Tag Archives: migrant

Ajay’s story – an immigrant to a mega polis

Ajay was in class V, studying in his village school was barely 10 when, one evening he got a sound thrashing from his father for neglecting studies. He was not good at studies and detested the rigmarole of getting educated. Since there is no failing till primary level of education he was getting promoted to the next class every year till he reached class V. The thrashing was a routine since there were complaints of his poor levels in the school. Plainly speaking, he loathed and despised study. Ajay was from Motihari, a backward and poor district in the state of Bihar.

That evening’s thrashing was the last straw in his resolve to flee his village and his home. Ajay could read the letters that reached his village folks from Delhi. There were quite a few immigrant labourers from his village to Delhi who would write letters back home. There were few who could read or write. Ajay was among them and he was helpful in reading the letters. It was early nineties when the cellphone were still in its infancy and STD phone calls were both expensive and non-existent in nondescript villages like Ajay’s. Therefore a postcard or an inland letter was more in vogue than any other mode of communication. The villagers used to get the information of their dear ones at a distant place by these snailmails read by Ajay.

There were two outcomes of these letters. One was the information to the relatives to whom the letters were written. The other one was exclusively for Ajay. Ajay had started forming a fair description of the place, culture, food habits, weather, transportation, accommodation etc. about the place in Delhi where his relatives or his village folks lived. Without ever setting foot in the city he had a sketch ready in his mind and had started planning his escape. He was aware of few basics which would help him escape. He just knew the place where his folks were living in Delhi. He knew that the place could be reached by bus from the Delhi rail station. He knew the landlord’s name. He knew the nearest bus stop from where he would get a bus to reach the rail station, 30 km away from his village. He knew the train timings and he could guess the amount of money he needed to succeed the great escape. He was just a 10-year-old boy but with a meticulous planning of escape as generally expected from an adult person.

The evening he was thrashed badly, he cried to show his pain to others. From within, his resolve was now firm. He took dinner at usual time (it’s always early in villages) and went to sleep. When the whole household became quiet, he stole Rs.700 from his father’s purse. The bus for the rail station was at very early morning. He kept a shoulder bag ready with just couple of his dress. At 3 in the morning in the early winter of 1999, he rolled his blanket and pillow on his cot to fashion a dummy as if someone was asleep, took his shoulder bag and Rs.700 concealed in his body very secretively, left his house and his village for the bus stand. Not a single soul was to be seen around in the darkness. Few dogs chased him whom he thwarted by waving his bag. He told me that he was waving the bag to the dogs just to frustrate their attempt to bite him. He reached the bus stand and soon he boarded the first bus to the station. At the station he bought a half-ticket for Delhi of general compartment and boarded the train. He was free.

After a journey for more than 30 hours, he reached Delhi rail station. He just knew the name of the place where his village mates were staying. It was Dallupura in East Delhi. Ajay was aware that he should go to the nearest bus stand near the station and from there he would get a bus to Dallupura. Taking cues from people, he reached the bus stand and looked for the bus to Dallupura. He found one but got a bit puzzled that the destination was written in the board as Dallupura Extension. ‘Extension’ was a new word for him. Ajay was anything but nervous in a big city like Delhi. He was just a boy of 10 and innocently he asked the bus conductor whether the bus would go to Dallupura. ‘Yes’, replied the conductor. ‘Then what is ‘Dallupura Extension’?’ ‘Never mind, get into the bus if you want to go to Dallupura’, the conductor replied. He boarded the bus and sat beside the conductor as he knew that the best guide would be him only. The conductor took pity at the boy of such a tender age and guided him to the stop at Dallupura an hour later.

Ajay could not believe his luck. He was at Dallupura, finally. It’s three days since he has left his village, his parents, his brothers, his relatives, everyone without their knowledge where he was. Now the most daunting task was to locate the house where his relatives stayed in Dallupura. He knew the landlord’s name and that was the only clue he had. Fortune favours the brave. After asking few people in the locality, he was informed that the landlord was a big man in the area and he had rented out several houses. Soon he reached his relative’s house at Dallupura.

