Mission Delhi – Rajesh, Around Town
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He has been driving an auto rickshaw through the smoggy roads of Delhi for 35 years.
But this evening, he says he has been driving his auto rickshaw for three days only–he means, after a prolonged break from work during the coronavirus-triggered lockdown.
“I’m barely getting customers,” mutters Rajesh, shrugging his shoulders. In his late 50s, his grey hair are arranged like a series of sand dunes over his head. His white stubble, scattered around his black mask, is glinting like mountain snow under sunshine. You can even glimpse his white moustache, for, like so many others in this city, he is wearing his mask far below the nose.
Since morning Rajesh got only two rides. “I have only made about 200 rupees today,” he says. He would earn about a thousand rupees a day in the BC (before corona) era. Circling around the India Gate circle, Rajesh admits he could have easily returned to his family in Garh Mukteshwar, a UP town not far from Delhi. “But my wife and two sons depend on my earnings.”
He again shrugs his shoulders.
The auto rickshaw stops at a traffic light. A red air-conditioned DTC bus comes to a halt too. Inside, the bus passengers are spread wide apart, leaving alternate seats empty to obey the precepts of physical distancing. A man sitting by the window is wearing a glass shield on his face for protection. He stares out rather absentmindedly at Rajesh, who responds by staring back wordlessly at him with curiosity.
For more than a month, Rajesh was holed up inside his one-room home in east Delhi’s Lakshmi Nagar. “I made zero money during that period.”
He also spent zero money on food. “I would go to a nearby school where they were serving free meals to labour class.”
As an explanation, he says without any prompt—“I was not earning any money.”
Navigating through the traffic, Rajesh intones softly as if singing a folk song, “Sometimes rajma, sometimes chhole. Sometimes dal, and then again rajma and chhole.” He is referring to the dishes served at the school.
In normal circumstances, Rajesh would cook his own meals at his room. “But things are not normal even now.”
He talks of the “humiliation” of surviving on “free food.” He uses the Hindustani word ‘beijatti’. “I’m a person who had never depended on the charity of others.”
And despite severally low earnings, he fears his living expenses will only rise. “This mask I’m wearing cost me 30 rupees… I got another mask before that, which was far cheaper at ten rupees, but it tore open within a day.”
And this “expensive mask” has already grown soft due to repeated washing.
Not soon afterwards, manoeuvring his way through a traffic-heavy road, Rajesh breaks into a smile (easily discerned by the altered tone of his voice), and says, “The whole world has gone charo khaane chitt (fallen flat).”
[This is the 317th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
In a world fallen flat