"I AM LOOKING FOR A MAN named Mohammed Ashraf," I said to a short, scruffy man who identified himself as Lalloo.
"I had interviewed him for a story last year. I'm from the press." Mohammed Ashraf is a short man, a slight man, a dark man with salt-and-pepper hair; a sharp man, a lithe man, a polite man with a clipped moustache and reddish eyes. I first met him in December 2005 while working on a story on a proposed Delhi government bill to provide health insurance for construction workers. I had spoken with all the experts, gotten all my quotes, and arrived early one morning to meet some construction workers, hoping to fit their views into a story that, for all purposes, I had already written. As I recall, Ashraf had been a terrible interview subject. He had refused to answer any questions directly, choosing instead to offer up quotes like: "If you had studied psychology, you would know that if you sleep without washing your feet, you get nightmares." After this cryptic insight, he had clammed up and refused to offer his opinion on the Building and Other Construction Workers Act of 1996 and its proposed successor.
Six months later I was back in Sadar Bazaar, this time on a fellowship, searching for that very same Ashraf with the bombastic quotes. It would be a struggle to convince him to actually answer my questions, but I had time and Ashraf, as my editors and I had noted, made for excellent copy.
"Ashraf? ASHRAF!" Lalloo shouted as we picked our way through the maze of alleys behind Bara Tooti Chowk in Sadar Bazaar. "Look what a nice angrezi murgi we've found you!"
"An AC-type murgi", added Rehaan, a muscular young boy of about 18, who sidled up to the two of us, and had crushed, filled and smoked a joint by the time we found Ashraf nursing a hangover in a shady corner of Barna Galli.
"You've come back," said Ashraf, pulling on his beedi. "Are you working on another story?"
"No, no," I replied. "This time it's a research project. I want to understand the mazdoor ki zindagi—the life of the labourer. I want to interview you some more."
"What happened to the last one? Did you bring a cutting of your article?"
"No." "Well, bring it next time. Do you want some tea?"
Peering closely at the magazine I brought on my next visit, Ashraf tried not to sound disappointed. "But this doesn't have my photo! This after you made me pose with a brush in one hand."
"But I quoted you," I pointed out. "Thrice". "I can see that. But no photo." And that's how I fell in with Ashraf, Lalloo and Rehaan.
They made for an odd crew: Ashraf, the quick-witted dreamer of schemes, Lalloo, who walked with a limp and served as a foil for Ashraf's ideas, and Rehaan, the quiet boy with a smouldering joint who didn't say very much but listened to everything. It's hard to tell if they even got along, but then getting along is largely beside the point in Bara Tooti, where the jokes are dark and largely unintelligible to outsiders, and conversations tangential and prone to the most unlikely non sequiturs.
"I knew this man," Rehaan once said, apropos of nothing, "who used to inject his testicles to get high. What do you think of that, Aman bhai?"
A CENTURY AGO, there were no directions to Sadar Bazaar—the market was where most journeys began. One of Delhi's oldest bazaars, Sadar began as a grain market on the banks of a stream that ran all the way from Haryana, right through Azad Market Chowk, past the crossing where Novelty Cinema still stands, and up towards Red Fort before joining the Yamuna river. The waterway has long been paved over; but traders talk of the urli and palli sides of Azad Market as if the bazaar were still riven by a stream rather than a noisy, throbbing strip of traffic.
Unlike the more scenic parts of the city, Sadar Bazaar shows up on tourist maps of Delhi as the large empty space between the backpacker haven of Paharganj and picturesque Chandni Chowk. Her gruff shopkeepers are wholesalers of goods shorn of glamour: plastics, metal products, raw cotton, grains. Until recently, the bazaar functioned like a small city: goods produced at one end of Sadar were stocked in shops sold at the other. After a 2004 Supreme Court order banned factory work within city limits, the factories have fallen silent, but you can still buy fizzy drinks in Choona Mandi that have been bottled in the nether regions of Paharganj.
