Post 42, Sargana

Zaheeb Ajmal reports:

9:20 a.m.: Shailendra’s father Harish Rishi stands in his courtyard, wearing a pink-coloured T-shirt, advertising the English football team for the FIFA 2019 World Cup. He worries about the trouble he faces procuring seeds and fertilisers for the wheat crop which he intends to plant on his farm.

“The bank has only started allowing us to withdraw cash in the last three-four days. I need cash for the treatment of my grandson and daughter-in-law: they are both ill. Fortunately, I was just able to sell my paddy crop, so the cash the sales helped us meet the cost of food during the last few weeks.”

Post 41, Barmalipur, Ludhiana

2:00 p.m.: I speak to Shailendra on the phone. Work on the gurdwara at Barmalipur is progressing as scheduled. Damodar Rajak, his contractor, arrived on the 15th, accompanied by Pintu, a friend of Shailendra from Sargana.

Pintu previously worked with Damodar, but fell out with him because he felt Damodar did not speak with him respectfully enough. He had come away to Delhi to work first on a construction site and then at a flour mill where he worked as a headloader. However, he met with an accident which hurt his leg and he came back to Sargana to recuperate. (When I met him earlier this year, he was working at a chai kiosk in Sargana as a helper). He now seems to have made up with Damodar and has begun working for him again.

Post 39, Barmalipur, Ludhiana

2:00 p.m.: Shailendra and I speak on the phone (I have not been keeping well, so we chatted on the phone). Shailendra has still not been able to go the bank to exchange his high-denomination currency notes. He says he will be only able to leave after the 15th, when his workload will be slightly reduced.

Shailendra tells me that Damodar Rajak, his contractor, will also return from Sargana on November 15.

Post 38, Barmalipur, Ludhiana

4:00 p.m.: I speak to Shailendra, who informs me that he and his co-workers are now laying tiles on the pillars of the gurdwara. Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on demonetising high-denomination currency notes, Shailendra is anxious about the few Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes that he possesses. Nobody in the vicinity of Barmalipur is willing to exchange them, so he will have to go the Bank of Baroda branch in Manjhi Sahab where he has his account so he could get rid of these and acquire new ones.

Since Sandeep has left Sargana, Sundar, Shailendra’s cousin, will join the team at Sherpur soon.

Post 37, Beeja, Ludhiana

2:00 p.m.: Shailendra has arrived into Khanna, a few kilometres away from Beeja, with great difficulty. Today is Vishwakarma Puja, a festival dedicated to the celestial craftsman Vishwakarma: workmen worship their tools and machines today and allow them to ‘rest’. Therefore, few tempos plied on the road. Shailendra requested a tempo driver who was driving his vehicle towards Nabha for repairs to give him a lift: that is how he got to Khanna, where he is purchasing a rucksack. Since state-run buses are plying, he expects the ten-minute journey from Khanna to Beeja to be easy.

3:00 p.m.: I wait for Shailendra and his friends at the Beeja bus stand. Soon enough, a bus stops. I recognise several of Shailendra’s friends, who work in a neighbouring site for Damodar, disembark: among them is Mantu, one of Sandeep’s seven brothers. Mantu has purchased a blanket for their home: he will ask Sandeep to take it with him when the latter leaves for home the following day, November 1.  

3:10 p.m.: Shailendra and his cousins (Pradeep’s sons) Rajendra and Deepak arrive in another bus. Shailendra shows me the blue-coloured bag he has just bought, while Rajendra discusses with the others the woollens and jeans he and his brother have purchased to take home with them. They all purchase some gutkha (tobacco flakes) from a kiosk nearby and we head towards the Beeja gurdwara under construction.

4:00 p.m.: Mantu cycles over to Manjhi Sahab gurdwara where Shailendra’s brother Birendra is staying: Birendra and Sandeep are travelling together the following day. Since Sandeep has already left for Ludhiana, he hopes to hand over the blanket to Birendra. However, the caretaker of the gurdwara informs him that Birendra has already left for Ludhiana, from where he will board the train early next morning. A disappointed Mantu urges a younger colleague to head out to Ludhiana on the next available bus and give the blanket to either Birendra or Sandeep.

5:30 p.m.:  Shailendra, Mantu and the others proceed to leave Beeja for the gurdwara at Balmraripur. As we walk past the Manjhi Sahab gurdwara, Mantu points to the building and tells me that he and Shailendra had been part of the team that had constructed it, way back in 2002.

“Lets go in,” I urged, but both Shailendra and Mantu declined. “We have gutkha in our mouths. It would be inappropriate.”

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 31, Nabha Market and Hiyana Kalan, Patiala

1 p.m.: Shailendra has come to Nabha Market in Patiala (some 70 kilometers from east of Barmalipur) to purchase switches for his cutter. He has grown a beard, since he has not had the time to get to a barber. He and his co-workers have just arrived from Malerkotla (about 15 kilometres south of Barmalipur), where they had gone to help construct the roof of a gurdwara: their friend Sandeep had requested for some help. That work complete, now Shailendra and his co-workers plan to spend a few days in Patiala where they will work to install a gate for a gurdwara in the town’s Hiyana Kalan locality.

