Kaka’s tea shop wasn’t much of a shop as it was the fossilized remains of a creature formed by the inbreeding of generations of pots, pans, stoves, and cement. The shop began as a large concrete shelf –about six feet high, ten feet across, and three feet deep- fused onto the real wall of the Aggarwal Samati Mandir premises, but soon grew to take up most of the alleyway called Barna Galli. The temple management had leased out half the shelf to a silent machinist, who spent his day crouched on his narrow ledge with an array of lathes, wires, capacitors, and resistors for company.
On the other half lay a disused kerosene stove, a large rectangular coffee machine, a telephone, and jars of tea. On a large table placed adjacent to the shelf, a kettle hissed on a gas burner placed amidst glasses, teaspoons, sieves, and packets of milk. On the floor, a few feet from the table, a young boy stirred a shallow vat of milk propped up over a gas burner by a set of bricks. A second boy scurried around taking orders from workers seated all along the alley.
Sanjay ‘Kaka’ Kumar was a flabby forty-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard. He sat comfortably on a plastic chair placed equidistant from a three stoves, directing his assistants with a series of precise hand gestures and the occasional curse. His tea shop was currently the subject of a legal battle between the jeweler who had built the shelf and the temple management which owned the wall on which the shelf was built.. The jeweller had sublet the space out to Kaka who dutifully deposited his rent of two hundred rupees every month in court.
Bara Tooti began its day at Kaka’s tea shop. The milk would arrive by five in the morning and the first batch of ‘morning special’ tea would be ready by a quarter past five. Ashraf and Lalloo would show up soon after and sit on a low ledge, waiting for the early morning cramps that milky tea and a beedi invariably produce.
‘It’s almost eight and they are still sitting here,’ Kaka would exclaim irrespective of when I arrived. ‘Outside at the chowk, work has come and gone, but these two are still waking up. Drink your chai, smoker your beedi, pay your two rupees for a shit, and go to work.’
What’s so special about about the “morning special”?’ I once asked Kaka.
‘It helps build pressure,’ Kaka replied. ‘You understand pressure? Because a man doesn’t truly wake up till he shits.’
If you want a job in Bara Tooti, wake up early, order a cup of chai, and wait by the main road –work will come to you. Shopkeepers looking to extend their storage space by knocking dowbn a wall between two adjacent rooms; house owners looking to turn a balcony into an extra bedroom; contractors searching for extra labour; families looking for someone to whitewash their staircase the day before their daughters – they all come down the Bara Tooti in search of mistrys and beldaars, karigars and mazdoors. . .
In the early days, I worried that my interviews were keeping Ashraf and Lalloo from finding work, only to be assured by Ashraf that if they were wasting time talking to me, they probably weren’t looking for work that day.
‘Only barsati mendaks work every day, Aman bhai,’ said Ashraf. ‘Not lafunters like us. We work when we feel like it.’
The barsati mendaks, the rain frogs of Bara Tooti, are seasonal workers from villages in Dehli’s neighboring states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. Most of them have land back home, a few acres that their fathers own, which will soon be divided among brothers.
They first come in January after the winter crop has been harvested and the fields lie fallow, and return home in time for the sowing season in July. Once sowing is complete, they return to Bara Tooti for another few months of work before heading back to the village around Diwali.
The barsati medaks work frantically and live frugally to save as much money as they can. In the weeks leading up to Diwali they top drinking or smoking, and save every last rupee so as to have something to show for the long absence from home. On the day before they leave, the mendaks hurriedly pay off their debts and pile into interstate buses headed homewards, leaving behind a corps of hardened Bara Tooti denizens.
Old-timers like Lalloo and Ashraf, with nowhere to go and no one to send money to, sit by the roadside shrine, puffing on their beedis, rolling joints, and sipping whiskey and water out of disposable Pepsi glasses. As Lalloo put it, ‘We are old frogs now, Aman bhai, with nowhere to hop to. . .’
Ashraf and Lalloo could be described as ‘work orientated’ rather than ‘work seeking’. They usually worked for a week at a time, followed by a week of leisure financed by their earnings. Some weeks, Ashraf would make up to a thousand rupees, but he had to be careful when his money ran out.
“The worst was this one morning when I woke up –still completely drunk – and I didn’t have two rupees to take a shit, all my money was gone. Everything. I didn’t know where Lalloo was. I had to ask Kaka for the money – oh, the humiliation.’
“Kaka, can I have two rupees?” I ask.
“Why two rupees, Ashraf bhai? You can have this tea for free.”
“No, tea will make it worse, I need two rupees.”
