.

Vishnu informs me that Hiralal has moved out of their shared accommodation to live closer to the iron foundry where he works. However, complains Vishnu, Hiralal did not pay him his share of the rent and food before he left. Hiralal’s job of carting goods from the flour mill to its various clients has been taken up by Shamshad Ahmed from a village in Bihar’s Bettiah district, who now joins us at the mill.

7:00 p.m.: Vishnu is packing the flour into delivery sacks for Shamshad Ahmed to cart away on his cycle rickshaw. The sacks are placed on a weighing scale and Vishnu carefully fills the sacks so the measurement shows exactly 10 kilograms. Even as a satisfied Vishnu begins to seal the sack, Shamshad Ahmed intervenes. “Shouldn’t you be adding 20 grams to account for the weight of the sack,” he calls out. “You are a strange man. You are saving your employer’s money and pilfering from innocent customers!!”

Vishnu sheepishly adds 20 grams of flour and seals the bag.

7:15 p.m.: Rachit comes into the mill and loads four 5-kg sacks of flour onto Birjinder’s Active Scooty for delivering to a client who lives in the vicinity. After a five-minute ride, we cross the Railway Line, where the client’s shop is located. After delivering the sacks, Rachit and I ride back.

We pass a locomotive shed on our ride back. Rachit wants to get himself photographed with the diesel engines stationed there. Rachit confidently enters the compound and eggs me on to discard my inhibitions. Once inside, he asks me to click some snaps of his with a few of the engines parked herein. We hang around for about fifteen minutes before making our way out of compound through the regular entrance gate. We note a board that warns trespassers to stay away and greet the guard on duty who ignores us.

Rachit and I continue our ride but do not head for the mill. Instead, Rachit drives the scooty to a fast food joint, eerily named Betal (a Hindi word to refer to phantoms) Fast Food Center. Rachit orders one plates of Manchurian Pakodas (fritters stuffed with cabbage) and we sit down by the television. In no time, Rachit immerses himself in the show being telecast on TV: the show is about a nagin, a female snake who, being a shape-shifter, can transform herself into any form of her choosing at will. Rachit knows this teleseral well, and has obviously seen this episode before, because he anticipates most dialogues. In a few minutes, our food arrives. Rachit speaks little during the meal, concentrating on the antics of the nagin who is trying- unsuccessfully- to raise a locket.

After we finish our meal, Rachit goes over to the counter and pays. He has ordered a packet of vegetarian spring rolls to take away for Birjinder’s family. I notice that the restaurant only serves vegetarian meals. “We started serving chicken-based meals a few years ago. But there were few takers,” the cashier at the counter tells me. “Even though we had separate counters preparing vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals, we feared alienating the vegetarians. And anyway, there was too little demand for non-vegetarian items.”

8:30 p.m.: Rachit and I arrive back at the mill, where Mevalal is still working. Rachit goes into Birjinder’s house, bidding us adieu for the night.

Post 29, Abdullahpur Basti

7 p.m.: Kamal flour mill is busier than usual. Both the grinding machines are operational, perhaps due to an increased demand for cereals during the forthcoming Gur Purnima festival. Rachit is away with Birjinder and his wife who have gone shopping. Birjinder’s younger brother is at the counter. Ambika pours the wheat into the grinding machine, while Mevalal weighs the processed flour and packs them into delivery sacks for different customers. Bablu gets up to leave, but is asked by Birjinder’s younger brother to continue working for a little while longer. Bablu refuses and packs up. Ambika and Mevalal continue their work.

7:15 p.m.: Bablu and I walk towards his room. “I begin work at 7 a.m. and stop at 7 p.m.,” he complains bitterly. “How can the malik (employer) expect me to work longer hours?”

He goes on: “That Mevalal works up till 10:00. But he comes in to work at 9:30 a.m. Birjinder pays him an extra of INR 50-100 for the additional half an hour. But he never pays me if I stay on for a little while longer. A malik should treat all his employees as equals.”

Credit: Atul Anand

Credit: Atul Anand

Post 10, Ludhiana

5:45 p.m.: I am at Guddu’s vegetable kiosk not far from Ratan Flour Mill. I have just spoken to Rachit on the phone. Rachit will be here in ten minutes. As I wait for Rachit, Guddu tells me that his monthly income is just not enough to meet even basic expenditures.

6:15 p.m.: There is a slight drizzle. Rachit arrives at the grocery. He has been very busy. Indeed, he is always busy. At the mill, there’s always something to do. He and his co-workers get one day off in a month, the last Monday of each month. He tells me his brother Suraj is now working at a factory in Delhi which manufactures agarbattis (incense sticks).

We walk down the alley towards the flour mill. Rachit hails a 55-year old man and starts talking to him about a delivery. He tells me the man’s name is Bablu and he works at a neighbouring mill.

Rachit and I reach the flour mill. Birjender is not at the counter today. His younger brother, Surinder, is. Rachit ignores Surinder and walks right in. Once inside, he mutters that he is not on speaking terms with Surinder, but doesn’t tell me why. Vishnu is sitting on an upturned drum filling flour into plastic delivery bags. I also meet 30-year old Hiralal, whose home is in a village near Gorakhpur, UP. Rachit sews the mouths of the bags with a sewing machine. Hiralal them up by the side of the room.

After a while, Rachit leaves to go to his room which is on the third floor of Harjinder’s house. I stay on chatting with Vishnu and Hiralal.

Post 9, Ludhiana

12 noon.: I am at Ratan Flour Mill, owned by Birjender Singh, Rachit’s employer. Birjender’s sister is in town, so Rachit is chauffeuring her and her family to the town’s malls. Birjender tells me that he hired Rachit on the recommendation of his brother-in-law, for whom Rachit had briefly worked. He says Rachit is like family and that he completely trusts Rachit with his family and even business matters. Thanks to Birjender’s efforts, it appears, Rachit obtained a driving license in Ludhiana.

2 p.m.: Rachit is free from his chores for a while. He introduces me to the workers at the flour mill, with whom he appears to enjoy a good rapport. Only two workers are in the mill at the moment. One of them is Jagat who is about 50. The other is 30-year old Vishnu. Both are from UP. Although they work at the mill, they make it a point to go back to their rural homes from time to time.

2:30 p.m.: Rachit tells me his brother Suraj is in Delhi. Although both travelled together to Ludhiana, Suraj preferred to go further afield to Jalandhar where he planned to work as a construction labourer. However, he changed his mind within a few days and travelled instead to Delhi, where he is working as a construction labourer for a retail outlet in Khajuri Khas, a town in North-East Delhi.

Post 8, Ludhiana

5:30 p.m.: Rachit is standing by his employer, Birjender Singh at the latter’s shop. Birjender owns a flour mill and sells flour to individuals and establishments across Ludhiana. While he is attending to his customers, Rachit and I step outside for a while. Rachit introduces me to Guddu, a vegetable vendor, whose stall is just a few steps away from Birjender’s flour mill. Guddu’s parents migrated from Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh before he was born. Rachit says Guddu is one of his several friends in Ludhiana.