by Siddhartha Deb September 2011
India is indeed rising. So why are more than three-quarters of the country living on less than fifty cents a day? A snapshot of inequity, in four scenes.
Photograph via Flickr by Tobias Leeger
1. Our author witnesses a roadside “encounter”
The highway out of Hyderabad towards Kothur village was still being worked on, with new overpasses and exits being constructed next to the lanes that were open to traffic. Vijay and I were halfway to our destination when we saw the man appear, standing in the middle of the road and waving us down. We were traveling fast, moving much too quickly to understand immediately what the man’s appearance meant. A few days earlier, on this same road, we had been stopped by two police constables. Assigned to guard duty at another point on the highway and left to fend for their own transportation, all the men had wanted was a lift. But the figure in front of us now was not in uniform, and his objective was far less clear, although I had the impression that he was part of the knotted confusion of people and cars that had sprung up suddenly on the smooth thread of the highway.
Vijay brought his tiny car to a halt, and the man loomed up in front of the windscreen, a dark, stocky figure dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. He put his right hand down on the bonnet of our car. In his left hand, he held an automatic pistol, its barrel pointing up at an acute angle. His gaze, as it swept over our faces, was intense, scrutinizing us carefully, meeting our eyes for a few seconds. Then he abruptly lost interest in us and switched his attention to a motorcycle coming up from behind, on our right. He advanced swiftly towards the bike, pointing his pistol at the riders. A policeman in uniform appeared on our left, tapped on our window, and asked us to move on.
Vijay drove away slowly, his eyes and mine fixed on the rearview mirror to get a better sense of the composition of the scene. There was the gunman in front of the motorcycle. Off to the side, next to the uniformed policeman, was a red Maruti car, a modest, everyday model of the kind that might belong to a minor civil servant or a doctor. There was a policeman sitting at the wheel, an officer in a peaked cap, his window rolled down. There was also a man in the back seat, but he was invisible, just a silhouette behind the tinted black window. The gunman had now moved on from the motorcycle towards an approaching bus, which he flagged down, waiting as the passengers slowly piled out on to the road.
From all this, it was possible to come to the following conclusions: The men were hunting for someone. The gunman did not know what this person looked like; it was the invisible man in the back of the car, an informer, who knew that. They expected their target to be coming this way, but they had no information as to how he or she was traveling, which is why they had stopped a car, a motorcycle, and a bus. The mix of uniformed men and the armed man in plain clothes, the unmarked civilian car being used by the policemen, and the pistol—rather than rifle—in the hand of the gunman meant that this was not a legal operation. We had just run into one of the encounter squads operated by the police, what Devaram had talked about when he pointed his imaginary pistol at me. If the target had the misfortune of running into the encounter squad, he would probably be gunned down in cold blood, with a report released later to the media to say that the person had been killed in an active encounter and that he had shot first at the police.
Later, I would find out from news accounts that the police had indeed been looking for a Maoist who, fortunately, did not show up that day. At the time, though, the scene felt unreal as soon as we had left it behind, taking on the shape of a dream. And in a way, the encounter squad was a dream, surfacing from the deep regions of the national subconscious where farmer suicides, Maoists, and impoverished workers swirled together to form the collateral damage of progress. In a few weeks, the prime minister would announce the dispatching of tens of thousands of paramilitary troops to encircle the Maoists in the “red corridor” they had carved out in the forests of central India, but although this was one more reminder of the ways in which India was at war with its own people, it would elicit little comment from the big cities.
When an attendant showed us around the “Live Like a Pharaoh” suites, they too turned out to be empty.
The truth was that India was being remade forcefully, and some aspects of that remaking were more visible than others. Once the encounter squad had been left behind, it seemed almost impossible not to give in to the pleasure of the new, smoothly tarred highway with its carefully demarcated lanes. It lifted us off the surrounding landscape like an aircraft, and as I looked down at the uneven patchwork of agricultural fields where people toiled ceaselessly in the summer heat, I could not help but think of them as marooned at a lower plane of existence. The highway was the transcendent future, with its straight shoulders and central reservations cradling flowers and topiary bushes, its green signs and electronic boards copied from advanced civilizations in the West. The signs told us that we were driving southwards, in the direction of Bangalore, and that if we wanted to, we could loop across all of India on this highway. It was part of the Golden Quadrilateral project, a six-lane band of modernity embracing the country, with only the occasional glitch of an encounter squad to remind us of those being left behind.
Vijay was taking me to a village called Kothur in the district of Mahabubnagar. It was close to Hyderabad, about thirty kilometers from the city, and change was visible all the way up to the village. We stopped for lunch just before we got to Kothur, driving past a security guard into a walled complex. The area had once been a vineyard producing table grapes, but the land had since been acquired by a property developer. The vineyards had been destroyed and two pyramids put up in their place. They were part of Papyrus Port, which was, as the brochure put it, “India’s First Egyptian Resort.”
