Workers at D.J. Halli’s leather curing units hope for a better future for themselves and their families

Nostalgia is a funny thing; it can make pockmarks of history look like beauty spots in the present.

Add a drop of nostalgia to the history of British imperialism in India and you are allowed to call it ‘The days of the Raj’ instead. Draw your face into a wistful grimace and utter the words ‘feudal glory’: the imagery instantly shifts from sweating serfs, bloodlust warlords and primitive economies to fine muslin, proud turbans and crown jewels.

But some stories stubbornly refuse to be seduced by nostalgia. That of Tannery Road, D.J. Halli and Shampura Main Road is one such.

One hundred metres into Shampura Main Road, past the golden Ambedkar Statue is a tiled roof warehouse that bears the British crown insignia. Embossed beneath the insignia is “1.10.1914” . Below the date is the ubiquitous “786”, symbolising the Islamic verse ‘Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim’.

“In less than two years, this building will be 100 years old. That’s how long our people have lived and worked in this mandi,” says Altaf Ahmed (56), sitting amidst a pile of decomposing animal hides. His is one of the 200 leather curing units that mushroomed around the first one set up by the British in 1914.

‘Safe distance’

He says that this area was chosen for the leather industry as it was outside the boundary of the city — a “safe” distance from the “decent neighbourhoods” of the Cantonment.

The slaughterhouse at the entrance to Tannery Road used to supply the raw hides. Units such as Altaf’s would salt and dry the hides before passing them on to the tanneries further down the road in K.G. Halli.

“Our people were not allowed into the Cantonment and people from the there never ventured in here,” says Madivannan (48), drawing from stories his grandfather told him as a child. While the curing units were owned by Muslims, Tamil-speaking Dalits such as Vannan made up the labour force. Madivannan is a third-generation labourer. “Ours is a history of slavery,” he says.

Keeping it current

Although I try to dig into the past, Madivannan and his friend, Rajashekhar Ravi (55), insist on keeping the conversation current. “Little has changed here in hundred years,” says Rajashekhar, pointing to the heaps of garbage, overflowing sewers and the resident stench of rotting meat. “We are seven kilometres from the Vidhana Soudha, but hundreds of kilometres from governance,” says Madivannan.

But how were things in the past? “Just like they are today,” snaps Madivannan impatiently. “What do you want to know? Over 5,000 Arundhatiar [Dalits who were involved in leather work] families were brought here by the British from Venur, Madurai and Tirunelveli and put to work in the leather industry,” says Rajashekhar. “How does it matter how we lived in the past? Can you write something about our present condition?” asks Subramani (60-plus) who joins the conversation a little late.

Few curing units left

Around six years ago, the tanneries of K.G. Halli were closed down. The curing units in Shampura ran out of business. Altaf Ahmed’s is one of the 15 curing units left on Shampura Main Road.

Where did the thousands of labourers go? “Dead!” says Subramani, still annoyed that the focus of this story is not on the inhuman living conditions of the area now. “Most have shifted to other trades. Many are employed as pourakarmikas by the BBMP. Some have become construction labourers,” says Madivannan.

Although there is no romance in his past, Madivannan hopes the future will bring great change. His son, Prashant, is a second-year B.Com. student at RBANM’s First Grade College and his daughter, Priyanka, is a first-year B.Com. student at Government R.C. College of Commerce and Management. “My children will never come back here,” he says, as he gets back to work on another skin.

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