2 p.m.: We board a tempo headed towards Hiyana Kalan. It takes us an hour to get to the gurdwara whose gates Shailendra and his co-workers will be making.

3 p.m.: Shailendra’s co-workers are already at the gurdwara, having arrived there directly from Malerkotla. Two of his cousins, who had travelled with him to Balmaripur in May, are here. Two other friends from Sargana have joined them. One of them, Charandev Rishi, had joined the team at Bija last month and travelled with them here. The second, Santosh RIshi, had accompanied a group of workers headed to Hissar in Haryana State to construct canals. However, their contractor, an acquaintance from the neighbouring Roshanar village, paid them too little.  Santosh left the group and went to work with Pradeep in Jammu. But he could not withstand the altitude of the place: it made him unwell, especially while traveling. So, he returned to Sargana. When Sundar, Shailendra’s cousin was travelling to Ludhiana earlier in September, Santosh decided to join him. Since then, he has been working alongside Shailendra and his friends on the Barmalipur gurdwara, and travelled with them to Paitala.

Sundar has stayed back in Barmalipur.

3:30 p.m.: The caretaker of the gurdwara serves us chapatis (unleavened flatbread) with sarson ka saag (mustard greens and spices). He comments that the locals know only how to build houses, and therefore have to import labour to build gurdwaras. Indeed, local Sikhs show very little interest in gurdwaras, he complains. All they care about are Radha Soami (a Hindu sect) devotional gatherings.

4:00 p.m.: Lunch done, we sit around and immerse ourselves in our respective mobile phones. Shailendra watches a bit of his favourite movie, listens to some Bhojpuri songs and talks to his wife and daughter.  



Post 30, Sargana

Zaheeb Ajmal reports:

8:15 a.m.: Shanti Rishi has come to meet my host Gunvati Yadav with a request. Shanti is applying to open an account with the State Bank of India and would like Gunvati Yadav to stand guarantor: but Gunvati cannot since she does not have an account with that bank. Her daughter-in-law does, however, and agrees to act as the guarantor.

8:30 a.m.: Shanti Rishi is chatting with my host Gunvati Yadav. She is complaining about her husband’s brother and his wife, Harish and Shanti: according to her, they have been instigating her bahu (the local term to refer to one’s daughter-in-law) to separate from us.

“Our bahu doesn’t talk properly with us at all. Her husband Sundar, our own son, sides with her rather than supports us,” she rues.

 Gunvati Yadav consoles her: “Look, times are changing. I too have learnt it the hard way- so I just sit by the chulha (stove) all day while my bahu does her own thing. I don’t come in her way, and she leaves me alone. Children don’t listen to their parents any more: this is a common story.

“We have only a few more days to live. Let us try to live in peace. No point arguing with the next generation: they will not understand.” Gunvati continues.

“I don’t disagree with that- I also want to live in peace with everyone around me. But I would like my son to talk properly with me. Is that too much to ask of my own son?,” Shanti sobs.

11 a.m.: Shanti Rishi is at the State Bank of India branch at Sargana Block HQ. She is applying to open a bank account. However, the clerk at the counter tells her that she will need a PAN card if she wanted to open an account: the Aadhar card and voter identification card she currently has will not suffice as proof of identity here. The clerk tells her that she could try the customer service point in Roshanar village, less than two kilometres away, where the documents she has might work.

Disheartened, Shanti turns to return home.



Post 29, Sargana

Zaheeb Ajmal reports:

8 a.m.: Today is Dussehra, when Hindus across eastern India bid farewell to the goddess as she returns to her marital home. Devotees throng the Durga temple situated in the Sargana bazaar. Harish Rishi and his peers of the Gram Raksha Dal patrol the temple gates, ensuring that devotees are able to enter and exit the temple in an orderly way. The festive atmosphere of the Chandithan yesterday is recreated here as men, women and children not only offer their prayers at the temple, but buy the wares on display outside the temple precincts.

Tags: Durga temple; devotees;

Post 28, Sargana

Zaheeb Ajmal reports:

3 p.m.: I am at the Chandithan the oldest temple in Sargana. Outside the Chandithan, a mela (fair) to mark the ninth day of Dussehra (Navami) is on.

Credit: Zaheeb Ajmal

Credit: Zaheeb Ajmal

A canopy stretches over the temple backyard, under which items of female jewellery, such

as necklaces, bracelets and nose rings were being sold. Pradeep’s wife Shanti is here with

her daughter-in- law.