The pyramids were not very large, perhaps thirty feet high, and were made of granite. They had names—Khafres and Khufus [sic]—but like all the other proper nouns echoing through the resort (“Lawn of Isis,” “Lawn of Osiris,” “Prometeus [sic] Unbound Health Club”), the names suggested not Egyptian or Greek but an Indian sort of Disneyland. Yet although money had been spent in putting up the resort and effort expended in creating a clean and comfortable complex, Papyrus Port was still more an idea than a place, with the offerings in the brochure far more generous than what was available in the actual resort.
The pictures showed a large swimming pool, a huge conference hall, a zoo, “multi-cuisine” restaurants and a list of “adventurous sports” running from “Water Zorb”—whatever that might be—to “Commando Net.” In reality, the swimming pool was small, the “Prometeus Unbound Health Club” a tiny room with two lonely treadmills, the zoo a cage with some sick-looking rabbits whose fur was falling off, and the multi-cuisine restaurants of Khafres and Khufus capable at that moment of serving only local food.
But there was something other than the gap between vision and reality that added to the dissonance of Papyrus Port. Apart from a couple in the restaurant and a family enjoying kebabs on the lawn, the place was empty. It had been crowded when Vijay visited it a couple of years earlier, but now, in the summer of 2009, there was suddenly less money in India. The global downturn had come home, and even the middle classes and the elites accustomed to the high-consumption side of globalization were beginning to find things difficult. The campus recruitment conducted by IT companies in engineering colleges was down or, in some cases, had stopped entirely. There were layoffs happening in many organizations. The building boom that had thrown up condos everywhere had slowed down, and the billboards in Hyderabad offered free rent and discounts to entice customers into buying the half-built units. In my mother’s lower-middle-class neighborhood in Calcutta, the posters offering jobs in call centers had been displaced by signs that said: “Sick of credit card debt? Tired of phone calls demanding money? Call this number to find a solution.” The downturn was one reason why Papyrus Port was emptier than it should have been. When an attendant showed us around the “Live Like a Pharaoh” suites, they too turned out to be empty. Vijay had thought that I might want to stay at the resort, but I decided that I would be better off at his house in the village. The resort was comfortable, but it was hard to picture being there in the evening, all by myself apart from the staff, a middle-class pharaoh protected by security guards and an electric fence from the land and its people.
2. The hellish Vinayak steel factory
The land was part of the district of Mahabubnagar, and it was teeming with people. Many of them were outsiders, itinerant figures coming from as far north as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, or from the eastern segment of India that includes West Bengal, Orissa and Assam, traveling on a long chain of trains and buses to find work in the factories of Kothur. Within that seemingly sparse agricultural landscape, so remote from the highway, there were nearly a hundred factories churning out chemicals, pharmaceutical products, steel bars and metal pipes, places that were discernible only when one got off the highway. The factories weren’t clustered together but appeared at random, across a patchwork of fields, near the village market, or next to the old road that had been superseded by the modern highway, and one didn’t see the factories as much as the marks they created on the landscape: smoke being belched out from a distant chimney; black heaps of slag that had been deposited on the fields and were being turned over with infinitesimal patience by women and children for a few scraps of iron; the infernal metallic squeaking of machinery from behind walled complexes; and the sickly sweet smell of chemicals that appeared suddenly on the wings of an occasional breeze.
Even as the number of millionaires and billionaires has increased, followed by the aspirers from the middle classes, the poor have seen either little or no improvement at all.
The area around Kothur had been developed as an industrial zone in the ’80s, and the name Kothur, which means “new village,” reflected that transformation, replacing the earlier name of Patur, or “old village.” The industrialization had been initiated, accompanied by subsidies and tax breaks from the government, because Mahabubnagar was considered to be one of the poor, “backward” districts of the Telangana region. It is home to lower castes trying to eke a living out of agriculture as well as to the Lambada gypsies, a community so impoverished that it often sells its children to shady adoption agencies and sex traffickers.
Two decades after the industrialization of the area, about a million people, or two-thirds of the adult population of Mahabubnagar district, have to travel to distant parts of India to find employment. They end up in Bangalore or as far away as Bombay, often working as construction laborers. In a recent report on migrant labor in India published by the United Nations Development Project, Priya Deshingkar and Shaheen Akhter interviewed Mahabubnagar workers and discovered that even though the middlemen who take them to the construction sites are often paid 4,500 rupees for each worker, the workers themselves get paid as little as 1,200 rupees a month in cash and in food. The workers—most of whom belong to the lower castes—are often trapped in debt because of the advances they take to fund the initial expenses of their migration. Their children are regularly coerced into work, the women are often sexually abused, and all of the workers are prone to injuries since India has the highest accident rate in the world for construction workers, with 165 out of every 1,000 laborers getting injured on the job.
