City Life – Four Labourers, Tiraha Behram Khan
Waiting for work.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
They are sitting on their haunches, waiting for work. House painters Madan Lal, Gopal, Jagdish and Malik are stationed with their paint brushes in Old Delhi’s Tiraha Behram Khan. This is one of the historic quarter’s traffic junctions where freelance labourers gather to be picked up for assignments. Their clients—mainly builders and contractors— hire them for small projects, which might last from a few hours to the entire day. The labourers later return to this same spot, and wait for more work.
It is 3 in the afternoon. These four painters say they haven’t been approached since the morning. They live nearby in a rented room and have been here since 8am—they left only once for a quick lunch at “Sanjay ka Hotel.” It is possible that the day may end on a zero earning, one of them says matter-of-factly. “We are used to not getting any work for long stretches of time, especially since the karuna (coronavirus),” says the extrovert Malik. He is in his mid-20s. The eldest among the four is Madan Lal, 55. He is affectionately known as “chacha.” Although strenuous physical work becomes increasingly trying at his age, “chacha” cannot afford to retire. “Who will take care of me,” he argues, shrugging his shoulders. “My wife is dead, my son is dead.”
All the labourers are from Aligarh district in UP. “Hardly any work there,” says Malik. They have been in Old Delhi for years. May be they can find more work by shifting base to some other place in the Capital. Malik shakes his head. “Our roots are now in Purani Dilli. We know the people well. The landlord understands when we can’t pay the rent on time. People help us when we need to borrow money, they know we won’t be running away.” Mr Lal, the “chacha,” too speaks up forcefully—“We cannot start again in a new place, especially in these times when one relies so much on the help of others.”
With almost no income in the past few days, “we are surviving by borrowing from each other,” says Gopal.
The painters will leave the area only after 8.