Ashraf lives in Bara Tooti Chowk, the crossing of twelve taps, one of Sadar's road intersections. Despite its name, there isn't a faucet in sight, let alone any drinking water. "I think the taps were installed by the Mughals," said the proprietor of Garg Sweets, a prominent confectioner at the chowk. "I think it was the British," said his son sitting next to him. Given that there is no trace of them, the running joke is that they must have been installed by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.
The chowk is now one of Delhi's largest labour mandis, literally a labour market, on the streets of which daily wagers like Ashraf live, work, drink and dream. To get there, I would usually ride up early mornings on my motorcycle from Connaught Place, straight past New Delhi Railway Station, under the Daryaganj flyover, along Qutb Road, before turning left through the wholesale cotton market at Rui Mandi.
On other days, I would approach the chowk from Sadar Thana Road, and stop just short of the actual intersection itself. On the left was a small structure composed of bathroom tiles that I had once mistaken for a public urinal—only to realize that it was, in fact, a roadside shrine. On good days, Ashraf would be sitting by the shrine with a beedi and a cup of tea, chatting up construction contractors and hustling for work. On bad days, he'd be nursing his hangover at Kaka's tea shop in an alley behind the main intersection.
Kaka's tea shop wasn't much of a shop as it was the fossilized remains of a creature formed by the inbreeding of generations of pots, pans, stoves and cement. The shop began as a large concrete shelf—about six feet high, 10 feet across, and three feet deep—fused onto the rear wall of the Aggarwal Samiti Mandir premises, but soon grew to take up most of the alleyway called Barna Galli. The temple management had leased out half the shelf to a silent machinist, who spent his day crouched on his narrow ledge with an array of lathes, wires, capacitors and resistors for company.
On the other half lay a disused kerosene stove, a large rectangular coffee machine, a telephone, and jars of tea, coffee, sugar, cardamom and flaky, biscuit-like 'fen'. On a large table placed adjacent to the shelf, a kettle hissed on a gas burner placed amid glasses, teaspoons, sieves and packets of milk. On the floor, a few feet from the table, a young boy stirred a shallow vat of milk propped up over a gas burner by a set of bricks. A second boy scurried around taking orders from workers seated all along the alley.
Sanjay 'Kaka' Kumar was a flabby 40-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard. He sat comfortably on a plastic chair placed equidistant from all three stoves, directing his assistants with a series of precise hand gestures and the occasional curse. His tea shop was currently the subject of a legal battle between the jeweller who had built the shelf and the temple management that owned the wall on which the shelf was built. The jeweller had subletted the space out to Kaka, who dutifully deposited his rent of two hundred rupees every month in court.
Bara Tooti began its day at Kaka's tea shop. The milk would arrive by five in the morning and the first batch of 'morning special' tea would be ready by a quarter past five. Ashraf and Lalloo would show up soon after and sit on a low ledge, waiting for the early morning cramps that milky tea and a beedi invariably produce.
"It's almost eight and they are still sitting here," Kaka would exclaim irrespective of when I arrived. "Outside at the chowk, work has come and gone, but these two are still waking up. Drink your chai, smoke your beedi, pay your two rupees for a shit, and go for work."
"What's so special about the morning special?" I once asked Kaka.
"It helps build pressure," Kaka replied. "You understand pressure? Because a man doesn't truly wake up till he shits."
IF YOU WANT A JOB in Bara Tooti, wake up early, order a cup of chai and wait by the main road—work will come to you. Shopkeepers looking to extend their storage space by knocking down a wall between two adjacent rooms; house owners looking to turn a balcony into an extra bedroom; contractors searching for extra labour; families looking for someone to whitewash their staircase the day before their daughter's wedding—they all come down to Bara Tooti in search of mistrys and beldaars, karigars and mazdoors.