While the local people of Mahabubnagar go elsewhere for work, the factories in the area attract tens of thousands of men from other parts of India. It is an arrangement that suits employers everywhere well, ensuring that the workers will be too insecure and uprooted to ever mount organized protests against their conditions and wages. They are from distant regions, of no interest to local politicians seeking votes, and are alienated from the local people by differences in language and culture.
A few miles from Papyrus Port, diagonally across from it on the other side of the highway, was the Vinayak steel factory. It stood near an intersection, surrounded by high walls and facing a muddy yard where canvas-covered trucks idled through the day. Although unlike Papyrus Port in every other way, the steel factory too had an excellent brochure that I had received when I first went to meet the managing director, Venkatesh Rao. The cover displayed a bouquet of steel rods, and when I rubbed my hand on the rods, I could feel their rough textured surface, contrasting sharply with the smooth paper. A skyscraper of concrete and glass rose towards a cloud-covered sky from the bouquet. It was an advertising agency’s rendition of how the rods built at the factory went into the making of condominiums and office towers. The picture eliminated all signs of the human labor that went into creating the rods, but it was nevertheless a reminder of the connection between this nondescript, almost invisible steel factory and the globalized cities. The steel factory was one of the countless invisible nodes of modernization in India, pulling in workers from distant rural areas to create the material that would be used for construction far away, perhaps by men and women who travelled from Mahabubnagar. It was to get a sense of the labor involved in producing the steel rods that I entered the factory echoing with metallic clangs and screeches, the yards smelling of smoke and grease, the sky above cut into thin quadrants by angled delivery chutes that groaned into life without warning and stopped just as suddenly.
It was when I arrived at the rolling mill, the place where steel ingots were turned into the finished product of TMT bars, that I finally received some sense of what went on in the factory. Here, finally, was the heart of the place, a vast, open-sided shed filled with deafening noise and the blast of heat from furnaces operating at 1,200 degrees Celsius. The men visible through the smoke and noise were infernal creatures, rags wrapped around their faces to protect themselves from the heat, inevitably dwarfed by the extremity of the place, with everything so large, so fast and so hot. It was as if they were being worked by the machines and materials rather than the other way around. There was a man feeding ingots into the furnace at the very beginning of the mill, using long metal tongs. At the other end of the vast shed there were two men who were his doubles, faces similarly wrapped in rags and wielding tongs like his with which they grabbed the rods that shot out at great speed from the belt. The rods blazed red as they came out, and the men moved in unison like drugged dancers, each picking up an end of the rod and then moving it to the side with a concentrated effort that was broken only by the expulsion of their breaths.
They live in slums, work around the clock and are denied access to ration cards that would allow them to buy subsidized food from what remains of the country’s public distribution system.
3. How police broke a strike, or why migrant workers distrust outsiders
The changes that have been wrought in India in the past two decades have not been kind to the poor. Even as the number of millionaires and billionaires has increased, followed by the aspirers from the middle classes, the poor have seen either little or no improvement at all, depending on which economists and policy makers one chooses to believe. The data collected by the Indian government, which has been subject to some controversy for its tendency to downplay the number of poor people and the extent of their destitution, is nevertheless stark. In 2004-2005, the last year for which data was available, the total number of people in India consuming less than twenty rupees (or fifty cents) a day was 836 million—or 77 percent of the population. The people in this group belong overwhelmingly to what policy makers refer to as the “unorganized” or “informal” sector of the economy, which means that the work they do is irregular, carried out in harsh conditions and offers no security or upward mobility. Many of the people in this category are farmers, but a large number are also migrant workers, people who oscillate between the rural areas where they have grown up and the cities or semi-urban areas like Mahabubnagar where they work. An Indian government report in April 2009 that looked at the “informal” economy characterized migrant workers, along with child laborers and bonded laborers, as being at the very bottom of all those working in the informal economy. Almost all migrant workers, the report noted, face “longer working hours, social isolation, lower wages and inadequate access to basic amenities.” They live in slums, are expected to be available to work around the clock and are denied access to the ration cards that would allow them to buy subsidized food from what remains of the country’s public distribution system. And although they are everywhere—huddled in tents erected on pavements and under flyovers in Delhi; at marketplaces in Calcutta, where they sit with cloth bags of tools ready for a contractor to hire them for the day; gathered around fires made from rags and newspapers in the town of Imphal, near Burma; and at train stations everywhere as they struggle to make their way into the “unreserved” compartments offering human beings as much room as cattle trucks taking their passengers to the slaughterhouse—they are invisible in the sense that they seem to count for nothing at all.
