City Season – Heatwave Citizens, Around Town
June is the cruellest month.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water…
How much more intense these powerful lines would have been if poet TS Eliot had written The Waste Land after surviving a spell of Delhi’s June heatwave. Here’s a snapshot of citizens obliged to work directly under the sun, encountered in peak summer noons present and past.
Early afternoon. Daily-wage labourer Sukhi is standing about the so-called “labour chowk” near Gurugram’s Sector 6. Barely beyond his teenage years, he shares a pavement habitat with his “jija,” also a labourer. “The stones (of the pave) don’t cool down completely even at night. I walk towards the railway station and lie down on the bench of the bus shed, it is near a huge tree.”
Glancing up at the blinding white 10am sun, recycler Shafiqe (see last photo below) has reached almost the middle of his work day. The young man starts at 5.30am, pedaling his cart for an hour to reach this central Delhi locality. He spends eight long hours collecting household garbage from residences. “I drink water, sometimes I might briefly sit under a tree… but I cannot skip my work, no matter how hot it gets.” Shafique returns home by 3.30pm, around the time when his “mummy papa” too return from similar assignments elsewhere. “We have one room, it has one punkha (ceiling fan).”
Since an auto rickshaw is open on both sides, the driver bears the full blast of the heatwave hawa. One oven-hot morning, driver Deepak showed his summer manipulations. “I tie a wet cotton taulia atop the steering to block the sun’s rays from falling on my arms.” Lifting up his front seat, he shows the stuff crammed in the hollow within. “Here’s my water bottle,” next to a spare tyre. The plastic bottle is wrapped in a red fabric. “This way it remains cool.” Deepak gulps down the water in swift swigs, some of it dripping down to his chin.
No escape from the seething sun for her, though her name means shade in Hindi. (see first photo below) Chhaya is part of a “labour gang” contracted to demolish a house in Gurgaon. Her UP village is unliveable in the summer, she confides, when “all the ponds and wells go dry… farming is not possible.” Minutes later, she and her husband, also a labourer, decide to sit down for lunch under a guava tree.
Labourer Ranja Devi is catching her breath in a Delhi construction site, her back touching a cushioned pile of cement sacks. The sun rays are partly obstructed by the dense leaves of a gulmohur tree. “My head is hurting due to the heat… but if I don’t take up the assignment, then somebody else will.” One of her colleagues nods, a drop of sweat glistening at the tip of his nose.
Life in the waste land