At Bara Tooti, work is divided into 'lines' based on their perceived emphasis on skill versus strength. Tasks that require specific skills—like plumbing, carpentry, cooking or painting—are called 'karigari' lines; these are professions where the worker must first apprentice under a master craftsman or ustad before becoming a full-fledged master himself.
A mazdoor is a general term used to describe any labourer, but mazdoori describes a much broader collection of professions. In mazdoori lines like rickshaw pullers, porters (palledars), or even helpers (who consider themselves partly of the 'helpery' line) at a roadside stall, the worker is expected to simply follow orders as efficiently and honestly as possible.
Construction offers a space for all three classes: karigar mistrys, helper beldaars and ordinary mazdoors. A mistry, in any industry, is essentially an 'expert'; in the construction industry, his primary job is to supervise the mixing of the 'masala' of cement, sand and water to make concrete. It sounds like a simple job, but the recipe has to vary according to the weather, cost and type of construction. The beldaar is the mistry's understudy. After the mistry has measured out the proportions of the masala, it is the beldaar who actually mixes the masala to make a smooth paste that is used to glue brick to brick, smoothen out floors, and strengthen the pillars that hold up the roof.
Lowest in the chain, mazdoors are responsible for carrying building materials like sand, water or rubble; breaking down existing structures; digging trenches; or helping build the scaffolding. While a mistry makes about '50 a day, a mazdoor makes between '100 and '150. However, these wages are purely indicative; at one point, when work was particularly slow, mistrys were making about '175 a day, while mazdoors were earning only '80. The raj mistry sits at the top of the hierarchy. A grizzled veteran of many years, he functions as the architect, chief engineer, and head foreman rolled into one.
The raj mistry usually picks up the contract, or theka, from a house owner or shopkeeper interested in modifying a building and then recruits a team of his own comprising lesser mistrys, beldaars and ordinary mazdoors. As the theka holder, the raj mistry keeps what's left after everyone in the workforce has been paid.
Of course, none of these categories are immutable; in times of crisis, mistrys swallow their pride and work in the trenches along with the mazdoors. When work is plentiful and mistrys are in short supply, ustads working on more than one construction site often pass on trade secrets to their understudies so that work progresses smoothly.
Mohammed Ashraf is a safediwallah. Sometimes he is a mazdoor at a construction site hauling sacks of cement up endless flights of stairs; sometimes he is a beldaar mixing the cement that mazdoors bring to him; but he sees himself primarily as a safedi karigar, a master house painter. He is not a tall man and so, in a sense, not particularly suited to his line of work. Ideally, safediwallahs are expected to be tall and long-limbed, with slender bodies that drape themselves around ladders, and elongated arms that cover walls, shutters and shopfronts with easy, elegant strokes.
Mohammed Ashraf is short and stubby, with a narrow but muscular chest and small, broad hands balanced on strong, flexible wrists. He is built just like a mazdoor—short, stable and perfectly suited for lifting and carrying. But Ashraf does not grudge the throw of the dice that has made him a safediwallah with a mazdoor's body. A small man's body can do things that a slender chamak-challo cannot even contemplate.
A small man carries the ground close to him wherever he goes, even as he hangs along the side of a building three storeys high. It is the memory of the ground that allows him to crawl into crevices, perch on narrow ledges and balance on wobbly parapets. A short man knows the limits of his body, the extent of his reach, the exact position of his centre of balance. Unlike the tall man, he holds no illusions regarding his abilities or his dimensions; he will never overreach, overextend or overbalance.
IN THE EARLY DAYS, I worried that my interviews were keeping Ashraf and Lalloo from finding work, only to be assured by Ashraf that if they were wasting time talking to me, they probably weren't looking for work that day.
"Only the barsati mendaks work every day, Aman bhai," said Ashraf. "Not lafunters like us. We work when we feel like it."
The barsati mendaks, the rain frogs of Bara Tooti, are the seasonal workers from villages in Delhi's neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. Most of them have land back home, a few acres that their fathers own, which will soon be divided among brothers.
