love

Post 44, Chandak, Poonch

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.

Post 7, Sargana to Muzaffarpur

8:00 a.m. It is a cloudy day. I reach Shailendra’s house as instructed the previous night. Shailendra and his cousins Sundar and Chand are ready to depart, their bags packed and hauled over their shoulders. Along with their family members, they begin walking to the main road. Shailendra’s daughter refuses to leave him, so he carries her as he walks. I take a detour as I want to pick up my own backpack.

8: 15 a.m. We reach the main road. The contractor Damodar emerges from one of the alleys, his bags packed and ready to leave. We have missed the 8 a.m. bus to Saharsa, so we wait for the next available transport. Eleven of us are travelling today. Shailendra shows me his fingernails, which have been painted pink and purple. I then notice the nailpaint on his and his cousins’ fingernails. Shailendra tells me his wife Sunita applied it the night before. Although they both know the paint will be no match for the cement with which Shailendra will soon be working, at least he will be able to look at his fingers throughout the journey and remember her.

9:00 a.m. Shailendra hails an auto to a halt. Damodar asks him to book the auto till Jadiya, ten-odd kilometres to the west. The nine of us pack ourselves into the auto along with our bags. We goodbye to their relatives. Although everyone is sad, they all realise they have to move on, so the auto leaves quickly.

10:00 a.m. We reach Jadiya, where we board the bus to Saharsa. It rains on the way. We sit close together, but no one really talks to one another. Probably, they are thinking about their families and about the work that awaits them.

12:30 p.m. We reach Saharsa. The train will leave in a few hours, but we have to purchase tickets first. Since the counter for purchasing tickets has yet to open, Damodar tells us to procure enough water to last us through the journey. Shailendra asks me to accompany him as we go looking for a large container which we could fill with drinking water- buying bottles of mineral water for eleven people would be too expensive, he agreed. Eventually, however, Shailendra finds two empty three-litre bottles at a grocery shop, buys them off the grocer and fills them with water for our journey.

1: 30 p.m. Shailendra joins the rest of his co-sojourners in the train after purchasing tickets for all of them (and me). The train is yet to be assigned a platform and has been temporarily stationed on the tracks about a kilometre away from the station. Anticipating a huge crowd, Damodar has asked the others to occupy eleven seats in the unreserved compartment in which we are travelling, since our tickets do not guarantee seats. Tickets cost INR 350, and Damodar has already paid Shailendra for these. The compartment has a total of 99 seats. At this point, there is more than enough room for everyone. We eat lunch, which Shailendra and his cousins have brought from home: puris (unleavened deep-fried bread) with a vegetable curry.

3:30 p.m. The train finally takes its place at the station, and arrives at the designated platform. About sixty people boarded the compartment in which we sat. Shailendra decided to take up his place on the top berth before it was occupied by others. That way, he could sleep in peace.

4:00 p.m. The train departs from Saharsa, as scheduled.

5:00 p.m. We arrive at Samastipur. The compartment is now packed with people. But everyone finds a place to sit, either on the seats or on the floor.

9:00 p.m. Muzaffarpur. We eat dinner: the puris and vegetable curry left over from lunch. Shailendra remains perched on his top berth since there was no place for him to sit on the seats beneath.