City Life – Three Masked Mistris, South Delhi
Life in corona.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Just a few cars are passing by, the faces of the drivers hidden behind masks. A Mother Dairy milk booth is lying half-shuttered. The yellow circles in front of the booth, drawn just a few weeks ago to maintain social distancing among the customers, is by now so firmly imprinted on the ground as if it were always there. Beside the booth, a vegetable seller is waiting for customers under a peepal tree. His mask has slipped, leaving his nose exposed to the elements.
This is a Sunday afternoon scene in a south Delhi locality. Soon, three men appear, walking slowly on the pavement. Two of them are wearing masks while the third one’s face is wrapped in a gamcha scarf.
“We are mistri (carpenters),” says the man in the black mask. It’s the first time in the many weeks of the lockdown caused by coronavirus pandemic that they are heading to work. “We have been told that from now on, people are free to get out from sunrise to sunset for work,” says the man in the purple gamcha.
Counting themselves lucky to have an assignment, the men are on their way to a building site in the neighbourhood—“some mantainance work”, says the mistri in black mask.
The man whose face is covered in the gamcha is holding the auzaar, or work tools, for all three of them.
They seem to be in no hurry and agree to stop for a brief chat.
Awadh Raj (black mask), Sanjeev (gamcha) and Lakhan (green mask) live together in a one-room dwelling in the vicinity. In their 20s, they all are from Satna district in Madhya Pradesh, but not from the same village.
“Delhi is full of labourers from our MP (Madhya Pradesh),” notes the man in gamcha. They first met each other in the city a year back, became friends, and decided to share a room. “Earlier we would be living in whatever building site the contractor would send us to.”
Now they have become freelancers, and have established a network of contacts that allows them to find work without any middleman.
The last month was obviously full of challenges. “We were trapped in the room,” says Awadh Raj; he uses the Hindi word “phase gaye” to describe the situation. “We were not able to earn even dus paisa… we couldn’t send any money to our families in the village… we were drawing daily expenses from the cash we had in our wallets.”
The men are not very hopeful about the coming days. “Once the trains start to run again, I will go back to my village,” says Lakhan, the youngest of them, speaking for the first time.
Awadh Raj stares at his friend’s masked face, his eyes suggesting that he is in deep thought. Placing his arm on the metal railings running alone one side of the pavement, he talks of his wife who calls him up every two or three days, and insists that he should stay in the city. “She says that she is taking care of our children and of my parents, and that I need not worry about them.” His wife fears that he won’t be able to make any money if he returns to the village now. The family has a little land that does yield a small portion of crop now and then “but there is absolutely no water left for agriculture, and the nearby towns don’t have enough factories or construction projects to ensure steady assignments.”
The three men stands motionless in silence for a few moments. Suddenly a storm starts, the wind dances with hissing sounds, and the air turns yellow with dust. The pink flowers of an adjacent bougainvillea fall off from its branches like a fountain. The men lower their head, probably to protect their eyes from dust, and walk away with a hurried pace.