His relatives and acquaintances were very surprised seeing him coming all alone from the distant village. There was a natural affinity and bonhomie among immigrants. He was welcomed with open arms, bathed, clothed and fed. However, that night Ajay wept profusely remembering his home and his parents. He could not sleep properly.

Next day onwards, he observed the routine followed by his countrymen. Most of them were daily labourers working in construction sites. He was just a child so no one offered him a job. A week passed by. His money started slowly dwindling. He was aware that soon he must find some work to sustain his livelihood in the city. The landlady’s wife took pity in him and offered him the work of a labourer at her construction site. Ajay, being the only ‘educated’ among the lot started keeping account of daily expenditure of the household. Soon he was able to shortchange them and managed to earn some money besides managing his contribution to the household expenses.

Within a fortnight of his arrival, Ajay started earning regularly as a labourer. He would do any type of manual work. However, he kept his eyes and ears open to the skilled functions of the construction works. He learnt the electrician work and started taking up such tasks.

After about 6 months of his stay, his father arrived at Dallupura one fine morning. The news of Ajay’s safe arrival at Dallupura had reached his village within a fortnight. His parents were a worried lot till the news reached. Ajay was not at home when his father arrived. In the evening when Ajay returned from his daily work, he could recognize the ‘dhoti’ getting dried in courtyard. At once, he knew that his father had arrived. Both the father and son wept their heart out on seeing each other and hugged tight. That night the duo eat from the same plate and talked till late night. The father wanted to take the son back to village but Ajay was adamant. He assured that he would come later. His father stayed for a week and Ajay saw him off after buying his return ticket and also gave him Rs.3000, savings from his earnings so far and more than 4 times the money he stole from his father’s purse. Ajay was just 11 then.

The lessons of life quickly arrived for Ajay. He understood the power of money. He knew that not being educated has its drawbacks but at the same time hard work, in any form, pays. It’s quite puzzling that he was poor at studies but very sharp in picking up the nuances of construction work. Spending few years in various odd jobs, he attained some skill in electrical works. However, he abruptly left the electrical work. He was bitten by a bug while fixing a ceiling fan and also received electric shock one day and fell from about 12 feet height.

With the help of one of his acquaintances, he learnt the ‘jari’ work on garments and worked till 2006 in a garment factory. He learnt the tailoring work also there and could stitch pants and shirts. He left that job due to ‘computerisation’ of designs. The artwork by hand was affected by computer aided designs and it hit the manual artisans.

In that year, Ajay picked up the ‘karni’, a tool used by masons. Since he had worked in construction sites and helped the masons, he soon, was proficient in masonry works. He has been continuing as mason since then and earning about Rs.20000 a month.

Ajay had visited his native village 18 months after he had escaped. He was kind of ‘hero’ at his village who was not only the only one to make such a ‘brave’ and ‘dangerous’ effort to escape but also a earning member of the family at such a tender age. He had taken gifts for everyone in his family and gave some cash also to his parents. He was at his village for about three weeks and when he boarded the train back to Delhi, he was given a warm send-off by his entire clan. Ajay was just 12.

Now almost 18 years in the city, Ajay has made steady progress both economically and profession-wise. He is a skilled worker now earning at least Rs.800 a day. He takes up petty jobs on contract also to augment his earnings. He is married and has two sons. His family is in the village and he sends his children to ‘private’ schools in the village as there is no education in ‘sarkari’ (govt.) schools. His elder son is in class 5 and like him does not like to study. The only lure which takes the son to school is a daily allowance of Rs 5 or 10 which his mother gives him. For this purpose Ajay saves all the changes he receives during the year and delivers to his wife when he visits them annually, during October-November. Ajay is afraid that his son may follow his path. He is a father and now understands the agony his parents have gone through when he ran away from home.

