wages

Post 67, DMC Hospital, Ludhiana

5:15 p.m.: Rachit picks me up on his way to the hospital, where he will attend to Birjinder’s aunt. He is wearing a red-coloured jacket and a pair of orange-coloured trousers. On reaching the hospital, we head to the general ward where she is admitted. Her daughter and son-in-law have come to visit. They instruct Rachit to purchase some medicines from the pharmacy. After he returns, he begins to apply some coconut oil on the old lady’s feet and then proceeds to massage them. Rachit informs me that he has just borrowed INR 15,000 from his employer Birjinder as an advance. This advance is adjusted against his monthly income of INR 4000.

Post 49, Sargana, Ludhiana

Zaheeb Ajmal reports:

9:45 a.m.: Mahadev Yadav is at his shop, muffler wrapped around his head, investigating a tyre that has been delivered at his for repairs. A man, likely to be in his thirties, walks up to him: he is wearing a high neck T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Twirling a keyring on his index finger, he asks Mahadev Yadav, “Uncle, do you remember me?”

Flustered, Mahadev Yadav replies, “Of course I remember you. How can I forget? But you will have to wait awhile.”

His visitor, Kalru Ram, becomes agitated: “This is not done. You should have told my father when you borrowed the cash that you would pay him in six months, not three. You told us last month that you could repay the loan this month.  Now please give me a date, and stick to it.”

“When are you leaving for Punjab?” Mahadev Yadav asks his visitor, trying to assuage him.

“In about two months,” the visitor replies.

Mahadev Yadav is relieved: “You will have your money before you leave.”

Kalru Ram persists: “Oh come on. My father should never have loaned you the money. Not only are you not paying any interest on it, but the delay is really hurting us. We are trapped because of you.”

Mahadev Yadav now changes the topic: “When did you return from Punjab?”

The trick works. Kalru Ram informs us that it has been ten days since he has been back.

I didn’t want to return. I had planned to stay on for two further months. If I had, I would have earned INR 16,000: As a pehredar responsible for supervising other agricultural workers, I easily earn between INR 8,000 and INR 10,000 per month when I am there. But demonetisation hurt us badly. No employer had the money to pay their workers. Mine kept telling me to either wait or to take my wages in the older now-illegal currency. I accepted the old currency notes, but asked him to allow me leave of absence for two months. He didn’t have much of a choice, so he agreed. [Looking towards Mahadev Yadav] And here, we have debtors who refuse to settle their debts…

Sensing the turn the conversation was about to take, Mahadev Yadav remembered an urgent chore and hurried away.

Post 46, Abdullahpur Basti, Ludhiana

5:00 p.m.: I am outside the mill, chatting with Bhullan. Rachit, who has been upstairs running errands for Birjinder’s wife, comes downstairs to the mill. He tells me that the store owner who hired Dasharath had earlier asked him, Rachit, to work for him. “He was willing to pay anything to have me work at his shop. I could have asked him for as much as INR 7000.”

“How much are you earning now?” I enquire.

“INR 4000.” He replies, and adds that Birjinder provides him with food and accommodation as well.

“But why are you staying on then?” I ask perplexed.

“Ah- its complicated,” he looks away as we walk into the mill, where Vishnu is operating the grinding machine. Once inside the mill, he adds:

One of our neighbours Santosh Yadav worked as an agricultural labourer on the farm owned by Birjinder’s brother-in-law. I happened to be in Punjab looking for a job, when they needed a driver. So Santosh tipped me off and asked me to meet them. I did. They liked me, and then hired me. But after a few months, they wanted a professional driver, and they hired one. Around that time, Birjinder too was looking for someone to drive his car and run errands, and asked his brother-in-law for advice. That was when I started working for Birjinder.

I am here because Birjinder’s brother-in-law set me up with him. And I got the job there because of my neighbour Santosh Yadav: I am very grateful for his help. If I cease working for Birjinder, his brother-in-law will be upset with Santosh Yadav, who got me the job in the first place. Santosh’s credibility is at stake.

Rachit asks Vishnu for some gutkha (tobacco flakes). “You earn so much you should share it with others,” he taunts Vishnu.

Post 45, Abdullahpur, Ludhiana

9:00 p.m.: Rachit is at the mill, having just returned from the Dayanand Medical College and Hospital (DMC for short) where Birjinder’s aunt has been admitted earlier today for treatment. He chats with Kalki Prasad and Vishnu about the day when Dasharath arrives. He has finished his first day of work at the grocery store to which he had gone with Rachit the previous day (hyperlink to Journal entry 44). Dasharath informs us that the owner of the store has agreed to increase his starting salary to INR 4500 per month, and that he has promised a further increment in fifteen days. Everyone is very pleased to hear that.

