An Unkind Present
Against the backdrop of the construction site of an upcoming 7-star hotel in South Delhi, sits Sandeep. It has been 9 years since
Sandeep left his hometown in Bihar for greener pastures in the National Capital. He talks to me about home and hope. He tells me about his 4 brothers, 3 sisters, wife, daughter, and ageing parents – all of whom survive on a meager 1.5 acres of land back in Bihar. Two of Sandeep’s brothers work as labourers with other “companies” (labour contractors) here in Delhi. Half an hour from here is their basti (slum) on the Delhi-Harayana border, where 4 people share a single room to minimize their rent expenditure, and send as much as they can back home. With 8 hour work shift, extendable to 12 hours including overtime, Sandeep manages to make around 6 to 8 thousand a month, of which he is able to send home 4 to 5 thousand every month for his rather large family to survive on. It is little surprise then that all his sisters have been hurriedly married off and no child in the family has studied beyond high school.
To leave home and come to Delhi and find work as a construction worker was not his choice to make. He says it was his fate.
I am here with a difficult mandate. I want to talk to migrant labourers about their future. The grim stories they tell me of their difficult past and their present misfortunes make it an uphill task to shift the topic to the future. It seems almost a cruel question to ask, and I consider changing my topic several times even as I am speaking to them. It seems only natural to assume that a vision for the future is a luxury the poor can ill-afford. But as the conversation goes on, I learn a valuable lesson. I realize that hopes and dreams are God’s egalitarian gifts to each one of us. And that you can tell a lot about a person just by asking them to share theirs with you.
Lessons from a Ruthless Past
Take the example of 45-year-old Ram Balak Rai, whose story begins in the 1960s when his father landed a job in the army. A government job for a child was (and is) the ultimate dream of any Indian family – rich or poor. But Ram Balak’s grandmother persuaded his father to leave the army and come back home for fear of losing her son to the war. Several decades later, he continues to see his past, present and future as an aftermath of that decision. “If my grandmother had not called my father back, he would have continued with the government job. May be I would have got a job there too. Today, I am too old. I do not see myself ever getting out of this rut in this lifetime, and see little hope for my kids too.”
“If you had a chance to relive your life so far, do you think there would be anything you would have done differently that would have changed your current circumstances?”
“What can I change, Madam? This is my fate.”
Kosami is a mother of 5 from Jhansi. She and her husband took on several loans last year to cultivate their land. Due to crop failure, however, they ran into losses and ended up with a huge debt on their head. Now, the couple has left the village to come to Delhi to work their debt off, leaving their children (and a grandchild) behind. “Money is better here”, she tells me, “so we will stay till we make enough to repay our debt.” After that, she plans to go home, and hopes to never have to come back.
The Future – A Choice to Make
Rajkumar and his family of five sisters, three brothers, parents, wife and a daughter have claim to half an acre of land back home. One brother works on the land; another is engaged in the dairy business. I carefully tread into the territory of leading questions and ask him if he thinks the number of children his parents had has anything to do with their current situation. He seems to agree.
Encouraged, I venture, “So, now that you already have a daughter, how many more children are you planning to have?”
“Well, there is too much inflation to support many kids in today’s world. But I will have to keep trying till I get a son.”
At this point, someone in the group points out to him that it is possible he has 10 daughters before he gets there. Rajkumar holds his fort, “I need a son to feed me and my wife when we are old”.
Baffled by his logic (or the lack thereof), I ask, “But how will you feed 10 daughters?”
“Madam, vo apna naseeb le ke aayengi. Naseeb mein bhookha marna likha hoga toh mar jaayengi. Varna jahaan ki roti likhi hogi vahaan ki khayengi.” (They will bring their own fate. If they are destined to die of hunger, they will. Otherwise, fate will provide for them.)
I decide to not judge the man for having had a life I can never truly understand, and turn my attention to Sonu, a 19 year old who is an exception in that he is the only one here by choice. His elder brother is a post-graduate student in English Literature in Uttaranchal, but he ran away from home as education did not interest him. Today, he feels proud that he is “standing on his own feet” and earning instead of having to study. Ask him about his future, and you get the vagueness of response expected from any teenager. Or maybe it is the fact that he always has (in his own words) “the fall-back option of going back to my father’s money if nothing works out.”
“Do you ever think about going back to studies?” I ask.
“Padhaai mein mera mann nahi lagta, Madam. (Studies do not interest me.)”, he replies with a boyish grin.
Just as I am about to give up all hope of seeing hope, I come across 20 year old Raju, whose dreams of getting a degree in Chemistry (Honours) hit a wall when his family’s financial situation forced him to drop out of school and migrate to Delhi for work. Just as I breach the topic of the future, he enthusiastically launches into an inspired monologue about starting a taxi service back in Bihar, complete with plans laid out for bank loans, a house, a shop – the works. He is pragmatic about his plans. But the past doesn’t seem to have cast a shadow on his dreams. “I would love to go back to education someday and get my degree. God willing, I will make that happen.” he tells me.
If there is one lesson Raju seems to have learnt from his family’s misfortune, it is that “I will have only one kid.” He adds with a chuckle, “Ladka ho ya ladki, main toh usey engineer bana kar hi chhodunga. (Whether boy or girl, I won’t rest until I make an engineer out of him/her.)”
“My child will not have to suffer the fate I did. He / she may have to come back to Delhi someday. But it will not be to do this work. It will be to do something better.”
A short photo session later, as I thank them for their time and take my leave, I think about the stories I heard today. We see these people every day. The woman who washes our clothes, the man who we call to repair our leaky pipes, the boy painting the walls of that new building across the road – how many times do we stop to think about their lives? And it is not just us. The government, the administration, in some cases their own families, and God Himself, seem to have forgotten these people.
One could call this a hopeless situation. They did not choose to be here. They were simply born into these circumstances by a cruel joke of probability. Yet, as I discovered today, amidst all the seeming hopelessness, they too have a choice to make.
Some, like Ram Balak, choose to blame fate.
Others, like Raju, choose to write their own.