The Castaways

An encounter with migrant workers in Delhi's sweatshops

Imagine the world of such routine darkness.

 |  The Castaways  |  10-minute read |   26-09-2017
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"We have no expectations from the city. Not even sunshine. Breathe, sleep, f*ck, work, shit, whatever you do, do it here with no light. Absence of sun makes you depressed."

A migrant worker told me this in 2015 when I had gone to look for sunshine in a cramped world of such men. I am a migrant here, too. A privileged one. But I know that the absence of sun can make you depressed. It would be an act of underestimation if I said that the absence of love can make you depressed. Such imagination is the luxury of our class. Perhaps we haven't lived in no sunshine places ever to even imagine an extreme place like this. Could hell be this?

Absence of sun can also make your bones weak. They say it leads to Vitamin D deficiency. You could die from that.

On some nights, when I am by myself in my apartment, I pick up random notebooks and return to stories. Out of habit and by choice. I had gone looking for S Anand, a publisher, who had written a note about the workers living here and how being neighbors with them felt. Both of us walked around the neighbourhood on a winter afternoon. Afterwards, the sun had felt nice as we sat drinking tea on his terrace. Absence is a powerful trigger. Here goes the story.

This is a no sunshine place. The buildings stand in a tight embrace as if they were clinging to one another out of desperation. Electric wires crisscross in a strange kind of entanglement looking like a complicated map to nowhere. I have come looking for a way to get to the netherworld of workers living in its hidden basements with no sunlight.

There are no regulations in this "Lal Dora". Nothing is planned, and nothing monitored. The alleys are so narrow that if I stretched my hands, I'd hit the walls and yet when you emerge out of its lanes, the glitter and glitz in the shop windows of designers make you feel embarrassed for your own ingratitude for looking for stories everywhere.

In the haphazard and squeezed buildings constructed to extract rent from the poor, workers live by the dozen in one-room tenements, and behind closed doors, they are bent on their machines embroidering pieces in gold and silver and colours. They are seldom distracted and are racing against time to finish the quota of work assigned to claim their meager daily wages. Maybe they will turn blind. Maybe they will not. Maybe it will just be a poor hazy vision with no money to fix it.

The rhythm of the machines and the songs they play on their mobile phones give these alleys their own music. You have walked into Dickensian times and spaces where disease and suffering are infectious.

In the inner alleys of Shahpur Jat, home to Delhi’s artists, fashion designers and writers, and a place of cafes and quirky restaurants, the nights and days seem the same. Each neighbourhood in the city hides a certain underbelly from where come the maids, cleaners and drivers.

Just outside, where the sun is bright, the boutiques sell the trousseaus for upwards of one lakh and, several women, whose faces have been pumped by Botox, are always looking for bling. While Delhi’s sweatshops are not a new story, the contrast in Shahpur Jat is most pronounced.

One morning, as S Anand, the publisher of Navayana, housed in one of these countless dark alleys, was trying to work, he was distracted by a Bengali melody. In his makeshift windowless office, he couldn’t afford to close the door, and because this is third floor, there’s a bit of sunshine that comes streaming in. Else, it is all dark. By the time one gets there, the darkness becomes familiar to the eyes.

In other words, you could say your eyes get accustomed to it. But you could still stumble and fall. Such is the treachery of darkness. You can never master it, tame it or even get used to it. It is neither a lover nor a beloved whose bodies and souls are stripped with a familiar gaze. Voids are infinite spaces. This could be a void, too.

He always knew that workers lived here in subhuman conditions but when he crosses the basement workshops, he feels sad to see the bodies huddled in a tiny room bent over their machines and constantly working.

“There is no monitoring of construction. This is a disaster zone and fire rescue can't enter here,” he says.

But then, deaths are just statistics here. Faceless, nameless people.

The workers come from faraway places like Midnapore district in West Bengal and are audacious enough in that they feel they will return home someday when they have made enough. The audacity of hope. That's a line I often remember. I also remember another line, "hope is our biggest enemy".

In this basement, there are 16 of them. The stools have been stacked in a corner to allow them to rest up for a bit. For six days, they work from 9am to 10pm and then sleep on the floor. It doesn't matter if the place stinks or is airless and suffocating. By then, they are too tired to notice such things. Heat and cold are relative. Maybe the poor are immune. Or maybe they are fated to bear the extremities. Night or day, it feels the same, they say.

Only on Sundays, they venture outside, ride the metro, and go to Chandni Chowk. That’s all they can afford. That's all they look forward to.

Aashiq Ali, 40, came to Delhi around eight years ago. He makes no more than Rs 12,000, and doesn’t complain about the conditions. It is enough they have work so they can support their families back home.

