Mission Delhi – Kashi Ram, Nehru Place
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
With his dhoti, turban, and weather-beaten slip-on shoes, he looks like a farmer walking through his village field, far away in the heart of Indian countryside.
But Kashi Ram is walking down the road that goes past Nehru Place in south Delhi.
Stopping on request for a brief chat, he stands right on the middle of the road. There is no danger of being hit by a speeding car. Despite an ease in the coronavirus-triggered lockdown, the stretch is free of traffic, at least at this hour, in this hot muggy evening.
“I have started to work again,” says Mr Ram. The man has a slim physique; his limbs are sturdy, his skin is tight. He might be in his 50s, but there is no way of confirming it; he has no idea of his age. “I have no I-card,” he says, looking amused—at least that’s the hint one gets from eyes that seem to be smiling. The rest of his face is hidden behind the folds of his turban.
“Karuna,” he utters, as if responding to a query. He lifts a finger towards the sky, shaking his head. He is referring to corona, probably to explain his elaborate face wear.
Mr Ram calls himself a “labour”. He says he started going to work (after a long gap due to lockdown) five days ago. He is part of a “labour gang” hired by a contractor in the construction of a house that is coming up in Kalkaji.
“I’m heading home now,” he says, his voice so low that he could as well be whispering. It’s anyway difficult to understand him. Mr Ram is speaking Hindi very fast and in a dialect, or is it an accent, that is difficult to comprehend. Resuming his walk as if impatient to reach his destination, he informs he is from a village in Jhansi, UP. He quickly garbles out a series of sentences, explaining that his colleagues left for their villages during the lockdown. He too tried to go back but couldn’t. “Not enough money.”
Suddenly, Mr Ram pauses, stands like a statue and allows himself to be photographed. His frayed kurta is very evocative of his life. It is stitched up at various places. “It has gotten old…. it gets torn… I sew it…. it again gets torn, I sew it again.”
Gesturing towards the bag he is holding, he says it has his lunch box. “I cook myself.” He finally reveals he lives near the Moolchand metro station. On being asked if he stays alone or with family, he gives an indirect answer: “I’m trying to return to Jhansi, if only there could be a cheaper way…. things aren’t good.”
He leaves it unsaid if things aren’t good in his hometown or with him in Delhi.
“No zameen (land) for kheti (farming) at home,” he mutters. There is also no water to irrigate, he adds. His eyes are no longer stretched to their extremes, suggesting that maybe he has stopped smiling.
Soon afterwards he walks away with a slow pace down the same road, which is still empty.
[This is the 314th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
The evening portrait of a ‘labour’