Friday, 14 September 2018

The Labourers of Old Delhi

Delhi is one of the largest cities in the world with a population of more than 24 million. A city of two parts, New Delhi boast spacious tree lined boulevards and some grandiose buildings whilst the old city has narrow streets clogged with traffic and teeming with people. Whilst New Delhi is impressive and represents modern India it is the old city that has my heart.

Lost in thought, a carpenter waiting for work
Regular readers will know of my fondness for architecture, art and fine cafes but they will also know that for me the thing that makes a city is its people and the stories that they have to tell. Amongst the millions of people in the old city's streets there are many working men - porters, rickshaw drivers, shoeshine men and day labourers including plumbers, carpenters and men who are willing and able to do "odd jobs" and are employed directly from the street.

In the early part of the day groups of porters and rickshaw drivers stand or sit in groups, waiting for the calls to come from Delhi's various bazaars and once they begin they will go on throughout the day and into the evening. But that first part of the day offers the chance for camaraderie, talking to friends, playing cards or sitting in quiet reflection waiting for the working day to commence. These men know that there will be work each day but the more casual day labourers have no guarantee of work - ever. They gather at various points in the old city, lay out the tools of their trade on the ground in front of them and wait to be chosen.

Waiting for work in Old Delhi
Shakeel (in shorts) and some of his rickshaw drivers
Friends, two porters from Rizwan's team
Over the last few days in Delhi I have been able to speak to several of these men and to learn a little about their lives. Many of them are not Delhiwales (natives of Delhi) but have come to the city from Lucknow, Bihar and elsewhere in order to earn a living. They have been easy to talk to and happy to tell me about their work. Nazim in his thirties is a porter and a Lakhnavi (native of Lucknow). He told me that he weighs 47 kilos but can carry 55 on his head. He said that porters can earn good money - several thousand rupees a week making them the aristocracy of Delhi's manual labourers, but the work is hard and tiring. Nizam is part of a group led by a Rizwan, a fellow Lakhnavi. They share living quarters, cook together and some have members of their family living in the city, others are alone. Just across the road from Rizwan's crew there is a group of rickshaw drivers under the captaincy of Shakeel, also form Lucknow and they share similar stories.

Rizwan (in the pale blue shirt) and some of his group
Rambaksh, shoeshine
Salim 35 is a rickshaw driver - not of the hand pulled variety found in Kolkata but a cycle rickshaw. He rents his vehicle for 50 rupees a day and on a good day can make up to 1,000 falling to 500-600 when there is less business, particularly when there are fewer tourists. He likes the work describing himself as his own boss despite having to work from 8am to 8pm seven days a week. I asked him about the customers and he said that they are mostly fine, the exception being some local women who bargain very hard about the fare!

Shafiq and Mustafa are two young men who practice the trade of the khan bharia. They are ear cleaners and tour the streets of the old city advertising their trade through their distinctive headgear in  which long pins, the tools of their trade are held. I met them standing outside a barber shop offering their services to customers stopping for a haircut or a shave. When I asked to photograph them Shafiq was keen, Mustafa less so until he saw his friend's picture and then changed his mind.

Rambaksh is a shoeshine as was his father, Aged 60, he was born just outside Delhi. He has been doing this work for 40 years and sits under a picture of the deity who is the patron of shoeshines. I used his service and can confirm that he is both very good at his job and charges a fair price.

Salim, cycle-rickshaw driver
Shafiq, Khan Bharia
Mustafa, Khan Bharia
One of the privileges of meeting these men was being able to see them during their quiet moments, not hurrying through the streets with heavy loads on their heads or driving their rickshaw. Many of them sit smoking beedis the local roll-ups, interact with their friends or sit quietly, lost in thought. The picture of the man smoking at the top of this post is one such moment, his face covered in the mist of exhaled smoke, perhaps wondering how long he will wait for his next job or thinking about his family elsewhere. Perhaps my favourite picture is that of the man taking a break, shoes discarded, cup of tea in hand and the already smoked cigarette thrown to the ground. His friend, pictured in the white vest against a blue background sat with an half-smoked unlit cigarette in his mouth, about to relight it or say it for later.

Before leaving Delhi I had some of these pictures printed and did my best to find the men again and to give them a copy. All were surprised and all seemed pleased but perhaps the happiest of all was Mister Khan, a painter and decorator. I had photographed him sitting on a motorbike waiting for work and sure enough he was in the same spot when I went back to find him earlier today. He will have something to share with his family tonight.

Shoes off and a cup of tea
About to relight
Mr Khan, painter and decorator

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