railway station

Post 21, Ludhiana

6:45 p.m.: Shailendra’s uncle Pradeep Rishi arrives at Ludhiana. My colleague Atul and I meet him at the railway station. Pradeep is on his way to Poonch, in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), where he will work with a contractor from Forbesgunj to construct school buildings affiliated with a church. The contractor, Mansur Alam, has instructed him to meet his ‘agent’ in Vijaynagar, where he will be paid an advance. Pradeep is looking forward to receiving the advance because the INR 1000 with which he left home does not promise to last long.

Although this is the first time Pradeep is going to Poonch, he is very familiar with other cities in J&K, especially Jammu and Srinagar. He has been going there for the last fifteen years. The uncertain political situation in the State, especially the frequent curfews, have not deterred him and others like him, many of whom are from Bihar. People there treat us with a great deal of respect, he says. “When they hear we have come for employment, they tell us- ‘yes, make sure you earn well and eat well’. People in Punjab can sometimes be quite rude. But never in J&K.” Pradeep asks me to join him in J&K. I promptly take up his offer, and tell him I will make plans soon.

Credit: Ankur Jaiswal

Credit: Ankur Jaiswal

The train Pradeep was on is over four hours late. As a result, he has missed the train he was scheduled to take, and will now take a later train. Over some chai and snacks, he tells us that Sundar and his brother will return to Ludhiana shortly, but are not likely to work for Damodar any more. Rather, they have made contact with a Sikh contractor in Khanna, for whom they propose to work.  I wonder to myself is Shailendra is aware of this plan!

11 p.m.: Pradeep boards the train to Poonch. The train leaves soon thereafter.

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 9, Sirhind / Bija

12:30 a.m. Outside the Sirhind Railway Station, a number of three-wheeled autorickshaws await passengers. The auto-rickshaw drivers are screaming away to let prospective passengers know the destinations they service. We hear several of them shout out that they are going to Khanna, the village to which we need to travel. But at INR 50 per person, Damodar decides the fares are too high. We sit on the steps leading into the station.

1:00 a.m. Shailendra tells us the buses to Khanna will start plying from about 4 a.m. We are hungry. We haven’t eaten for nearly twelve hours, so we approach one of the eateries at the Station. Turns out his stocks are over, and he is closing shop for the night, so we drink some chai and try to catch some sleep. Shailendra rests on a bench and I occupy the one next to it. Our luggage is with the others who sleep on the steps.

3:30 a.m. Shailendra decides to join the others. I accompany him. Stacks of newspapers line the staircases. A number of young men are slipping in advertisement pamphlets into each newspaper.

4:30 a.m. Damodar is awake. He steps down the staircase to arrange for our travel to Khanna. The buses haven’t started plying yet, but the autorickshaw fares for Khanna are now considerably less: INR 20 per head. So, he books an autorickshaw and herds all eleven of us into it. The driver of the autorickshaw turns out to be a 45-year old man from Bihar’s Sheohar district. A woman requested him to allow her to sit with the rest of us, but he refused. As he sped his vehicle down the highway, Damodar said he should have got her to sit on his lap and guffawed.

5:45 a.m. We reach Khanna Bus Stop. From here, we will take a bus to Chava, our final destination.

6:00 a.m. We board the bus to Chava. There are only three women in the bus, the remaining 25 of us are all men.

6:20 a.m. The bus arrives into Chava. We disembark and walk another half-a-kilometre to reach the semi-constructed gurdwara which some of the people from our group will complete. We huddle into a room by the side of the building, where approximately ten cots lie side by side, and there is a small stove at the far end for basic cooking. One of our companions makes chai for the rest of us.

8:00 a.m. We cook some chapatis and dal, and eat our first proper meal in about 18 hours. I go to sleep after breakfast as others start charging their mobile phones and watch films on them.

11:00 a.m. Cups of chai appear again as I wake up.

11:30 a.m. Everyone goes back to their mobiles. Some are watching films. Others make calls home. I start fiddling with mine.

3:00 p.m. Damodar instructs Shailendra and Ratan to visit a site at the nearby village of Balmaripur, where he has recently won a contract to construct the dome of the local gurdwara. The contract amounts to INR 2.5 lakh, and Damodar has offered to sub-contract it over to Shailendra if the latter thinks he can do it. Else, Shailendra can always continue to work on the dome on daily wages.

Shailendra says he will have a look at the site and then decide.