Kalki Prasad advises him: “Hang on to this job, no matter what.”

Rachit disagrees: “That’s rubbish. One should leave a job if they are not happy with it.”

Post 42, Abdullahpur Basti

6:00 p.m.: Bablu has returned from his village in Gaya and is at the mill. So are Vishnu, Ambika, Mevalal and Dasharath. Both the machines in the mill are operating today. Ambika and Mevalal operate the machines while Vishnu and Dasharath package the sacks. Bablu stacks the sealed sacks against the wall so they are ready to be loaded onto the delivery van.

Vishnu shows me an app he installed on his Android which helps him download Urdu shayaris or couplets. He tells us, rather cryptically, that he will send the shayaris to someone he loves.

7:00 p.m.: Rachit returns. He had driven Birjinder’s son to the market so he could buy some cards for Christmas and New Year’s. As soon as he comes in, and hidden from Birjinder’s view, Vishnu and Dasharath gather a fistful of flour and shower him with these. Again, hiding from Birjinder’s view, Rachit retaliates by hurling not one but two fistfuls of flour at them. These exchanges continue for a few minutes, their screams of delight drowned by the din of the grinding machines.

7:15 p.m.: Hiralal comes into the mill, having just delivered sacks of flour to clients. He used to work at Kamal flour mill till mid-November, when he had found another job at an iron foundry and left. His face looks ashen and he does not talk to anyone in the mill. One by one, he hauls the sacks that Bablu has stacked up by the wall and loads them onto a waiting autorickshaw.

“Here’s the richest of us all. The man earns Rs. 10,000 per month.” Rachit remarks. Without a word, Hiralal leaves.

7:30 p.m.: Ambika halts the grinding machine and starts packing the flour into delivery sacks. Dasharath and Vishnu huddle together, calculating something. Vishnu first enters ‘8,000’ into the calculator, which is the salary promised to Dasharath. He then divides it by 30 to compute his daily wage rate: they obtain the figure of Rs. 266. They then multiply this figure by 22 to calculate the number of days Dasharath has worked at the mill: a figure of Rs. 5,822. From this figure Dasharath deducts Rs. 3,300- the amount that Birjinder ‘advances’ him at the start of each month.

Staring wistfully at the calculator, Dasharath mumbles: “That’s all I will get.”

Dasharath tells me that he has asked Birjinder to clear his dues since he cannot work here any further. The work is literally back-breaking. A neighbour from his village in Muzaffarpur works in an eatery situated at the corner of this very street: he makes dosas (a rice and blac gram pancake) there Dasharath is confident that he will help him find work.

“I worked in Delhi before I came here,” Dasharath informs me and goes on:

My uncle and I worked at the coco cola plant in Najafgarh, near Delhi. I lived with my aunt and uncle. But then there was this girl in the same Mohalla (neighbourhood) whom I really liked and she also liked me. We started hanging out, went to the movies. We must have seen at least ten movies together. My aunt- she is my father’s sister-  told my family back home in Muzaffarpur. That was it. I decided I didn’t want to have anything to do with her. Indeed, that was when I made up my mind that come what may I would not live with family.

My elder brother has been asking me to come and live with him in Jalandhar. But I am clear about not living with family. So let us see what happens.  

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 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.

Post 24, Abdullahpur Basti

7 p.m.: Rachit and I are at Hiralal’s room. Hiralal informs us that he had cleared his dues with Birjinder, and is not going to work at the mill any more.

“I asked Birjinder for a raise, and he refused. I earn Rs 8000 per month: I asked him to increase my pay by Rs 500 to Rs 1000. But he doesn’t think I am worth it. So I am not interested,” Hiralal says indignantly.

He turns to Rachit: You too should stop working for Birjinder. You will easily earn as much as Rs 14,000 in a place like Mumbai. Living costs are not as expensive as people say.

Rachit replies: Arre, I have been offered Rs 14,000 here in Ludhiana itself. Guddu, the man who sells vegetables in the kiosk down the road, told me about a job as a driver. Trouble is: I will also be expected to carry loads, which I don’t want to.

Hiralal continues to instigate Rachit: Look, one has to slog either way. You work bloody hard at Birjinder’s. If you have to slog, you might as well slog for the one who pays you more.

Hiralal then talks about his future plans. He will rent a room closer to his place of work, an ironworks factory where the working hours are from 9 a.m to 5 p.m. and employees receive a weekly holiday on Sunday.

Mevalal is not happy with Hiralal’s decision. After all, he had introduced Hiralal to Birjinder.