Delhi Winter – Fireside Colleagues, Jama Masjid
Life in winter.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The fire will be soon over. No problem, one of the men says. It is still afternoon, and more fires will be set up later in the day. One always manages to find scraps of wood from here-there, he says.
The men live on this pavement, here in Old Delhi, by the western wall of the Jama Masjid. The entire pave is home to multiple groups of daily-wage labourers. “Some of us are beldar, some are masons, some are carpenters, some are plumbers,” says raj mistri Muhammed Khurshid. With families back in their villages in UP, Bihar and West Bengal, the men reside on this footpath throughout the twelve months, under the open sky, directly exposed to all the extremities of Delhi’s polluted weather. Now, “marble ghisai” man Abdul Lateef shuffles his feet and regrets that the city’s brutal winters are too short. “Each year we have to buy a rajai, and it’s needed for a month only!” This is insane for the rajai is so expensive, others concede. “500 rupees,” mutters Khurshid. True, one can get the rajai on rent but then you have to pay 60 rupees for each night’s use, which ends up pricier in the long term. Plus, painter Irshad points out, “some days we find work and some days we don’t find work… wiser to buy the rajai while you have spare cash in hand.” Indeed, this weekday afternoon the men have failed to find work, obliging them to sit about the fire.
It is also a fact, Khurshid admits, that not every dweller on this pave is able to purchase a rajai. In such a case, “one of us shares the rajai with one of us who doesn’t have it.” In the day, the men store their rajais in sack-like bags hanging on the pavement wall. A typical rajai never lasts beyond a season, they say, and have to be tossed away later.
Tonight’s strategy to deal with the winter will be the same as the one yesterday. After their routine 8pm dinner at the Jamia Hotel, across the road, the men will light the day’s final fire. It will lasts for an hour. By then everyone will have snuggled under the rajai. The plastic awning that shelters the men from the night dew too will be in place.
“But the thandi never completely leaves us,” observes Khalid. “What can one do… majboori ka naam Mahatma Gandhi.”