The open grounds outside the Chandithan, along the banks of the pond, are the site for the

Navami mela, the fair to mark the ninth day of Dussehra. Almost 60 motorcycles have been

parked along the mud path leading to the ground, and a row of stalls have been set up here

since the morning. Vendors at these stalls prepare and sell a variety of savoury snacks,

including samosas (pasties usually stuffed with mashed potatos and peas), chaat (a mix of

boiled chickpeas, diced boiled potatoes, yogurt and tamarind chutney, served with crisp

dough wafers) and gol gappas (a spherical hollow unleavened deep-fried bread made of

whole wheat flour, served with mint-flavoured water). Other vendors have also lined up their

carts of raw fruits and vegetables in the hope of increasing their sales at the fair: others retail

utensils and other items of use in the kitchen. Closer to the temple complex, vendors sell

clay idols of the goddess Durga. Right at the entrance, and occupying pride of place, were

the kiosks selling sweets: jalebis (spiral-shaped flour batter deep fried in boiling sugar

syrup), laddoos (sweet balls made of flour, minced dough and sugar), gaja (sweetened flour

cubes deep fried in oil), rasgulla (cottage cheese and semolina dumplings, cooked in light

sugar syrup) and barfi (square-shaped confectionary made of condensed milk and sugar)

among others. Stalls selling paan (betel leaves) are ubiquitous.

At least six hundred people are present at that moment, braving the untimely showers. It

appears that several thousands have attended the fair since the morning. Harish Rishi

wades through the crowd, looking out for potential trouble-makers: Harish is member of the

Gram Raksha Dal, a quasi-police force legally constituted by the Gram Panchayat.

Within the temple complex, but outside the actual temple building, approximately 70 adult

and kid-goats stand side by side, awaiting their turn at the sacrificial altar. Inside the

sanctum sanctorum of the temple, devotees offer routine prayers and gifts (including cash

donations) to the goddess Durga.

11 p.m.: I accompany our host Narendra Yadav to the Durga temple at Sargana. The Durga

temple is much more modest in comparison to the Chandithan, but it hosts a devotional

gathering (jagrata) this Navami night. About twenty people sit cross-legged on the floor,

while artistes render hymns invoking the power of the goddess Durga. My host tells me that

mostly members of the Kayasth and Rajput communities are here: in fact, he and I are the

only ones not from these communities to be here!

Post 26, Sargana

Zaheeb Ajmal reports:

9 a.m.: Harish Rishi and his wife Parvati spruce up the front of their home on the occasion of the ten-day long Dussehra festival: today is the first day, when people commemorate the goddess Durga’s arrival at her natal home. Parvati applies a paste of cow dung and water to the mud platform and steps leading into their hut, while Harish sweeps the courtyard.

They will proceed to the village temple along with Pradeep’s wife Shanti for the Kalasthapan (initiation ceremony of the festival for this year) in a little while.

Pradeep calls me from Poonch and wishes me for Dussehra.

Credit: Zaheeb Ajmal

Credit: Zaheeb Ajmal

Post 25, Sargana

Zaheeb Ajmal reports:

10 a.m.: Harish Rishi and I sit in the courtyard that he shares with his brothers, sipping chai.  He is anxious about the debt of INR 50,000 he has incurred over the marriage of his elder daughter earlier this year. One of his creditors is Damodar Rajak, with whom he has mortgaged his land for two years in return for INR 20,000.

“Work in Punjab is god-sent for us. Here in Sargana, there is hardly any work. Where there is work, there are no payments. Where there are payments, there is no dignity. At least in Punjab, they recognise our worth as human beings,” he says.

“There was a time,” Harish elaborates on his last remark, “when we could not even cremate our dead properly. We would have to quietly bury the dead by the river. Now, we can properly cremate the body. However, we still do not have a common cremation ground in the village.”

Credit: Zaheeb Ajmal

Credit: Zaheeb Ajmal

Post 24, Sargana

Zaheeb Ajmal reports:

The overnight rains have resulted in waterlogging outside Harish and Pradeep’s homes, with people having to wade through knee-deep water in order to enter and exit their own homes.

8:15 a.m.: Harish is at the bazaar, buying household provisions. As we chat, he tells me that he hasn’t received the cooking gas cylinder that Pradeep’s family has received. In fact, only two families in the entire hamlet have received cooking gas cylinders- Pradeep’s family and the family of Harish’s own elder son Ram Kishore.

Credit: Zaheeb Ajmal

Credit: Zaheeb Ajmal

“You see,” Harish explains, “The government provides gas cylinders to households designated as living below poverty line (BPL households). Only Pradeep’s and Ram Kishore’s families have been designated BPL. So they receive the cylinders. We have applied to be designated as BPL. Lets see what happens.”

“[Under India’s Public Distribution System (PDS),] BPL households are entitled to 5.5 kgs of rice, 3.5 kgs of wheat and 2.5 litres of oil. But we have to buy our provisions from the open market, which is way too expensive. Of course, Ram Kishore shares his entitlements with us. But he has his own family to look after. These rations can’t be used for all fifteen of us (referring to his wife and himself; and his three sons and their families).

“Anyway, I have applied for a cooking gas cylinder in Ram Kishore’s name. Lets see what happens”

Post 23, Sargana

Zaheeb Ajmal reports:

7:45 a.m.: Pradeep’s wife Shanti Rishi shows me the cooking gas cylinder they have recently acquired. Pradeep had applied for a cylinder two weeks prior to his departure.

8:00 a.m.: Harish, Shailendra’s father, informs me that Sundar and his brother left yesterday for Ludhiana. He is not sure where exactly Sundar will go, but knows not to expect any of them any time soon.