There are hundreds of such stories of migrant child labourers in every big city. I came to know Ajay just last week when there was some masonry work in my new flat. He found a keen listener in me and narrated his story. I found it amazing and worth blogging.

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Beli

It has occurred to me many a time to write a profile on Beli. She has been our maid for the longest period. A frail lady (not weighing more than 90 pounds at any point of time) helped my wife in cleaning the house, washing clothes and doing the dishes. From an early morning visit to the last visit in the evening, she completed her tasks without any criticism from any of my family members. Her bell in the morning woke up the entire family. Only my wife would get up and open the door while all others would leave their beds depending upon the urgency. Beli’s task in that hour included doing the dishes and broom the Puja room. She would leave for another house thereafter only to return after a couple of hours to clean the house and help in washing clothes. My wife would dutifully provide her with some refreshment before she leaves at that hour. Her last visit for the day would be in the evening. At any given time, Beli would manage such work for at least 4 to 5 households. In between, she would visit her one room tenement to cook for her family, bath herself and come back to resume her jobs. She has been methodical and never gave any opportunity for complaints. Always smiling, she did her job to the best of her ability.

Beli came to this part of the country in search of work in the early part of the last decade. She came from an obscure and nondescript village in another nondescript district in the state of West Bengal. Migrant workers, in search of jobs, came in hordes when the city started developing rapidly in early 2000. The menial jobs were in demand, especially the household jobs. For a housewife, a maid is a blessing and a boon at the same time. The poor from the local populace were not much interested or skilled in such jobs. Mostly peasants, the local populace somehow despised the job of cleaning someone’s house or doing the dishes. The women folk of the migrant labourers took the job rather enthusiastically as the jobs were aplenty and it added to the family income. The rentals were high, cost of living in a town was already a matter of strain to the family and the lowly paid jobs of the men in factories were not sufficient to run the household. Many migrant men took up the jobs of rickshaw puller where the income was not steady and factory jobs were scarce. Hence the women of the house joined their husbands to supplement the income to eke out a moderate standard of living.

Beli came with her husband and three children, two daughters and one son. The couple was landless labourers. Her husband was not trained in any particular skill. So he started with rickshaw puller’s work which fetched him irregular income. Beli had no choice but to start working in nearby houses/flats. They lodged themselves in a one room tenement at an adjoining urban village at an astronomical rent of Rs.1000 in early 2000. Astronomical by their standards! Though rooms with lesser rent were available, Beli preferred paying a little extra since the building had toilet facility. Beli, for herself and also for her two minor daughters, did not like the idea of open defecation, one of the many qualities of Beli. So she agreed to pay a little higher rent. She has enlightened already without realising that such a thing will become a state-sponsored movement much later.

The wages for doing dishes, washing clothes or cleaning/dusting households were mostly fixed by the society managements. In our area, there are no individual houses. Group housing societies have constructed flats for their members and such jobs were available in these households. I remember the rates prevailing in 2003 when we started living in this area. It was Rs.250 per job per month. So for one household, maximum Rs.750 was earned by a maid if she did all the three jobs. Considering the households and the composition of each family, a maid could manage only 4 to maximum 5 households. This was really a backbreaking job. Fortunately, though the rates were fixed, certain households were benevolent. They paid a little extra to the maids with the twin purpose of earning goodwill and ensuring loyalty. The attrition rate was high among the maids. There are various reasons for it. However, the behaviour of the households was the most important reason. The maids came from a poor background. But they did not accept nonsense. Any rude or unbecoming attitude was enough reason for any maid to say good-bye. A little extra amount every month was a boon for the maid. Apart from that, residents like my wife, who gave a little refreshment every morning to Beli, also took care of extra payments or gifts during festivals, arranged for school dresses for their children and took care during illness. My wife lent her advance money at times for some sudden requirement to be repaid at leisure. Beli was at ease in working in our home particularly for two reasons, one she has the liberty to take leave as and when she needed and secondly she could talk to my mother in her mother tongue. My mother, who is also from a remote village in North Bengal liked to talk to her, endlessly.

