I often wonder what a labourer feels when he looks at a palatial house he has helped build: he would have had a free run of the property while it was under construction; but once consecrated, the same house becomes totally out of bounds for him.

Mahatma Gandhi used pencils until they wore down to stubs. When someone once asked him why he held on to a pencil until he could barely grip it instead of sharpening a new one, he replied: “To respect the labour that went into the making of the pencil.” The reply sufficiently explains why Gandhi is called the Mahatma.

How often do we pause to think that the articles we buy at will and discard on a whim are actually products of labour? Who knows if the man who crafted your pencil came to the factory that day leaving behind an ailing wife or child at home, and yet you chuck the pencil into the bin before it reaches half its length?

Ditto for things we cannot discard on a whim. For example, the houses we live in. They stand on the blood and sweat of the faceless labourer who himself lives in pathetic conditions. I often wonder what a labourer feels when he looks at a palatial house he has helped build: he would have had a free run of the property while it was under construction; but once consecrated, the same house becomes totally out of bounds for him. Does he feel emotional about it, or does he understand?

The other day, I was having tea, with a colleague, at the roadside chaiwallah outside office, when about half a dozen metro rail workers, wearing helmets and fluorescent jackets, happened to pass by. The colleague, who writes about metro rail, accosted them — this was two days after a crane crashed at the site near Pachaiyappa’s College and killed one worker — to find if metro rail had resumed work which had been suspended after the accident.

Since the workers spoke better Bengali than Hindi, my colleague summoned me. They told me that work had been suspended only at the accident site, while for them — posted on Mount Road — it was life as usual. I began to ask more questions, but suddenly found myself facing a barrage of questions — from them.

Kothai bari?” — Where’s your house?

Kon gram?” — Which village?

Ekhane ki koren?” — What do you do here?

Their worn-out faces were shining with such happiness at having found a fellow Bengali in faraway Chennai that I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I never lived in Bengal. I gave them the name of my native town — Murshidabad — even the name of the village. This only widened their smiles and they began giving the names of their own villages. They wanted to chat on, but I had a deadline to meet.

This meeting must have been their biggest distraction of the day — distraction from the drudgery they are resigned to, that too in a city where no one speaks their language, no one pauses to enquire about their well-being or their families, no one cares for them. They are paid their wages, and their employers expect them to be grateful for that. They make news when they die, and only in death do they enjoy the luxury of travelling in an aircraft (the body of the labourer killed at the Pachaiyappa’s site was flown to Kolkata).

In less than two years, Chennai will have plush trains running underground and travel time within the city will be drastically shortened. Chennai Metro Rail Limited, or CMRL, will be the toast of the town. How many will know that the ‘M’ and ‘L’ in the acronym actually stand for migrant labourers?

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