Mission Delhi – Manoj Naali Walla, South Delhi
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Nobody is to be seen on the leaf-strewn lane. In the grounds of an adjacent play school, the swings look haunting in their emptiness, as if they were relics of a vanished civilisation. The apartment buildings further ahead must be inhabited by their dwellers, but the shuttered glass windows show no life.
The pandemic-driven lockdown is keeping the lane dead.
But you can still sight Manoj Naali Walla, the drain man. He isn’t physically here but this very name is drawn in large Hindi alphabets upon the grey boundary wall of an adjacent public park, here in this south Delhi neighbourhood. Under the name, a mobile phone number. Some steps later the wall falls into disrepair, its large tiles lying broken on the ground.
“Yes, I am Manoj, yes. I wrote my name and phone number on that wall,” says the voice on the mobile.
Introducing himself as Manoj Balmiki, the gentleman confirms that he jotted the name there just a few days before the beginning of the lockdown. The lockdown, he says, has severally curtailed his freelance working life of cleaning the blocked naalis, or drains. But now he has started getting assignments again and at the moment he is in the area — though a few lanes away, at work.
The man complains about what he calls his bad luck. “I had just started taking up contract work to clean up choked drains, and then the whole world ended.” In his late 20s, Mr Balmiki had barely settled into his current profession. “I was managing to earn about 15,000 rupees every month.” His earning have reduced “almost to zero” during the lockdown. Just today he borrowed six thousand rupees from an acquaintance to pay for his room rent.
Sometimes, these days, his services are paid in kind rather than in cash. For instance, a place that he describes as “police mess” in Dakshinpuri, where he lives, gives him free meals “because I clean their drains and bathrooms.”
A native of Hathras in UP, Mr Balmiki had earlier been working in the “field of pedicure” in a beauty parlour, but “I left that job because the pay was so low.” He goes on to describe in detail the various shifts in his career, too complicated to grasp wholly on a phone chat. For many years he worked as a food delivery man, besides occasionally drifting to other professions.
In December last year he launched himself wholeheartedly as a “naali walla.” He’d been familiar with the mechanics of cleaning the drains since childhood. “My mama (uncle) worked as a cleanser in a public toilet behind Sapna cinema, and I would often help him.”
To spread the word about his services, he came up with the idea of advertising himself on the said wall. And then coronavirus stopped everything. “It couldn’t have come a lot a worse time for me. My wife is expecting our first child in August.”
However, hope is keeping him afloat and he has again decided to change tracks. “Once the lockdown lifts, I will try for a job in hotels.” He has briefly worked as a cook. “Perhaps I can become a waiter.”
Mr Balmiki admits he is frustrated with his present situation. “I’m lagging behind when I should race ahead… my my wife is in the village and our first child is coming soon to the world.”
After ending the phone chat, his presence continues to linger—on the wall.
[This is the 304th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
Such a long journey