The Other Half: Invisible people

The least that we, who are served and looked after by these silent servers, can do is to acknowledge their presence?

September 20, 2009 04:29 pm | Updated November 13, 2021 09:47 am IST

Every morning, before most people in the multi-storied building where I live in Mumbai wake up and virtually unnoticed by its residents, a silent army of men do their work. A young boy, a student during the rest of the day, delivers newspapers, the g arbage bag left outside our doors is cleared and the corridor swept and swabbed by the sweeper and the milkman delivers packets of milk, perching them on a ledge or placing them in a bag hung on front doors. And even as we stir, the “breadman” delivers freshly baked local bread and eggs, the sabziwallah comes to the door with a selection of vegetables, the fruit man brings your choice of fruit, the istriwallah comes to collect and deliver your ironing and the local kirana (grocery) store delivers whatever you order on the phone. This is apart from your domestic help arriving to sweep and swab your house, wash your clothes, cook your meal and wash your dishes. And also apart from the security men at the gate of the building, who check everyone who enters the building and make sure you are not disturbed by strangers coming to your door.

Question we don’t ask

So who are these people? Do we know their names? Where do they come from? How do they survive in Mumbai? Where do they live? Do we care?

Nishtha Jain, a film-maker already known for her remarkable film on the life of her domestic help, “Lakshmi and me”, that brought out the world of the women who literally hold up the homes of the middle class and the rich in Mumbai, has now made another film on the world of these virtually invisible people who hold up the city of Mumbai. “At my doorstep” is the story of the security guards, the men who iron clothes, the boys who deliver newspapers and groceries and the men who clear the garbage from Mumbai’s multi-storied and high-rise buildings.

Set against the background of Mumbai’s Film City, and the dreams that Bollywood weaves for so many who come to the city seeking work, Jain opens our eyes to the world that these men inhabit. Through the words of Dayanand, a poet and writer originally from Bokaro in Jharkhand, who works as a security guard, Jain portrays the philosophical mindset that helps these men to survive.

Dayanand’s arrival in Mumbai begins with the ticket collector fining him for travelling from Bokaro to Mumbai on an Express Train with an ordinary ticket. Unable to pay the fine, he spends his first night in the lockup. His journey then progresses to the point he has a job but no home. A hut in a slum becomes home, embellished with posters and poems pasted on its flimsy walls. In his spare time, Dayanand uses his skill as a writer to help others like him to write home to their loved ones.

While the film fleshes out Dayanand, it leaves us asking questions about some of the other men. Like the young boy who delivers and collects clothes for ironing every day. And his colleagues, who spend the whole day ironing clothes in a hot room and say that if they do such work for more than eight months they fall sick. We watch them cook dal and rice and eat it in the same room where they have worked all day, and where they will sleep. The lucky ones sleep on the ironing tables; the others, like the delivery boy, sleep in the space below the tables. Who are these men? Where did they come from? What is their future?

Equally intriguing is the young delivery boy who runs up and down stairs carrying groceries and always smiling. Not everyone pays him the entire amount of the bill. Often people tell him to come back later for the money. It is amazing how people with fixed incomes and secure jobs demand credit from those who work on minute margins. Of course, no one bothers to tip the boy for the service he provides.

Clockwork routine

And what about the security guard, Sonu? He spends his day opening and closing the gate of the building depending on which car wants to enter or leave. His additional job is to make sure that water is pumped up to the overhead tanks. For this, he must go to the roof of the building, open the tanks and check, wait until they are filled up — an overflow will fetch a reprimand — and then lock the covers of the tanks and come down. Rain or shine, this job must be done. Even in a Mumbai monsoon, without a raincoat or umbrella.

For people who live in the Mumbai that is not a slum, all this is familiar. Something similar must happen in most of our bigger cities that are increasingly going vertical. Even in those cities that have housing colonies with individual houses, there is a similar silent army of workers that provide an almost unacknowledged service.

Indeed, when we think of the economy in many cities changing from industrial to the service sector, these are the kind of services that are drawing in the majority of people. The formal sector only caters to a minute percentage of the total workforce.

No rights

These service providers are also the bulk of the city’s homeless — people who live in informal settlements with no security of tenure. Many of them earn far less than the minimum wage but their sense of security is based on a system of kinship that provides them with employment and a place to live. In Mumbai, over half the population lives in informal settlements. And in India as a whole, 85 per cent of the working population is employed in the informal sector, in jobs like the ones described above as well as many others. Without such people, Mumbai would come to a dead halt. Yet, these workers are not organised, they cannot demand better working conditions or higher wages, and they certainly cannot afford to stop work even for a day.

Perhaps we cannot change this reality. For many people like Dayanand, cities like Mumbai are attractive because they provide so many diverse avenues for employment. The least that we, who are served and looked after by these silent servers, can do is to acknowledge their presence, know who they are and accept that without them our cities would collapse.

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