They first come in January after the winter crop has been harvested and the fields lie fallow, and return home in time for the sowing season in July. Once sowing is complete, they return to Bara Tooti for another few months of work before heading back to the village around Diwali.
The barsati mendaks work frantically and live frugally to save as much money as they can. In the weeks leading up to Diwali they stop drinking or smoking, and save every last rupee so as to have something to show for the long absence from home. On the day before they leave, the mendaks hurriedly pay off their debts and pile into interstate buses headed homewards, leaving behind a corps of hardened Bara Tooti denizens.
Old-timers like Lalloo and Ashraf, with nowhere to go to and no one to send money to, sit by the roadside shrine I once almost pissed on, puffing on their beedis, rolling joints, and sipping whisky and water out of disposable Pepsi glasses. As Lalloo put it: "We are old frogs now, Aman bhai, with nowhere to hop to..."
Ashraf and Lalloo met in Paharganj at a labour chowk called Choona Mandi, when Ashraf had just started work as a safediwallah. Lalloo had once worked as a mazdoor, but a road accident had left him with a steel rod in his shin, rendering him incapable of heavy work. Lalloo bought a small handcart with the compensation he received and sold hot parathas to the mazdoors at the chowk.
One morning, Ashraf awoke to find Lalloo passed out beside him. "He was completely drunk, Aman bhai. Fast asleep with his ass in the air." The handcart was gone—lost in a game of cards to some man whose face and name were beyond Lalloo's recollection. Lalloo had sold off the remaining utensils in exchange for several bottles of alcohol and fallen into a deep sleep for nearly a day and a half. When he finally awoke, he had shed his earlier skin as a parathawallah and become a mazdoor, a metamorphosis that left him rather disturbed. Drinking with Lalloo was always unnerving; when drunk he was prone to fits of hysterical laughter that gave way to tears that rolled down his wrinkled face and vanished into his stubble.
As Ashraf would often say, with a wink of the eye and tilt of the head: "Lalloo is a bit crack."
ASHRAF AND LALLOO could be described as 'work oriented' rather than 'work seeking'. They usually worked for a week at a time, followed by a week of leisure financed by their earnings. Some weeks, Ashraf would make up to a thousand rupees, but he had to be careful when his money ran out.
"The worst was this one morning when I woke up—still completely drunk—and I didn't have two rupees to take a shit," Ashraf once said when we were sitting with Rehaan and Lalloo at Kaka's.
"All my money was gone. Everything. And I didn't know where Lalloo was. I had to ask Kaka for the money—oh, the humiliation.
"'Kaka, can I have two rupees?' I ask.
"'Why two rupees, Ashraf bhai? You can have this tea for free.'
"'No, tea will make it worse; I need two rupees.' 'But what can you get for two rupees these days?'
"Oh god, it was terrible." Ashraf shuddered at the thought. "I think I should just keep two rupees in my special pocket."
All the clothes in Bara Tooti had special pockets for money and important papers: a breast pocket sown on the inside of the shirt, rather than the outside; a pouch stitched into the waistband of a pair of faded trousers; an extra pocket-inside-a-pocket. Every mazdoor a walking album panelled with money, papers, phone numbers and creased photocopies of ration cards.
Rehaan, for instance, always carried two tattered photocopies of his ration card (registered back home in Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh), a copy of his class five mark sheet that looked like it had survived a flood, a small black telephone diary and his entire medical history in the form of a prescription for a painkiller—all secreted in various pockets on his person. In a plastic bag that never left his side, he carried a blurry X-ray of a large translucent bone gleaming against a greenish black background.
"Inside pocket, outside pocket, it doesn't make a difference if you are dead drunk on a pavement in Old Delhi," Lalloo once said sullenly. "You can save a thousand rupees only to have it stolen in one night. Perfectly decent young boys, who neither smoke nor drink, have awoken to find their slippers stolen in the night. Who knows where money goes in the night? In the morning there is always mazdoori."