“But what can you get for two rupees these days?”
“Oh god, it was terrible.’ Ahraf shuddered at the thought. ‘I think I should keep two rupees in my special pocket.’
‘Inside pocket, outside pocket, it doesn’t make a difference if you are dead drunk on a pavement in Old Dehli,’ Lalloo once said sullenly. ‘You can save a thousand rupees only to have it stolen in one night. Perfectly decent young boys, who neither smoke nor drink, have awoken to find their slippers stolen in the night. Who knows where the money in the night? In the morning there is always mazdoori’
In the morning there will be shops to be painted, walls to be built, loads to be lifted, and trenches to be dug. There is always work on offer, but Ashraf and Lalloo have been around long enough to keep a lookout for the right job.
‘The ideal job,’Ashraf once said, as if elucidating a complex mathematical function, ‘has the perfect balance of kamai and azadi.’ Through the course of his life, a working man must experiment with as many combinations as he can before discovering the point where these counteracting forces offset each other to arrive at a solitary moment of serenity – a point when he both free and fortunate. At that point, a man may be excused for rocking back and forth gently, tempting fate on both sides –reaching out for the tipping point, but sliding back before his fingers touch either side. Alas, it is a bliss that few, like Ashraf, attain.
‘Kamai is what makes work work. Without kamai, it is not work, it is a hobby. Some call it charity; others may call it exercise –but it certainly isn’t a job. A job is something a man is paid to do – and his pay is his kamai Many of us . . .’ Ashraf paused to stand up and take in the tea-sipping mazdoors, the gossiping mistrys, and the lazing beldaars in the smooth arc of his arm, ‘many of us chose jobs only on the basis of their kamai. Six thousand rupees a month! A man could get rich with that kind of money. But they forget a crucial thing. What is that crucial thing?
‘Azadi, Aman bhai, Azadi,’ he continued withou twaiting for an answer. ‘Azadi is the freedom to tell the maalik to fuck off when you want to.The maalik owns your work. He does not own us. Every morning a hundred contractors come to Bara Tooti offering permanent jobs for six thousand rupees a month. But those haramis wouldn’t pay their mother six thousand rupees if she worked for them. On the first day the contactor will give you two hundred rupees and say, “Let no one say that contractor Choduram Aggarwal doesn’t pay his workers.” On the second day he’ll do the same. But on the third day, he will give you only a hundred rupees, and promise to pay the rest later. By the end of the second week, he will pay you only a third of what he owes you. And by the end of the month, you will realize that conrtactor Chorduram Aggarwal really does not pay his workers. But by now it is too late. You can’t leave. He owes you three thousand rupees already. You are now . . . What are you now, Aman bhai?’
“I have no idea, Ashraf bhai.’ It was clear that these questions were purely rhetorical.
‘A gulam! A slave. A khacchar, a mule with neither kamai or azadi. Which is why the best way to earn is on dehadi. If Choduram pays you on the first day, you work for him on the second. He pays you on the second, work fopr the third. He stops paying, you stop working. After all, even if you are LLPP, you still have your self-respect.’
Ashraf couldn’t help grinning to himself. This was classic Ashraf. There was a punchline somewhere, but he wasn’t going to give it away cheap. He paused for a theatrical pull on his beedi and intoned with mock gravitas, ‘In the super-specialized world today everyone needs a degree. Some are BA’s, Some are MA’s, sone are CA’s, and the truly unfortunate are PA’s. The really well read are PhD’s, but here on the chowk, ninety percent of the mazdoors are LLPPs – the universal degree that we are all born with.’
Yes, an LLPP – Likh Lowda Padh Pathar. And when they ask you what you are, answer loudly and proudly. Chances are they will never know what it means.’
What it means, literally, is Write Penis Read Stone – Ashrafspeak for someone who is completely illiterate.
Asshra understands the need to appear educated. Many years ago, Ashraf had a friend who, when asked what his qualifications were, answered, ‘Double BA.
‘The other party was so impressed that they gave us the contract right away.
‘So what were his degrees in, Ashraf bhai?’
‘Oh, in nothing and nothing. In Bengali, we say ‘biye’ for marriage. Raja was twice married, hence “double biye”. Smart, no?
‘In our line we have to be brilliant,’ Ashraf continued with some earnestness. ‘To become a businessman you should be ready for anything, you should have answers for everything.’
To become a businessman is Ashraf’s fondest dream because he blieves it wil free him from the clutches of a maalik forever. Even a mazdoor must answer to the man who hires him for the day; but to be a businessman, Ashraf believes, is never to be answerable to anyone.