holiday

Post 65, Abdullahpur Basti, Ludhiana

8:00 p.m.: Today is the last Monday of the month for everyone at the mill but not for Rachit. Bablu has invited Rachit over for dinner: he asks me to join them. Bablu introduces Rachit to his nephew Rajesh who has just arrived from his village in Gaya. Rajesh tells Rachit that he has come to Ludhiana only because his uncle Bablu persuaded him.

Rachit talks about the ways in which travelling to Punjab for work changes people. He tells us about his neighbours in Sargana, members of the Musahar community who come to work in Ludhiana.

“They all buy bicycles as soon as they return from Punjab. The very way in which they speak changes.”

Post 54, DMC Hospital, Ludhiana

4:00 p.m.: Rachit attends to Birjinder’s aunt who is still admitted in intensive care. He is wearing his usual red and black coloured jacket. His brother Suraj has sent him a video of a devotional gathering in their village, which Rachit shows me with much enthusiasm. He then borrows my phone to watch some Punjabi music videos: one of these depicts a young Punjabi man trying to woo a woman in a European location.

Rachit informs me that Suraj will get leave for a couple of days for Makar Sankranti, the harvest festival as it is celebrated elsewhere in India. Alas, he cannot hope for any such leave since he must be at the beck and call of his employer.

7:00 p.m.: Rachit is relieved of his caregiving duties for the day, as another member of Birjinder’s family takes over. We walk over to a langar in the neighbourhood, a community kitchen organised by the neighbouring gurudwara, where we are served with a sumptuous meal.

Post 47, Abdullahpur Basti, Ludhiana

3:00 p.m.: The mill is closed today, it being the last Monday of the month. Bablu, Mevalal and Kalki Prasad have gathered together for a party at Vishnu’s room, where they are roasting chicken liver as accompaniment to their drinks. A fourth person, who I do not know personally, also joins them. He lives in the same building as Vishnu. Kalki Prasad asks him to arrange some cannabis.

“No problem! I know two policemen who supply this sort of thing,” the man guffaws. “You will have it in an hour.” The man taps the keypad of his phone and speaks into it when the connection is established.

Bablu finishes his peg, and leaves the gathering to return to his own room.

4:30 p.m.: I take leave of Vishnu and his companions and leave for Bablu’s room. On the way, I see Rachit standing at the balcony of the first floor of Birjinder’s house, cleaning the window panes. We exchange greetings. I ask him why he didn’t join the others at Vishnu’s house. He shrugs and mouths, “Too much work”. Then he points his thumb to his mouth to ask if I had a peg. I affirm. He laughs and goes back to his work while I continue my way to Bablu’s room.

4:45 p.m.: Bablu is preparing his dinner. He is at it earlier than usual, since it’s a holiday. As he fries the chicken pieces, I ask him about Hiralal returning to work in the mill.

“Birjinder must have offered his a raise. Otherwise, why would he return?”

I nod. Bablu continues:

“But Hira will not tell. That is Birjinder’s strategy. He increases an individual worker’s wage, but extracts a promise that the worker will not discuss this with the others.”

Post 17, Abdullahpur Basti

5:45 p.m.: Rachit is in Dugri, some twenty kilometres south of Abdullahpur Basti. He has gone there to pick up Birjinder’s son from his tuition classes and will now drive about 15 kilometers west, to BRS Nagar. Birjinder’s parents-in-law live in BRS Nagar and his son wants to spend the evening with his grandparents. So, Rachit will drop the boy at his grandparents before driving back. It will take him at least an hour, he says.

6:00 p.m.: I am with Hiralal, Mevalal and Bablu. Mevalal operates the grinding machine; Bablu packs the flour into sacks and readies them for delivery. Hiralal manages the customers. Vishnu is on leave today.

“His pen*s is rotting,” Hiralal informs me with a mischievous glint in his eyes. I look obviously alarmed, so he continues: “He has been going to Sherpura for the previous four days. He refuses to use a condom. What do you expect?” Sherpura is Ludhiana’s red light area.