In the morning there will be shops to be painted, walls to be built, loads to be lifted and trenches to be dug. There is always work on offer, but Ashraf and Lalloo have been around long enough to keep a lookout for the right job.
"The ideal job," Ashraf once said, as if elucidating a complex mathematical function, "has the perfect balance of kamai and azadi." Through the course of his life, a working man must experiment with as many combinations as he can before discovering the point where these counteracting forces offset each other to arrive at a solitary moment of serenity—a point when he is both free and fortunate. At that point, a man may be excused for rocking back and forth gently, tempting fate on both sides—reaching out for that tipping point, but sliding back before his fingers touch either side. Alas, it is bliss that few, like Ashraf, attain.
"Kamai is what makes work work. Without kamai, it is not work, it is a hobby. Some call it charity; others may call it exercise—but it certainly isn't a job. A job is something a man is paid to do—and his pay is his kamai. Many of us..." Ashraf paused to stand up and take in the tea-sipping mazdoors, the gossiping mistrys and the lazing beldaars in a smooth arc of his arm. "Many of us choose jobs only on the basis of their kamai. Six thousand rupees a month! A man could get rich with that kind of money! But they forget a crucial thing. What is that crucial thing?
"Azadi, Aman bhai, Azadi", he continued without waiting for an answer. "Azadi is the freedom to tell the maalik to fuck off when you want to. The maalik owns our work. He does not own us. Every morning a hundred contractors come to Bara Tooti offering permanent jobs for six thousand rupees a month. But those haramis wouldn't pay their mother six thousand rupees if she worked for them. On the first day, the contractor will give you two hundred rupees and say: 'Let no one say that contractor Choduram Aggarwal doesn't pay his workers.' On the second day he will do the same. But on the third day, he will give you only hundred rupees, and promise to pay you the rest later. By the end of the second week, he will pay you only a third of what he owes you. And by the end of the month, you will realize that contractor Choduram Aggarwal really does not pay his workers. But by now it is too late. You can't leave. He owes you three thousand rupees already. You are now... What are you now, Aman bhai?"
"I have no idea, Ashraf bhai." It was clear that these questions were purely rhetorical.
"A gulam! A slave. A khacchar, a mule with neither kamai nor azadi. Which is why the best way to earn is on dehadi. If Choduram pays you on the first day, you work for him on the second. He pays on the second, work for the third. He stops paying, you stop working. After all, even if you are an LLPP, you still have your self-respect."
Ashraf couldn't help grinning to himself. This was classic Ashraf. There was a punchline somewhere, but he wasn't going to give it away cheap. He paused for a theatrical pull on his beedi and intoned with mock gravitas: "In the super-specialized world of today everyone needs a degree. Some are BAs, some are MAs, some are CAs and the truly unfortunate are PAs. The really well read are PhDs, but here on the chowk, 90 percent of the mazdoors are LLPPs—the universal degree that we are all born with."
"An LLPP?" "Yes, an LLPP—Likh Lowda Padh Patthar. And when they ask you what you are, answer loudly and proudly. Chances are they will never know what it means."
What it means, literally, is Write Penis Read Stone—Ashraf-speak for someone who is completely illiterate. Ashraf is proud of his literacy; he can even read little bits of English. He carried a pocket-sized Hindi-to-English dictionary in his sling bag for years; the idea was to learn one English word a day, but he never got around to doing it. Then he lost his bag.
Ashraf understands the need to appear educated. Many years ago, Ashraf had a friend who, when asked what his qualifications were, answered, "Double BA".
"The other party was so impressed that they gave us the contract right away."
"So what were his degrees in, Ashraf bhai?"
"Oh, in nothing and nothing. In Bengali, we say 'biye' for marriage. Raja was twice married, hence 'double biye'. Smart, no?"
