Post 60, Beeja

1 p.m.: Shailendra visits me in my room. He tells me he returned to Beeja yesterday, after spending a few rather productive weeks in Sargana. Having completed work on the temple, Shailendra informs me that he operated a thresher for a farmer near his home, by the canal in Sargana. He worked for ten-odd days and received 25 kilos each day as wages! Before his departure, Shailendra has applied for a loan to help him purchase a tractor. If this works out and he is able to purchase one, he will lend it to local farmers during their agricultural operations.

Shailendra does not want to work in construction any more. His wife Sunita thinks it too dangerous, and would like him to take up some other employment, preferably in a factory. He has struck an acquaintance with one of Damodar’s neighbours, who is a supervisor in a factory near Delhi. The factory manufactures the packaging in which electric meters are stored when being sold. He wants to work there for at least a year so he can master some skills, he says.

“They will pay me INR 8000 per month. In addition, I will get a place to stay in the factory complex,” he adds.  

Work in Barmalipur is yet to commence, Shailendra adds. The jobs in Malerkotla have been assigned to others, leaving Shailendra without any employment at the moment. He hopes to receive a call for work from a contact in Khanna.

Shailendra expresses further worries. In the aftermath of demonetisation, when cash was scarce, he and his cousins had approached one of the many currency exchange entrepreneurs who mushroomed during that period. Queues in banks had been too long and standing in those queues would have meant the loss of at least a day’s wages. They had then deposited INR 36,000 in the old high-denomination currency notes and received from the entrepreneur two cheques of equivalent value, which they thought they could easily deposit in the bank.

However, the cheques have bounced. Shailendra hopes to confront the entrepreneur and have him return his money. But he has discovered, much to his consternation, that the entrepreneur and his enterprise have both vanished.

Post 57, Ludhiana/Jammu/Araria

10:00 a.m.: Shailendra tells me on the phone that he is working at a construction site approximately three kilometres south of Sargana. He is part of a team of workers building a temple. While Shailendra does not know the name of the employer, he tells me he was ‘placed’ there by Damodar Rajak, the labour contractor who allocated him to constructing gurudwaras in Ludhiana.

Shailendra tells me that the project on which he was working in Barmalipur remains incomplete. Moreover, he has yet to be paid for 20 days of labour he had put into building the dome and the screens: the arrears to him amount to INR 32,000.

Shailendra will not stay in Sargana for long, he tells me. He plans to leave for Malerkotla after Holi, which this year is scheduled to be celebrated on March 12/ 13.

12 noon: I chat with Damodar Rajak, who is currently in Sargana. Damodar complains that demonetisation hit the construction market really hard, leaving builders with little capital with which to either purchase materials or pay their workers. All his worksites in and around Ludhiana have had to be abandoned, although he hopes to be able to bag a contract for supplying labourers to Malerkotla.

1 p.m.: Pradeep informs me that his son Sundar, who is currently in Sargana, has delayed his return to Jammu and Kashmir. Instead of returning by the end of February, as he had initially planned, he will now return after Holi in mid-March. Pradeep himself hopes to finish the work on the church within a few days and proceed to Jammu.

Post 33, Sherpur, Ludhiana

10:00 a.m.: I am at Sherpur, where Shailendra’s elder brother Ram Kishore and cousin Shyamsundar have been working on a gurdwara for the past few weeks. Sandeep has been working with them since May, when he had come from Bihar to Punjab with Shailendra and the rest of us. They have finished constructing the gateway on which they were working when we had last met in August. Having successfully completed that assignment, they recently secured a contract for fitting tiles on the wall adjoining the gateway. In preparation, they are preparing the scaffolds on which they will carry out their work.