6:15 p.m.: Vishnu’s room is locked. When I phone him, he tells me he has stepped out to meet a friend who is not well. He will only be back after 8:30 p.m., he says.

7:00 p.m.: I return to the flour mill. Birjinder is managing the counter, and he asks me to sit next to him. As we chat, he leans forward and whispers,

“These workers- they do not respect us at all. But we are helpless- we can’t fire them because they have been here so long, they know their stuff! But they are wayward- if they receive a call from their homes in the village, they just pick up their jholas (satchels) and leave.”

I ask him if there are any provisions for holidays in his mill.

“What’s the point?, he replies. “They holiday whenever they want to.”

8:00 p.m.: Rachit has just returned to the mill. I ask him about Vishnu. He laughs and asks me not to worry. Vishnu is a sensible boy, he assures me, and will not waste his time or money on such things.

8:15 p.m.: Rachit shows me one of the three whats app groups to which he is added. The one he is showing me now is called Bihar Yuva Chhatra Samiti. Lalit adds that this is a political group, convened by a university student based in Pipariya, near Trivenigunj (about thirty kilometres south of Sargana). He shows me a photo of his with Pappu Yadav, former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s estranged brother-in-law, taken during the election campaign in October 2015.

Rachit is also on facebook. He tells me takes care not to add too many women as ‘friends’. He first checks their profiles and adds them only if they are ‘decent’. After all, his parents use his phone regularly when he goes home. Here in Ludhiana, Birjinder’s son also uses his phone often.

Post 13, Ludhiana

6:15 p.m.: Lalit and I chat on the phone. Lalit tells me that he and his co-workers are meeting up at Vishnu’s room. It’s the last Monday of the month, the monthly holiday to which everyone looks forward. He invites me to join them.

6:30 p.m.: Vishnu’s room is less than 500 metres away from Ratan Flour Mill. In fact, he shares it with Pawan Yadav, Hiralal Paswan and his brother-in-law, and Raj Kumar Yadav. While Raj Kumar has gone back home, the others are all around this evening. Their neighbour Sanjay Verma has also joined them. A pot of rice sits on the stove at the far end of the room, and Vishnu is arranging the utensils in which to cook the dal (lentil soup) as an accompaniment to the rice. He came back from the railway station an hour ago after dropping off his younger brother who had come visiting from their home in Gonda.

As the evening progresses, I interview Pawan about his life and work in Ludhiana. The others sit back and relax. Sanjay watches videos on his mobile. Vishnu chats with his wife. They have only met during the wedding as they observe gauna, a custom according to which husband and wife live together only after they have both reached a certain age.  Moreover, since Vishnu lives in Ludhiana for most months during a year, and she is studying for her BA, they thought it best that she lives in her natal home rather than at his.

7:30 p.m.: Rachit calls me and asks to speak to Vishnu. Vishnu refuses, since he is still chatting.

8:00 p.m.: Vishnu completes his call, and returns Rachit’s message. I have completed interviewing Pawan for now and ask if I can interview Vishnu. He agrees, on condition that I do not ask him about his work at the Flour Mill.

“My family does not know that I work at a mill. What will they think? What will my wife think? So much of my time is spent delivering flour bags to customers, riding a cycle rickshaw: you know what that does to man’s masculinity, don’t you?” he asks somewhat shame-facedly.

I assure him that I will neither probe into topics he does not want to discuss nor share the contents of the interview with anyone else without his permission.

9:00 p.m.: We break for dinner. Vishnu insists I join them since Rachit has instructed him to ensure that I have my dinner before I leave. I happily agree.

9:30 p.m.: Rachit finally arrives, after completing various chores in Birjender’s household. Apparently, the monthly holiday is only for the mill workers, not for Rachit whose primary employment is as a driver and domestic help.

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.