On 11 September 2014, as the Kashmir Valley suffered floods caused by torrential rainfall, the newspaper DNA carried an article headlined “Over 100 Odisha plumbers stranded in Jammu and Kashmir.” All these plumbers belonged to Odisha’s Kendrapara district, the story said. In 2011, a “band of migrant plumbers from Kendrapara” was similarly stuck in the middle of an armed conflict in Libya, according to the news website Rediff. Another 2011 report, in The Hindu, talked about Oriya plumbers in Libya who were duped by a fake placement agency that had promised them jobs in the United Kingdom. I knew it wasn’t a coincidence that the plumbers of Kendrapara cropped up again and again in stories about Oriya migrants. It is a running joke in Odisha—where I grew up—that if the state wasn’t a part of India, the country’s plumbing system would collapse.
Kendrapara is the plumbing capital of Odisha, perhaps even of all India. But Kendrapara’s plumbing capital is a small village, Pattamundai, where practically every man is employed as a plumber, or is related to someone who is. The village is home to the State Institute of Plumbing Technology, or SIPT, the only institute in the country dedicated to plumbing. Pattamundai’s plumbers have migrated not only to most parts of India, but also to many different corners of the world, especially the Gulf countries and West Asia.
I visited Pattamundai in late November. As I talked to several people across the village, one name that kept coming up was Choudhry Pradhan. Many villagers remembered him as the first man to venture outside the village to become a plumber, but the historical details were, at best, sketchy. This was until I met 72-year-old Purushottam Behera, Choudhry’s nephew, who approached me after overhearing a conversation I was having with a villager in the street. With Behera, it all fell into place. I found the first plumbing family of Pattamundai.
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