Sandeep confirms his plans to return to Sargana on November 1. He will be accompanied by Birendra, Shailendra’s younger brother Birendra, who currently works in at Malerkotla. A few of their neighbours from Sargana, presently working in Poonch, will also join them on their journey back home. Once he goes, Sandeep says, Shailendra’s cousin Sundar will take his place on the Sherpur team. Sundar, who had travelled with them to Beeja/ Barmalipur in May, was laid off soon thereafter by Damodar Rajak, the contractor: a labour surplus meant that there were more people than needed to work on the gurdwaras, so Damodar suggested that Sundar work elsewhere till one of the labourers took leave to go home. Following Damodar’s advice, Sundar took up work as a headloader in Malerkotla’s grain market, work that he will give up once Sandeep leaves.

Post 32, Hiyana Kalan, Patiala

6:00 a.m.: Everyone is up and about, getting ready to work. In preparation for their work on the gate, Shailendra and his co-workers must first construct the concrete frame under which the gate will be installed. Shailendra climbs up a metal ladder and positions himself by the wall on which the gate will be erected. As helper, his cousin Shiva climbs up after him. Charandev Rishi, their neighbour in Sargana, sits on the ground beside the base of the ladder as he mixes limestone with cement in a shallow pan. Santosh stacks the bricks that Shailendra will need by the wall, and keeps replenishing them. Keeping them entertained as they work is Santosh’s mobile on which songs from Bollywood movies dating to the 1990s play. Santosh tells us that he had uploaded these songs from a vendor on his recent sojourn to Sargana.

The caretaker of the gurdwara leaves to bring chapatis for the workers from the village.

8:00 a.m.: Charandev finishes mixing limestone with cement in his second pan. The caretaker has returned from the village after collecting donations of the chapatis that the workers will eat for breakfast. A functionary of the committee that has commissioned the gurdwara arrives to inspect the progress on the gate: Shailendra asks him to provide a vehicle for them to buy materials from Patiala that will be required for shuttering.

8:30 a.m.: All the workers prepare to eat breakfast. Shailendra speaks to Sandeep, a neighbour from Sargana and currently working in Sherpur, Ludhiana. Sandeep plans to return to Sargana on November 1. Shailendra wants him to carry back a mobile phone which he has bought for his wife: he says his daughter dashed his wife’s mobile phone to the ground in a fit of anger, so she needs a new one. Shalendra has already bought the device and installed the memory chip from his own smart phone onto it, so his wife can watch the movies he has been watching.

9:30 a.m.: The committee member has arranged for a tractor- trolley to transport Shailendra and his co-workers to a market from which they can make their purchases. Shailendra, Shiva, Charandev, Santosh and I board the trolley and make our way towards Nabha.

Post 22, Balmaripur

7:20 p.m.: Shailendra informs me that he is hopeful of completing work on the dome in a few days. It is taking much longer than expected because he is alone and the work is very fine, requiring a great deal of concentration. He expects that Sundar and his brother will join him next week.

Shailendra’s mobile has been repaired, and he is able to watch movies again.  He watched Ramta Jogi again last night, and tells me how much the film moves him each time he sees it. The film is about the tragic romance between a Dalit (“untouchable”) mechanic and a Savarna (“high-caste”) student. However, Shailendra doesn’t like the way it concludes, with the boy being killed by the girl’s parents even after they got married.

“Why did the director have to kill the boy?” he exclaims. “Why couldn’t they just show a successful inter-caste marriage?”

“Of course”, Shailendra reasons, “our society is like this, so such an ending is real. But the ending could have been more optimistic.”

Post 20, Balmaripur

5:00 p.m.: Shailendra has completed laying out the tiles on one of the smaller domes of the gurdwara.  He will now proceed to complete the construction of the temple’s grand dome, rather than working on the hall as he had mentioned earlier.

“For work in the hall, I will wait till Sundar and his brother return to Balmaripur. There’s a lot of other work to be done in any case. Completing the grand dome and then laying out the tiles on it; decorating the columns that hold up the ceiling; completing the jhalar (brick-and-mortar decorations), etc. I will proceed with those, and once my cousins and others return, we will work on the hall.”

Shailendra’s mobile is giving him trouble. Although he can make and receive calls, he is unable to watch any movies. So, he plans to hand it in for repairs in Ludhiana town.

