flour mill

Post 84, Abdullahpur Basti, Ludhiana

7:45 p.m.: Bhullan stands with his vegetable cart adjacent to Kamal flour mill, chatting with Hiralal who takes a 5-minute break from work in the mill. Birjinder buys a few bottles of cold drinks from a neighbourhood kiosk and passes them by on his way into the mill. Hiralal mutters: “Those are for his guests”, and then chuckles: “If he ever bought cold drinks for his employees, he would see their productivity surge.” Hiralal walks back into the mill to resume his duties.

Rachit arrives, driving a Black Nissan. Birjinder’s wife and children have just returned from an amusement park in Rakh Bagh, where they spent the better part of the day. Birjinder’s thirteen year old daughter pops her head out the window and brusquely orders Bhullan to get out of the way: he has parked his cart at the entrance to Birjinder’s garage. An annoyed Bhullan begins to wheel his cart away, while Rachit steps out of his car, and looks apologetically towards him. He then proceeds to raise the shutter of the garage and walks back into the car and drives it in.

Once Rachit has parked the car, he comes over to ask me what I have been up to. I show him the saree I bought earlier today for my mother. He likes the look of them and is even more pleased when he hears the price. He asks me for the address of the shop from where I bought the sarees, so he can purchase a couple for his mother when he returns. I show him the visiting card of the shop. He clicks a snap of the card and we walk into the mill.

Post 76, Abdullahpur Basti, Ludhiana

2 p.m.: Bablu Yadav calls me to inform me that he is leaving for his village in Gaya. He settled his accounts with Birjinder yesterday, as instructed by the latter a few weeks ago.

5 p.m.: Kamal flour mill is abuzz with activity. Mansharam, the autorickshaw driver who transports the flour to clients across the city, is showing some samples of flour from another mill to Birjinder. Hiralal loads sacks of wheat flour onto the waiting auto. Mevalal sorts the flour into different sacks, helped by an elderly acquaintance of his who has been called in to replace Bablu. Lallan and Kalki Prasad operate the grinding machine. A few minutes later, Kalki Prasad walks over to me and invites me to the birthday party of their co-worker Ambika Prasad’s daughter. The party is scheduled for tomorrow. Kalki Prasad adds:

“Also remember its Rachit’s birthday soon. We must have him throw a party for us.”

6 p.m.: Rachit leaves for the DMC Hospital to attend to Birjinder’s mother.

Post 75, Abdullahpur Basti, Ludhiana

5:00 p.m.: Rachit and I stand outside Kamal flour mill, chatting. Rachit informs me that his mother has advised him not to purchase an inverter since the electricity supply in Sargana has improved considerably.

5:15 p.m.: Bhullan the vegetable vendor joins us. Bhullan informs me that Lalu Prasad Yadav, former Chief Minister of Bihar has been campaigning in the Uttar Pradesh elections in support of the ruling Samajwadi Party. He commends Yadav’s public speaking skills. Rachit retorts: “What rubbish! The man is ill-mannered and doesn’t know how to speak to a civilised audience.”

Bhullan disagrees vehemently: “That’s not true. How can you say that! When Lalu talks, everyone listens.”

Rachit backs down. “Yes, I suppose you are right. People do listen with rapt attention to what he says.”

Bhullan continues to talk about politics, but from a historical perspective. “Do you know Babasaheb Ambedkar?” he asks, referring to the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution. I nod in affirmation. “He was a great leader. Neither Nehru nor Gandhi could come to terms with his greatness. They did not appreciate his talents simply because he belonged to the Chamar community.”

I try to correct him by pointing to Ambedkar’s origins in the Mahar community, but Bhullan ignores me and continues:

“Ambedkar was highly educated. Far more educated than either Nehru or Gandhi.”

Post 74, Abdullahpur Basti, Ludhiana

6:00 p.m.: Bhullan stands with his vegetable cart outside Kamal flour mill selling his wares to passers-by. Rachit is chatting with him. I ask Bhullan if he plans to go back to his village in Jaunpur to vote in the upcoming legislative assembly elections scheduled for March 8. Slightly annoyed, he shakes his head and mutters: “What is the point? All politicians make idiots out of us. Why should I care?”

