vegetable cart

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 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 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.