2 p.m.: I arrive at the construction site in Poonch, where Shailendra’s uncle Pradeep works. A school, sponsored by a Christian mission in Kerala, is under construction. Pradeep is one of seven masons working on this site, where he has been working since September. The labour contractor, Mansur Alam, has recruited an additional twenty workers, of whom are from either Kishengunj or Forbesgunj: the labourers call him munshi. Flanked on three sides by picturesque mountains, the school’s location is breath-taking: terraced farmlands in the vicinity of the school make the place even more idyllic.
The school is situated by the road connecting Chandak to Mandi in Himachal Pradesh: the entrance to the building is about 40 metres below the level of the street. The school building comprises three storeys and is surrounded by a square field. Four small brick structures at one corner of the field serve as rooms for the 28 labourers. A couple of makeshift toilets have been set up at the opposite end. Each room is equipped with five or six cots about three feet high from the floor level.
Pradeep and four other masons are plastering the walls between the classrooms on the third floor. Four younger men, quite likely less than eighteen years old, are supplying them with the concrete mixture they need.
5:00 p.m.: Pradeep and the other workers wind up their work for the day. Two of the workers take some money from Mansur and head to the market to purchase ingredients with which to cook dinner and to refill the LPG stove.
5:30 p.m.: Pradeep and a 50-year old co-worker, whom everyone calls Mullahji because of his flowing white beard, step out for chai. I accompany them. Mullahji asks Mansoor for INR 500 on his way out: Mansoor obliges. We walk for a kilometre to read Chandak market where we sit outside a kiosk. Mullahji has been here since March, even before construction on this school began. Hailing from Forbesgunj, he tells me he likes it here:
“People give us a lot of love,” he gushes. “They take care of our food. The best thing to do is to find work with people who are building their own residential homes: the daily wage rate is INR 800. I worked for two months in March and April as a mason and saved INR 40,000. Can you believe it?”
“But here on this site, the wage rate is INR 450: at the most, some people earn INR 500. Turning to Jagadish, he remarks: “When you came here, we worked on a private (residential) project, didn’t we? That was very profitable.” Jagadish assents.
As we chat, electric connections are restored. There is no electricity during most of the day.
8:00 p.m.: Pradeep and a couple of his co-workers, whose homes are in Sargana’s vicinity, cook dinner in their own room. A second group of workers, whose homes are in and around Forbesgunj, cook their own meal in another room. In a third room, Mansoor and I sip on some Kerala Whiskey that he purchased from Jammu recently. Six workers, distantly related to Mansoor and also with homes in Forbesgunj, cook some chicken curry and make some chapattis on the stove. The electricity is disconnected again, plunging the entire region into darkness.
We settle down for dinner by the candlelight and continue chatting.