Post 88, Abdullahpur Basti, Ludhiana

7:00 p.m.: I accompany Rachit as he drives over to a retailer in the neighbourhood to collect pending payments on Birjinder’s behalf. He informs me that construction of their house in Sargana has started, and is estimated to cost them INR 200,000. Rachit wired INR 5,000 yesterday to his father so that work could commence. This money included the INR 4,000 that he had saved over the last few months as well as INR 1,000 he borrowed from Birjinder’s wife.

“Has there been any further talk about your departure?” I enquire.

“The malik has asked me to stay on for another month, till the end of May,” he replies. He then adds: “Parminder is not happy that I will be away. He says the old lady needs a caregiver right away. I assured him that I would return within a month. He has now agreed.”

Rachit kickstarts his scooter. I sit behind him, and he drives back to the flour mill.

8:00 p.m.: Bhullan stands with his cart outside the flour mill. Om Prakash asks him to prepare some snacks for him. Bhullan does as requested, but Om Prakash walks away with the pouch without paying him. I call after Om Prakash, “Panditji…”

“Why do you call him Pandit?” Bhullan asks me, a frown discernible on his face.

“Everyone in the mill calls him Pandit,” I reply, referring to the usual practice of referring to a man of the Brahman community (as Om Prakash is) as Pandit.

“He is no priest. He is no Pandit.” Bhullan tells me firmly.

8:15 p.m.: Inside the mill, a client asks Om Prakash to carry a few sacks of flour to his waiting van. Despite being idle at that moment, Om Prakash promptly directs him to Lallan.

8:30 p.m.: Bablu is back from his village in Gaya. He is winding up for the day. I am surprised, since he has always been categorical about not working a minute beyond 7 p.m.

“Are you working overtime?” I ask.

“Yes,” Bablu replies, somewhat wearily.

I want to ask him if he is being paid, but at that moment Birjinder’s younger brother enters the mill and I drop the conversation.

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 25, Abdullahpur Basti

6 p.m.: Kamal flour mill is in chaos. The machine used to stitch the delivery sacks has broken down. Bablu is taking it to an electrical shop nearby for repairs. The repairs take about an hour to carry out. By the time he returns with it to the mill, it is 7 p.m. Bablu deposits the machine and packs up for the day.

“Not a minute beyond 7,” he says. “The malik (owner of the mill, a reference to Birjinder) does not pay me any extra money if I work beyond 7. Why should I stick on then?”

7:15 p.m.: We walk back to Bablu’s room. He tells me he plans to ask Birjinder for a raise. If he refuses, Bablu will look for an alternative mill in which to work. “If a couple of us were to leave Kamal flour mill, all production here will cease,” he declares.

He then goes to take a bath.

7:30 p.m.: Bablu soaks the rice that he will cook for dinner. Sunil, who lives in the same building as Bablu and hails from the same village as him, is also here. While washing the lentils with which he will make dal (lentil soup), Bablu tells me about the family of a distant relative who moved to Ludhiana a few years ago:

The man works at a factory, but his wife does not stay with him. She lives with other men. They have a son but since neither of them can look after him, they were planning to sell him. I talked them out of this horrible plan, and got a foster home for the boy.

Bablu chops some onions as accompaniment to the dal and continues:

The woman complained that her husband spent all his income on his friends, while she and her son starved. I told her she should have asked me for help. After all, we are family.

The dal boils. The rice is almost ready: Bablu drains out the starch.