7:00 p.m.: Kamal flour mill is abuzz with activity, although not all workers are in. Vishnu has gone back home to his village in Gonda, where the elections are due on March 11. His co-workers inform me the elections are not the primary reason for his return to the village. Hiralal, whose village in Gorakhpur went to the polls ten days ago, is packing flour into a ten kilo sack for delivery. He asks me, “Why would anyone want to return home to vote? Nobody’s paying for our travel, are they? Who wins elections? The mother*****g politicians win, that’s who. Not us.” Kalki Prasad, who hails from the same village in Gonda as Vishny, assents with Hiralal. As he weighs the sacks of bran and flour before packing them up, he tells me, “It really does not make any sense to return home only to vote.”

Post 70, Abdullahpur Basti, Ludhiana

6:15 p.m.: Birjinder stands inside Kamal Flour Mill, his hands folded and watching his employees at work. Bablu and Kalki Prasad pack the flour into delivery sacks, while Ambika Prasad operates the grinding machine. After some time, he returns to sit at the counter.

6:30 p.m.: Rachit walks into the mill and announces to no one in particular that he has to buy things from the Camp area. I offer to accompany him. He has been asked by Birjinder’s wife to purchase some bhajiyas (fritters) for their evening snack. We reach the shop in ten minutes and make our purchases. Rachit offers me some bhajiyas from the packet to taste.

On our way back, Rachit tells me that his brother Suraj left their home to travel to Forbesgunj earlier today. He will leave for Patna tomorrow, from where he will travel to Sasaram, where he has been offered a job as a security guard.

As we reach the mill, Rachit remembers that it is Valentine’s Day today and asks me why I am not with my girlfriend. I tell him I am single and ask him about his romantic interests. I pointedly inquire about the sister of his friend’s fiancé, with whom he talks often. He informs me matter-of-factly that although they used to chat earlier, now they do not.

Changing the conversation, Rachit asks me if I wanted to join him and Bablu this evening for dinner: “Bablu is cooking chicken curry,” he winked. I agreed, reminding myself to note Rachit’s obvious disregard for some Hindus’ concern that no meat ought to be consumed on a Tuesday.

8:00 p.m.: Bablu and I are walking back from the market to his room, having purchased half-a kilo of chicken. Bablu informs me that he will leave the mill on the 17th.

“Why?”, I ask bewildered.

“Birjinder asked me to leave,” Bablu replies glumly. “I mentioned to Mevalal that I would take leave for a few days from the 17th of next month. He must have ratted on me with Birjinder. Anyway, Birjinder called me and told me I need not bother to wait till then. He asked me to clear my accounts by the 17th of this month.”

“But are you not going to complain?,” I persist.

“Whats the point. Employers never listen to labourers, only to sycophants,” comes the reply.

Dinner is ready, and I call Rachit to tell him he can come.

Post 64, Abdullahpur Basti, Ludhiana

6:00 p.m.: It is another busy day at the flour mill, with all hands on board. Rachit walks by the mill on his way to the garage where he has been instructed to wash Birjinder’s Nissan car. While washing the car, he plays one of his favourite songs Kala Tika.  Kala Tika is a Punjabi song centred on a couple in love where the man asks the woman to wear a ‘kala tika’, or black-coloured dot to ward off evil.

“Punjabi songs are very decet,” Rachit opines, “unlike Hindi or Bhojpuri numbers which are vulgar and show off too much skin.” By way of example, Rachit contrasts Kala Tika with the Sunny Leone-starring video Saiya Superstar.

Post 63, Abdullahpur Basti, Ludhiana

6:30 p.m.: The flour mill is operating to full capacity, with Hiralal, Bablu, Mevalal, Lallan and Kalki Prasad going about their routine tasks: pouring the wheat into the grinding machine, collecting the flour in sacks and packing and sealing the sacks for delivery. Bablu tells me that Rachit is away in Manjitnagar: he surmises that Rachit is collecting pending payments on Birjinder’s behalf. His fever seems to have subsided now.

Post 35, Abdullahpur Basti

3 p.m.: Rachit calls to tell me that he wants to purchase a pair of shoes this evening. He asks me to come to Abdullahpur as soon as I can.

