City Home – A Transitory House, Somewhere in Delhi
A home in the city.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The house is now a debris. A huge mountain of broken bricks has spilled out into what used to be a driveway. It looks like one of those press agency photographs depicting a powerful earthquake in some far-off city. Four men are sitting on the ground, by the semi-dismantled gate.
This could be a scene in any upscale neighbourhood in the megapolis. Here is unfolding one of the most familiar and frequent, though unrecorded, stories of our times. An old house is being razed down to be replaced by a multi-storey apartment complex. During this shift between the old and the new, the vacant space tends to be occupied by a team of labourers, the citizens with no fixed address in the city. The construction site becomes their residence, briefly. Here they work, cook and sleep. Each such site sees through two groups of labourers. The first batch helps demolish the old house. The second batch, greater in number, helps raise the new.
The aforementioned site is exactly that kind of workplace, as well as a transitory home, to these four men. Its 8pm, and the unlit street is making it feel like midnight. A stray dog is lying asleep.
Being excessively hot, the men are stripped down to their shorts, except for the one in short and pants (the fourth man isn’t in the photo). They all are sweating profusely. A fire is burning in a stove rustled out of bricks and wood planks (although a cooking gas cylinder is lying in a corner). A blackened pot is placed on the stove. Dinner is in the making.
The four men were hired some weeks ago by a “thekedar” for the dismantling of the building, the remains of which is lying piled up behind them. Two of the men agree to talk, the third gentleman excuses himself, saying, “I’m tired.” The fourth is smoking beedi. The man in pants is the most extrovert among them, and introduces each by their last name, urging not to share the names.
“I’m making dal and chawal,” he says. Glancing towards the colleague kneading the atta dough in a large platter, he corrects himself—“We will also have roti.”
The beedi smoker mutters: “No hawa.”
The man in pants jerkily moves his arms up and down the still air, saying, “You can’t buy green vegetables everyday, they cost money.” He explains that the men are paid by the “thekedar” every third day, and by now they aren’t left with much cash. The beedi smoker smiles sarcastically. The man in pants continues his conversation about the veggies, adding that he does make it a point to regularly buy green chillies even though “these days hari mirchi is costing 220 rupees/kg.” He pauses. “But they add swad (taste) to the khana.” He soon starts to talk of home cooking, and of his family in the Bihar village: “bhayya, bhabi, mummy, papa.”
The man kneading the dough abruptly turns around, saying, “I will not be doing this work forever.”
The beedi smoker gets up and walks towards the stove. Siting down, he lifts the lid from the pan. Stream hisses out. He stirs the dal with a small spoon. “Ban gayi,” he says. Now rice will have to be cooked.