grinding machine

Post 40, Abdullahpur Basti

5:30 p.m.: Rachit stands at the gate of Kamal Flour Mill. He has just finished loading several sacks of wheat into a pickup van which will deliver the sacks to clients across the city. After seeing off the van, he goes inside Birjinder’s house. Birjinder sits at the counter as usual, looking grumpier than usual. He barely acknowledges my salutations as I walk past him to go inside the mill.

Both the grinding machines are on today, with Vishnu operating one and Dasharath the other. Vishnu looks forlorn, and takes frequent brakes during his work, with a faraway look in his eyes. Dasharath quips:

“He has been talking to his fiancée the entire morning. They just can’t have enough of each other.”

Vishnu then calls someone on the mobile (Dasharath surmises it's his fiancée) and starts talking in a very low tone. Ambika, who has been preparing sacks of wheat for delivering them, looks at Vishnu and rolls his eyes. Pointing to the counter, he tells Dasharath that had Birjinder not been sitting at the counter, he would have left for the day.

6:00 p.m.: Mevalal comes into the mill. He announces to whoever cares to listen that the bones of his spine are thinning (a symptom of osteoporosis), which is why his waist has been aching. Mevalal has just been to the doctor, who diagnosed his condition and has prescribed his some medication.

6:15 p.m.: Dasharath turns to Kalki Prasad Yadav, who has started working at the mill from earlier today. Nearly fifty years old, Kalki Prasad Yadav is from the same village in Gonda as Vishnu. He is much taller than the others, due to which they have nicknamed him ‘Lumboo’, The Tall One. Dasharath hands him two hundred-rupee notes, and asks him to purchase chicken for their dinner that evening.

7:30 p.m.: Vishnu sighs that he is afflicted by the “disease of thinking too much”. “What are you thinking about?,” Dasharath chuckles, with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

“Life,” replies Vishnu. He is almost immediately distracted by three young women he sees walking down the street. “You see the one in the middle,” he points out. I nod. “I think I fancy her. But her father is in the police.”

“Let's have some chai,” Vishnu says in the next breath, and whips out a twenty-rupee note from his pocket and asks Dasharath to make arrangements. Dasharath complies.

7:45 p.m.: Rachit comes into the mill. He casually tells Vishnu of the fun we had the previous evening at the concert. Vishnu shrugs: “How does it matter? There’s a concert on tonight as well!” Rachit springs to attention.

“Where? When?” he asks.

Vishnu snaps: “Sherpura (referring Ludhiana’s red light area). There’s a concert there every night.”

Rachit scoffs as if to say “There he goes again,” and then asks about Vishnu’s dinner plans. “Let's have chicken curry,” Rachit suggests and hands him a 50-rupee note. Vishnu looks at it disdainfully and asks him for more.

“Aren’t we drinking?” he asks.

“Well, I can’t afford to give any more. I don’t earn Rs. 10,000 per month like you do.”, Rachit retorts.

“Yeah yeah. But you know that’s too little,” Vishnu launches into another conversation. “I’ve asked him to raise my salary to Rs 12,000. If he doesn’t, I’m going to leave this place.”  

“Mevalal will also join us, won’t he? Ask him to contribute.” Rachit brings their conversation back on topic.

Vishnu assents: “Yeah, okay, ask him to arrange for drinks.” Rachit leaves to inform Mevalal.

8:00 p.m. A sudden fog descends. Dasharath returns with chai. “I’m not going to continue here from next month,” he tells Vishnu. “You know he pays me only Rs 8,000.”

“What will you do then?” Vishnu and I ask him.

“We’ll see.”

Post 33, Abdullahpur Basti

6 p.m.: Only one grinding machine is operational at Kamal flour mill. Mevalal, Ambika and Bablu are working around it, taking turns to operate the machine, weigh the flour and pack the material into delivery sacks. 45-year old Mansharam, milk vendor by day and head loader by night, arrives on his three-wheeled auto-rickshaw along with Vishnu. Hiralal has left working at the flour mill, so Birjinder has recruited Mansharam to help with loading and delivering on a temporary basis: Mansharam’s home is in a village near Gonda. While Mansharam settles accounts with Birjinder’s brother at the counter, Vishnu starts loading the packaged sacks onto the autorickshaw for further deliveries. In addition to the usual deliveries of flour, today I notice there are sacks of bran. While the sacks of flour weigh five kilograms each, the bran is packaged into sacks weighing fifty kilos.

Credit: Atul Anand

Credit: Atul Anand

6:30 p.m.: Birjinder has asked Bhullan, the vegetable vendor from Jaunpur, to help Mansharam with the deliveries today. So, he brings his cart by Birjinder’s garage. Mevalal and he lift the shutter of the garage, and begin to load the ten-odd jute sacks filled with bran onto his cart. In the meantime, Vishnu has completed loading the sacks onto the autorickshaw: 40 sacks of flour and 10 sacks of bran in total. As before, Mansharam drives the autorickshaw to deliver its contents to different customers across the city. Bhullan too leaves with his cart soon. I speak to Rachit on the phone, and he tells me he has come to pick up Birjinder’s son from his school: he estimates he will be back in an hour.

7:30 p.m.: Bablu wraps up his work for the day and begins walking to the sabzi mundi (vegetable market) about a kilometre away in Dhuri Lines, near the railway crossing. I join him. Today, he plans to purchase a pumpkin. A very discerning customer, he is not easily satisfied with the pumpkins on sale.  He presses down each specimen he sees with his thumbnails to examine its ripeness. After much investigation, he buys one and we start walking back.

“Are vegetables cheap here?” I ask, curious as to why he walked one kilometre to purchase one pumpkin.

“No. but they are better quality,” he replies.

We stop by a chai kiosk, and order some chai. The twenty-five-year old man who brews and serves us the chai tells us he is from Kishangunj district in West Bengal. When I say that Kishangunj is in Bihar, not West Bengal, he insists that he is from the “West Bengal part”. I do not probe any further.

“There are many Bengalis from Kishangunj,” he tells me. “That hotel over there,” he points to a restaurant with the name Bangali Hotel, “that is owned by a person from my village.”

8:10 p.m.: After chai, Bablu returns to his room, and I come back to the flour mill. I meet Rachit outside the mill: he has just returned from the school. He is excited about being invited to the sangeet ceremony of one of Birjinder’s nephews, a ceremony usually organised on the eve of a marriage. However, he has not been invited to the actual marriage since, as he infers, the hosts would have to pay the caterers per plate.

8:30 p.m.: Mevalal is packing the flour into sacks and organising them for deliveries the following day. Vishnu and I take leave of Mevalal and Rachit, and walk back to Vishnu’s room, where I meet 17 year-old Shiv Kumar. Shiv Kumar is from the same village in Gonda as Vishnu, and has come to Ludhiana looking for work. During this period Vishnu has offered to let him stay with him. Shiv Kumar is not too keen to work at the mill because of its extremely strenuous nature. Vishnu lights a beedi (tobacco flaxes wrapped in tendu leaves) and steps out to purchase vegetables.

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