"In our line, we have to be brilliant," Ashraf continued with some earnestness. "To become a businessman you should be ready for anything, you should have answers for everything."
Before becoming a safediwallah at Bara Tooti, Ashraf was many things in many places: he sold lemons, eggs, chickens, vests, suit lengths and lottery tickets. He worked as a butcher, a tailor, an electrician's apprentice. He studied biology, he learnt how to repair television sets. He lived in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Patna and somewhere in Punjab.
To become a businessman is Ashraf's fondest dream because he believes it will free him from the clutches of a maalik forever. Even a mazdoor must answer to the man who hires him for the day; but to be a businessman, Ashraf believes, is to never have to be answerable to anyone.
ON A BLAZING AFTERNOON in June, Ashraf and his cohorts retired to one of the shady alleyways surrounding Bara Tooti. It was too hot to work, too hot to drink, too hot to sleep, and since there is little else to do at the chowk, mazdoors sat around swapping stories in a desultory, disinterested manner that went something like this:
"It's so hot, yaar..."
"This is nothing. Once I was travelling between Lucknow and Kanpur in the month of May... That day it was so hot the floor of the bus was chaka-chak with sweat..."
"Lucknow? I didn't know you were from Lucknow..." "I'm not, I'm from Meerut..." "It must get really hot in Meerut..." "Not as hot as here..."
"God, it's so hot..."
Most stories are travellers' tales, beginning with a bus, truck or train ride and ending with: "...and then I came to Bara Tooti, and it has been the same ever since."
Ashraf tells me one of his favourite stories—that of his first night in Delhi when, for him, the city was still a mysterious place of freedom, camaraderie and possibility.
"I arrived on the late night train from Surat, Gujarat, around half past nine, at Old Delhi Railway Station. I had nothing on me. Absolutely nothing. One bundle of clothes and maybe two or three beedis.
"On the train someone had said that in Delhi, the police harassed those who slept on railway platforms, so I thought I would sleep outside Jama Masjid. But the guard told me that the masjid was closed for the night. I slipped into one of the lanes near the masjid and I saw some people playing cards.
"You should always ask permission before approaching a group of card players because if any money goes missing later, they will always blame it on you. So I said: 'Bhaiya, I'm new to this place. Can I sleep somewhere around here?' They looked up. One of them said: 'Have you eaten?' I shook my head. He pressed a five-rupee coin into my hand and pointed me towards a stall.
"I ate, bought some beedis, unrolled my sheet and fell asleep right there on the pavement."
When he awoke the next morning, the city was already wide awake. Last night's card players had disappeared, as had the food stall, the beedi seller and even the security guard. Only Jama Masjid remained where it had been last night, its onion-shaped domes reassuring in their solidity.
Ashraf spent the first week exploring the city, searching out work and places to sleep. "And then I found Bara Tooti and it has been the same ever since," Ashraf concludes with a wry smile.
"But if Delhi is such a boring place, why does anyone even come here?" I ask.
"It's hard to say, Aman bhai. Everyone has their own special reasons, personal reasons, family reasons, emotional reasons. You can't just go around asking people why they are here.
"There is something Delhi can give you—a sense of azadi, freedom from your past. Everyone knows Delhi. Delhi has Qutub Minar, Red Fort, Old Fort. For every person who makes a bit of money in Delhi, an entire village arrives in search of work. So if you are leaving home, you might as well come to Delhi. Where else would a runaway run away to?"
One summer afternoon, I met a painter called Idris who claimed that he came away to Delhi after he shot someone with a country-made pistol. "Did you kill him?" "No, that was the biggest mistake. He survived and now he wants to kill me.
"There are just two types of people here," he said, pulling me close. "Those who pull the trigger, and those who survive the shootout. Goli maar ke bhi log aate hain. Goli kha ke bhi log aate hain."
(Excerpted from A Free Man, to be published this month by Random House.)