Post 19, Balmaripur

9:00 a.m.: Shailendra and I chat on the phone. Shailendra says he is almost done with laying out the tiles on one of the smaller  of the Balmaripur gurdwara. Once this is complete, he will proceed to lay the tiles on the gurdwara hall below. The contract for the dome also included construction of the jhalar (brick-and-mortar decorations) around the dome, on which he will go easy, since the contract has been extended to January. So, while he will claim his fees for his work on the dome, he will ask to be employed as a daily wager for his labours on the tiles.

Sundar is still in Sargana. He will return to Sherpur with his brother as soon as he completes the memorial service for his deceased father. Once their work in Sherpur is complete, Shailendra hopes they will join him in Balmaripur.

Post 18, Ludhiana / Bija / Sargana

Credit: Ankur Jaiswal

Credit: Ankur Jaiswal

8:00 a.m.: Shailendra calls to tell me that his uncle (Sundar’s father) died last night. Tragedy struck their family in such quick succession (Sundar’s mother died just over a month ago) that they are all dazed. Sundar and his brother Shyamsundar are leaving for Sargana later today. Ram Kishore will accompany them to Ludhiana railway station.  

11:00 a.m.: I meet Ram Kishore, Sundar and Shyamsundar at the Ludhiana railway station. Sundar and Shyamsundar would have left last night but Damodar dissuaded them. He kept saying there was no point returning: they would not be able to bring back their father from the dead. He was also very reluctant to pay their dues, citing the lack of funds available to him. Damodar eventually paid a mere INR 1000 to Shyamsundar, promising to pay the rest by the fifth of the following month.

3:00 p.m.: Sundar and Shyamsundar continue to wait for the train: it is expected to be over eight hours late. Sundar is convinced that his parents have been the victims of foul play. Their father laboured on the field of a local farmer. Sundar suspects that the farmer has killed his parents, possibly by unleashing black magic.

6:00 p.m.: Ram Kishore and I bid farewell to Sundar and Shyamsundar and return to Balmaripur. Shailendra is finishing up the day’s work on the dome and stepping down from the scaffolds. Damodar sits inside one of the half-constructed rooms, watching a religious movie on his mobile phone. Shailendra leaves for Bija to fetch an additional labourer to help him with his work.

10:30 p.m.: Sundar calls to tell me their train has finally arrived- over thirteen hours behind schedule.  They have boarded and are waiting to depart.

Post 16, Bija

7:30 a.m.: Shailendra and Sundar reach Bija, along with three other cousins. In addition, two friends from Purnea have also joined them. He has high temperature, and decides to stay on in Bija rather than proceeding to Balmaripur to start work at the gurdwara there. He tells me he would have left earlier but was informed by their friends here that there was no money to pay them with, hence he decided to delay his return. It was only when Damodar called to assure him that he would be paid as promised that he decided to return.

4:00 p.m.: Damodar returns from Balmaripur to Bija. He tells Shailendra about the possibility of going slow on the gurdwara as the Committee has decided to postpone all construction. Work on the dome for which Damodar had offered Shailendra the contract is likely to commence only in January. Only one labourer is required in Beeja, instead of the five who were working here earlier.

Shailendra’s cousins are now considering other options. Sundar might proceed to Moradabad. Sattan, Brajesh and Indri- the other workers employed at this site- have already left for other locations.

Post 10, Balmaripur

5:00 a.m.: Shailendra cycles to Balmaripur, some 5 kilometers away from Bija.

9:00 a.m.: Shailendra agrees to take the contract for constructing the dome of the gurdwara from Damodar. He will also do the masonry for the project, alongside Nishit Rajak, a relative of Damodar’s whose home is near Jadiya.

12:30 p.m.:  Shailendra and Nishit are atop the scaffolding, layering the bricks on the cement mixture. Sattan, a neighbour of Shailendra’s in Bhargama, supplies them with the mixture and bricks to use on a shallow metal pan which he holds on his head as he climbs up the ladder to reach where they are. Brajesh, another neighbour from Bhargama, and Indri, a local boy of about 16, passes on the material to Sattan.