4 p.m.: I reach Kamal Flour Mill. Birjinder is entertaining some guests and Rachit serves them water and chai. I wait for him at the mill, chatting with Mewalal and Dasharath. In a few minutes, Rachit pulls out his scooter from the garage and we speed away to a shop by the overbridge. Rachit pulls up here, and we go into the shop. He greets the shopkeeper, a 50-something Sikh gentleman, and requests him to have a word with Birjinder’s wife over the phone. Rachit dials the number on his mobile and hands his device over to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper and Birjinder’s wife chat for a few minutes. Once they finish, the shopkeeper hangs up and asks Rachit to have a look around the shop. He instructs his shop assistant, a boy who does not look older than 15, to help Rachit make his selection.

Rachit spends several minutes trying on different shoes. He does not like light colours, because all the manual work he undertakes. He is also particular about the size, and finds size 9 comfortable. Rachit finally settles for one that he likes. 

He then asks to see slip-ons, which he wants to purchase for Birjinder’s son. We click snaps of several slip-ons on my mobile and forward those to Birjinder’s son over whatsapp. Once he approves, Rachit takes over both items to the counter and asks the shopkeeper the cost.

“You want to pay for these?” the shopkeeper asks.

Flushed with embarrassment, Rachit replies, “Of course.”

“Rs. 490,” the shopkeeper says.

Rachit adds, “I hope this is the correct price”, handing over five Rs 100-notes.

“Yes, yes”, the shopkeeper laughs as he returns the balance.

Rachit and I drive back to the mill.

6:00 p.m.: We reach the mill. As Rachit parks his scooter, I chat with Bhullan who is standing with his cart outside the mill. “Modi has destroyed my business,” he rues. “Demonetisation has meant people have no cash to spend. Business is ruined.” He wheels his cart away.

6:15 p.m.: I go inside the mill, where Vishnu has joined Mewalal and Dasharath. Visnhu informs me that Bablu, their co-worker at the mill, has returned to attend a marriage in his village, which is near Gaya. He will stay there for a few weeks and return with his wife. Vishnu used to live with Bablu when he had first come to Ludhiana. Back then, Bablu’s wife and daughter also lived with him in Ludhiana.

“One day, Bablu’s daughter borrowed my mobile to call her brother. We started chatting after that,” Vishnu tells me as he weighs the flour before Mewalal and Dasharath begin to pack it for delivery.

6:30 p.m.: Rachit asks me to accompany him on his scooter to the grocery store in Dhuri Lines, about a kilometre away. There, he purchases refined vegetable oil, sugar and some other items. On our ride back, we stop by at a shop that stores soaps of all kinds- soap for baths, soap for laundry, etc. Although Rachit does not buy anything, he says he will purchase some soaps from here before he goes home next year in July.

7:00 p.m.: Rachit wants to meet Mansharam, who sells milk by day and loads sacks of flour for Abdullahpur’s several mill-owners by night. Mansharam’s children, two sons and one daughter, are studying on a wooden cot strung together with jute ropes. In the wake of the demonetisation of high-value currency notes, Mansharam has asked Rachit to exchange the now-illegal currency notes for the newly-minted ones. However, as Rachit has simply not had the time to do this, so he wants to return the notes to Mansharam so he can make alternative arrangements before the deadline for exchanging old notes for new ones expires on December 31.  

7:15 p.m.: I return to the mill, where Vishnu and Dasharath are still working.

Visnhu: I will introduce you to country-made liquor. You will then understand what ‘getting drunk’ means.

Dasharath: You drink country-made liquor? You’ll die earlier than those who drink foreign liquor!

(Turning to me)

Have you heard this song: Dawai Jaise Kaam Karait?

I shake my head. Dasharath asks me to download the song from youtube and play it for Vishnu. I do so. Vishnu listens intently, with the din of the mill as a backdrop, obviously enjoying the raunchy lyrics. He tells me that Dasharath – despite being younger than him and having just arrived from Muzaffarpur- is far more “experienced”.

“Dasharath has introduced Mewalal and me to loads of ‘triple x’ movies,” Vishnu says, while Dasharath chuckles, his eyes gleaming with pride at being thus appreciated by his older co-worker.  

8:30 p.m.: Vishnu decides to call it a day. Dasharath follows suit.