Beli took special care in educating her children. There were opportunities for her minor daughters to supplement the family income. There was a demand of minor servants at houses who would take care of the aged family members or babysitting by staying either full-time or part-time till the other members return home. But Beli didn’t like it. She was of the firm opinion not to push her children in the same trade. She started educating her children. Both her daughters covered primary school education. The elder one was given vocational training in sewing. A tall girl by her age, her elder daughter was smarter among the lot. She did start working in houses but not as a maid but as a cook. The son’s education was continued till school final. Now he works in a local factory.

Beli was ahead of her age in finance management. She had a bank account (much before the hoopla of ‘financial inclusion’ started) and she saved whatever she could. The household expenses increased over the years. Of course, the remuneration was also hiked but the gap remained. Beli managed within her means. Her husband’s finances never improved. He remained a rickshaw puller and irregular in earnings. A lethargic man who depended heavily on his wife’s earnings.

She had an ambition of having her own pucca house at her village. The family’s only possession was a thatched hut at their village which required repairs every year. Due to floods, the living condition in a mud hut with thatched roof was pathetic. Beli wanted to change. With a trickle every now and then, she saved enough to build the house consisting of just one room. It was her accomplishment. She was now not afraid of floods.

As it happens in villages till date, early marriages are common. Beli withstood the pressure. She married both her daughters after they reached the age of eighteen. This was also an accomplishment for her that on her own she arranged the money for their marriage. She was also instrumental in bringing the son-in-laws to this city to get them suitably employed as there was not much opportunity in their villages.

I have booked her railway tickets online sometimes as the agent who booked tickets charged extra for no reasons. I observed that she liked to travel in reserved compartments, though many of her compatriots travelled in unreserved compartments for the sake of less fare. She continuously aimed at improving her living standards and imparted the same thought among her children.

Beli has now left the job of cleaning the houses or doing dishes. Because of her frail health, it was becoming difficult for her to do those laborious jobs. She was a good cook and started cooking for few households where the money is good and the job was less strenuous. But due to her loyalty to our family, she continued doing the job until last year. She arranged a substitute for us and then she left the job. Even now she is available in case of any need.

Beli now pays a rent of Rs.3200 for the same one-room tenement. Rs. 200 is extra for having an attached bath cum toilet. She cooks lunch and dinner for some houses. In our building, she does it for two houses. One house has 3 girls for whom she buys vegetables and other stuff required for cooking. With her pleasant smile and no-nonsense attitude, she easily becomes a necessity in whichever household she works. Beli has started construction of her house at her village. In fact, she has managed to acquire a small piece of adjoining land to build a two-room house. She is proud of her achievements.

Beli had turned a grandmother before she turned 50. Taking long leave, she went to her daughters’ village to help labour and subsequent care of the mother and child. She has built a reputation of good work and unflinching loyalty which helped her to take back her position once she returned to the city, every time. The households, where she had worked, are always ready to avail her services even she has been absent for long periods, sometimes months together.

I sum up this writing with a bow to Beli who is a symbol of survival instinct in an alien condition. When arrived, she was just unaware of anything and everything about the place. The language was foreign to her, the people were unfriendly and hostile, the customs were opposite to what she has learnt so far when she arrived, women were (and still are) ogled, exploitation by the local villagers of the migrants were in vogue, the households where she was employed were looking for opportunities to get extra work done without paying, there was no fixed timing of work – all at the whims of the household, there were filth and stench where she lived (the landlord has cow and buffalo sheds near their tenement), the husband’s income was not dependable, there were three minor mouths to feed at least twice in a day and there was no future or certainty.

Beli survived and flourished against all odds.