“We came to escape poverty. Sunshine is a luxury of the rich. Yes, it is brutally cold during winters here but we have no choice,” he says.

There are thousands of workers like Aashiq Ali here. They don’t bring their women here. Out of the basement near No 155, there’s a little open space where they can take a bath. They cook their meals outside, too.

Mujbir, a young boy, who is unsure of his age, and says he could be 17-18 years old, is learning to work the sewing machines. He sleeps with the other workers, and gets Rs 500 per week from the contractor. Perhaps, he will make more money when he has undergone the training.

Migration is not a choice but a necessity for many who have to leave their villages to look for work in cities. The city doesn't exist for them. They are its invisible people.

“Is there any option for us,” he says.

It is here that one stands witness to the brutalisation of industrialisation. A couple of years ago, S Anand had written the note “in Delhi, yet far from it” as an ode to his new surroundings.

It is just the back of the building they had previously occupied. In November 2015, he writes, “as part of a gentrification bid, the building was demolished and we were shifted to the rear end of the building: away from the sun and into the shadows, which till recently housed an embroidery workshop".

There is a painting by Julie Perczel that shows workers crouching on the side, poking needles into fabric, their heads lowered, and gazes fixed in a narrow window, and at the doorstep, an expensive bag and three opulent garments in red and orange and gold and silver zari. It shows the contrast. It is a sad illustration.

sweatshop-690_092617055253.jpgForget the luxuries of insurance and subsidised meals. They are on their own. Photo: YouTube

They hadn’t wanted to peep into the lives nor represent their misery, so they painted the unholy conditions of living in buildings that have been built to house the poor where the landlords didn’t deem it fit to even have a water pipeline. With a tank outside and a ramshackled, shared toilet. That’s how they have always lived – these workers, and they don’t complain about climate change. Here, the darkness is eternal. It is also non-negotiable.

“Right behind the erstwhile Navayana office, 50 men, including children, lived and worked across three floors, each about 600 square feet. They cooked in a tiny room (the vegetarian landlords complained of the smell of fish), and bathed in the stairway landing (where the sun peeps between buildings that almost lean on each other). While we moved into their house, we learnt that the workers were in turn pushed further into the underbelly of Shahpur Jat — a neat metaphor if there is one,” Anand writes.

“This corollary to the false self-sustenance exuded by the 'alternative village' hides behind half-drawn curtains and doors left ajar, and tube-light lit basements that, if lucky, have exhaust fans. Those willing to wander into the winding lanes may catch glimpses of men crouching over fabric pulled taut across wooden frames, their hands swiftly fixing the glitter on tomorrow’s wedding trousseaus.”

“We want to return to our village but we carry the burden of poverty,” Mujbir says. "We are trapped between two kinds of hell. There is no respite."

Imagine the world of such routine darkness.

Even the meat they cook is the abandoned kind of meat. The cooking smells are unhealthy, too. It stinks here. But I have chosen to be here. I have to right to complain.

According to Jeremy Seabrook, who wrote the book The Song of the Shirt about Dhaka’s sweatshops, in India, zari workers are paid 51 cents.

And although they aren’t held captive in the literal sense, in a metaphorical sense, they are.

And if an earthquake were to come, they would be buried among their gold and silver threads. But that’s the truth of migration. Once you leave home, you are vulnerable, Mohd Iftikar Ansari, 32, says.

He is from Bhagalpur district in Bihar, and came to Delhi to work as a zari worker 15 years ago. The payment is earned per piece and ranges from Rs 300 to Rs 350.

A piece can take up to 14 hours to embroider. And with each piece, they lose a little of their eyesight. Maybe I am exaggerating. At least I am not under-reporting.

Nazarul Islam, who has been in Delhi for 28 years, and at first worked in Karol Bagh but came to Shahpur Jat around five years ago, says they can’t negotiate. He wears thick glasses, and goes about the work in a mechanical fashion.

“We got to do what we got to do,” he says.

Forget the luxuries of insurance and subsidised meals. They are on their own.

“We don’t want to complain. We have no reference points for complaining. We would have starved in the village. We earn and send home,” he says. “We have come here to work."

“Are you depressed?”

“What does that mean,” Aashiq Ali asks.

“What you make sells for thousands in the boutiques.”

“We don’t enter such shops. We have no idea,” he says.

"What about the sun?" I ask.

"Maybe it doesn't enter such sweatshops," he says and looks me straight into the eyes.

I leave. Some stories bring back the sense of absence. I hope I see the sun tomorrow.

Also read: Is India ready for a universal basic income scheme?


Chinki Sinha Chinki Sinha @chinkis

Rover in the driftless area of the outcastes. Writing is a way of deleting.

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