Sunday, January 13, 2013

They also serve.....

It was just another day in Office for Soumitra Das.  His eight hour shift started  at 8 p.m. and was slated to end at 4 a.m. The constant ear-splitting rumbling of the earth boring machine induced sleep in him.  He can't sleep if there is no din in the vicinity, at least of double-digit decibels. The shrill  cacophony of the machine is exactly the lullaby he needs for dozing off. He looked at his watch.  It was one a.m.  He yawned.  His eyelids involuntarily drooped. He was finding it difficult to keep awake.  He stopped work, went to a nearby drum filled with water and splashed cold water on his face.  Thought of a having a cup of tea.  He already felt better contemplating the intake of the hot brew.

Nothing unusual about the urge to sleep.  However long one slept in the days, it is always difficult to be awake during the graveyard shift.  1 a.m. is especially notorious for inducing sleep in the eyes of even the hardest of the hard-willed.  'Nothing unusual about this,' Das thought.  'I will return after a hot cup of tea, just another day in Office..'  he thought as he slowly sauntered towards the tea shop opposite..., he was wrong there.   It was not just another day.  This night was different.  Because this night, he had to die, which is not everyday.  An ugly, messy death. Caused by the sudden collapse of the girder on his head.

The girder that came down crashing at the Metro Rail project near Alandur in Chennai on Thursday. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

Soumitra Das is gone but another Shambu Mohapatra will take his place tomorrow.  Shambu will also be gone some day and Shyamal Paswan will replace him.  Yes, the eastern parts of India have always been a fertile hunting ground for the body shoppers of big construction companies.  They get their prey with all attendant add-ons.  Low wages, no unionising, hard work.  Yet, it is these very Paswans and Pramaniks that build our  great metro railways.  Our roads and bridges too are but their handiwork.  Our plush high-rises too rose from the earth because of them. Why even small time builders from Trichy and Coimbatore use labour from the east and the northeast to build their 2/3 BHKs  for the middle class. The reasons?  They are good and they are hard working, we all know that.  No need for that to be told again by some  Raja Builders of some Srirangam.  They don't cause any disturbance, mostly keep to themselves, don't squander the entire day's earnings on liquor as most of our own 'sons of the soil' labour force is wont to and they respect our women folk.  And most of all, they don't complain.  Even if a girder falls on their head and flattens them.  No insurance to be paid, no compensation, no nothing.  Just hand over the body to the weeping relatives, pay off a few hundred bucks and just forget about it.

In olden times, our Shahs and Patels left the shores of Gujarat to seek greener pastures  in Guinea, Nigeria, Uganda, Fiji and sundry other geographies in the quest of their destiny. They survived alien climes, built business empires big and small  and amassed wealth. They had their tryst with  destiny.  They laid their hands on what they had originally intended to.  But these Soumitras and Sambunaths?  Theirs is a different story altogether.  They too left their hearth and home in Purneas, Bankuras and Tinsukias and traversed all the way down south.  To places like Bangalore and Chennai.  Which can be as inimical to outsiders as Laos and Chad can be  to us urban folks.  They descended in droves, took up jobs with big time construction contractors, eked out a living and never forgot to send back half their earnings to their parents and siblings back home.  And in the process, also managed to learn a smattering of Tamil. "Akka thanni Irukka?"  "Oru tea poduppa.."  One Soumitra, having descended and tasted success here, sends word to another Sambhunath back home and one by one they fly down in flocks.  The flocks grows in number, live together, toil together and eat and sleep together in their own shanties.  Food of their liking is hard to come by in Chennai and so they cook their own food.  Seeing the multiplying flock and sensing a business opportunity, some enterprising local opens an 'authentic' fish eatery nearby their dwellings and the flock is drawn like a magnet to that joint, for their daily quota of maach-baath.  They live a happy and contented life, till one night a girder falls on their heads and snuffs out even the tiniest of their dreams. Dreams, not of the variety the Shahs and Patels had,  but simple, unassuming dreams of amassing a few thousand rupees after three years, returning home and seeing that their behens are happily married off.

Such is their life.  So fleeting is their journey on this planet.  And so big-hearted are they  in their deaths too.  No PF, no insurance, no medical aid, no nothing. Nothing is what they came from and nothing is what they get when dying.  They just do not exist in the eyes of an inhuman employer and a callous state.  

My bandhus from Bengal and Bihar, I salute you. You make our metro railways possible.  You make crossing the roads safe for us, for you regulate traffic too here, near the construction sites.   You make our establishments safe, for you are the omnipresent watchmen/security guards in all our highrise-filled office complexes.  You give me tiny specks of joy in an otherwise dreary routine called life when I hear mishti- mishti Bangla vignettes from you, while sipping tea and puffing cigarettes at the corner shop, bang in the middle of Mount Road."Kalke ashbi to?", "Missed call kintu avashya dibi"  You migrant bees enlighten our gardens.  You folks make our city assume a pretence of cosmopolitanism.  Why, thanks to you,  our reticent akkas too have managed to shed their inhibitions and proffer a glass of water when you come knocking at their doors asking "Thanni irukka?" Thanni Irukku, water is there, will be given in a tumbler but don't expect the akkas to shed a tear or two when the girder falls on your head.

You make it all possible. Yet, when the metro opens in Chennai, I am sure the Sambhunaths and Sushobans won't be around. Big, fat politicians will cut a red ribbon and flag off the first train.  The first train will trundle along tunnels and elevated piers at breakneck speed.   Swanky stations will be the talk of the town.    Head lines in papers will go gaga over the technological marvel.    The denizens of the city will express their gratitude to the politicians and the engineers.   For in their eyes, it is they who made the metro possible. Yes, Chennai metro will be news.  But the Soumitros will not be a part of it.  For they would have been forgotten.

Forgotten but not by me.For  I know who made it possible and I will try to remember the graveyard shifts and fallen girders. Even if  I don't, posterity will! 

NB 1   picture from   'The Hindu"
       2  The names used are imaginary but the incident is not.
       3  The incident is certainly not the last, since Chennai metro's completion is still 2 years away.