Post 49, Chandak, Poonch

9:00 a.m.: Pradeep informs me that his son Deepak, nephew Sundar and their neighbour Mantu are in the train from Ludhiana back home to Sargana. Work on the gurdwara they have been constructing is over. And there are no further jobs, so Damodar the contractor has advised them to return to Sargana.

The Janseva Express, which they will take for their journey home, is late by over six hours. Scheduled to depart Ludhiana at 9:00 a.m., it will now only leave at 3:30 p.m.

6:00 p.m.: Deepak calls Pradeep to inform him that their train has only just left Ludhiana station. It was late by almost nine hours!

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 8, Muzaffarpur to Sirhind

8:00 a.m. The train arrives at Gonda, Uttar Pradesh. There are now approximately 150 people in the compartment. After completing their morning ablutions, Shailendra and his friends buy fried green peas sold by hawkers at the station. They then mix the peas with the mixture of beaten rice and puffed rice they were carrying in their cotton plaids, and eat that for breakfast. They refill their containers with the water that locals sell for INR 5 per bucket. A policeman is wandering about the compartment, ostensibly to maintain law and order. He orders a seventeen-year old who is sitting beneath Shailendra’s berth to stand up and then proceeds to occupy that seat himself. No one says anything. You don’t mess with policemen.

1 p.m. Sitapur. Damodar buys everyone kulfi.

3:30 p.m. The train leaves Bareilley. Now, there are at least 200 people in the compartment.

5:30 p.m. The train has just left Moradabad. Shailendra takes a stroll in the compartment. He stands near the door and stares at the passing countryside, perhaps contemplating his family back in the village or maybe anxious about the work he is going to be doing in Ludhiana.  

9:00 p.m. Saharanpur. There’s a slight drizzle.

11 p.m. The train chugs into Ambala Cantonment, where most passengers disembark. Shailendra is fast asleep.

12:15 a.m. The train arrives at Sirhind, where Shailendra, Damodar and the rest of us alight. Nearly three hundred people are sleeping on the platform, waiting to embark on their own journeys. Another hundred-odd people sleep on the floor outside the ticket counter. They are perhaps waiting to buy tickets as soon as the counter opens the following morning. Shailendra nimbly steps over their sleeping bodies and makes his way to the exit.

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.