It is difficult even to get an estimate of the number of migrant workers in India. The government census of 2001 considered 307 million people, or 30 per cent of the total population, as migrants. In this assessment, however, the census was merely counting people who had moved away from their places of residence, and not the reasons for their migration. The authors of theUNDP report on migrant workers, in contrast, have figured that there are around 100 million “circular” migrant workers in India. Of these, the report notes, the largest number, some forty million people, is engaged in construction, followed by twenty million workers, mostly women and girls, who are employed as domestic servants. From various case studies around the country, the UNDP researchers found that migrant work was often a way of maintaining the minimal standard of living of rural families rather than improving such standards. They also discovered that middlemen contractors often locked workers into high interest debts, low pay and abysmal working conditions, including the practice of bonded labor for entire families that is especially prevalent among the ten million workers employed by small factories that make mud bricks.
A few years earlier, in Delhi, I met a man who worked for a trade union attempting to organize migrant workers. Among the things he said was that there was an underclass even in relation to the destitute migrant workers, a group so desperate that factory owners often use them as scabs during a strike. These were the people he called “Malda labor” after a town of that name in West Bengal. “If you ask any of these men where they’re from, they all say ‘Malda.’ Is it possible for a small town like Malda to have so many people?” The organizer explained that the men were from Bangladesh, just across the border from Malda. They were Muslims, crossing into India illegally, without any rights at all and often willing to work for a pittance. He told me about an instance when he had visited some Malda laborers in their shanties because he knew that they had been hired to work the next day at a factory where his union had called a strike. “We took some food, some cheap liquor and drank them into the ground so that they wouldn’t be able to get to work the next day. It was more food and drink than they’d seen for a long time,” the organizer said. It wasn’t a terribly ethical thing to do, he admitted, but he didn’t have much of a choice in trying to unionize migrant workers.
Overwhelmingly, it was owners who won in such battles with migrant workers attempting to organize themselves. Vijay had told me about what happened at the steel factory when some workers tried, in the late ’80s, to form a union. This was a time when the factory did not depend entirely on migrant workers, and its workforce was divided evenly between migrants and local workers, many of the local people consisting of men from the Lambada tribe. Two Lambada men had taken the lead in organizing the workers, managing to win the support of both locals and migrants and getting the union registered. The labor commissioner, in accordance with the laws, asked the factory management to recognize the union, which it did. When the union demanded better wages and improved safety measures, the management refused. The workers retaliated by going on strike.
At this point, Vijay said, the owners consulted the police, and an officer said that he would help them find a solution. He visited the Lambada village and talked to some of the men there, possibly threatening them and perhaps also offering them money. Soon after, one of the women from the village accused a worker of attempting to rape her. The policeman immediately lodged cases of sexual assault against all the organizers, and this terrified the migrant workers, who began returning to their posts. The strike was broken, all local workers dismissed, and since then the factory has hired only migrants. If Lambadas are given any work these days, it is only as daily wage laborers.
For those who come to Kothur and find work at Vinayak steel, the factory becomes their entire world, a place where they work twelve-hour shifts, during the day and at night, where they eat and sleep and shit, and when they are not in a workshop or in a loading shed, they are to be found in the barracks that are squeezed in between a coal storage shed and the back wall of the factory complex.
The factory did not charge rent, and its workforce of one thousand people was mostly concentrated into two rows of concrete cubicles that were topped off with an asbestos roof. Because these quarters were sited in the furthest corner of the complex, it was possible to tour the entire factory without going into the workers’ area, and for the most part, no one other than the workers went there. There was good reason for avoiding the barracks. It was the most squalid and miserable place I had ever seen in my life, more so than the worst slum I had visited. The two rows of cubicles were separated from each other by a little strip of concrete with gutters on each side. There was trash everywhere in the narrow corridor between the rows, and even the verandas running in front of the rooms were filled with the carcasses of objects: broken chairs and fans, discarded items of clothing, vegetable peelings, leftover food and empty pint bottles of cheap liquor. There was a constant smell of shit in the air, and the entire place seemed to be cast in shades of gray.
I was so well fed and well rested in contrast to them that I might as well have come from another planet.
The repulsion I felt on my first visit was accentuated by the unwillingness of the workers to talk to me. I had been given complete freedom by Venkatesh Rao, the managing director, to interview the workers. It was an unusual decision on his part, especially given the fierceness with which factory owners prevent any scrutiny of their businesses. But Rao wasn’t an owner. He was an employee, if a very well paid one, and he’d admitted frankly that while he would never be able to improve the conditions of the workers—the owners wouldn’t stand for that, he said—he nevertheless understood how miserable their lives were.
I had appreciated that freedom when it was granted to me. I liked it less the first afternoon I went to the barracks and tried to engage with the workers and found that none of them wanted to talk to me in any detail. I understood why the workers were wary of me. In spite of my telling them that I had the managing director’s permission, they felt uncertain about my presence—afraid that I might be a government labor inspector come to see their living conditions—and were determined, in the way of migrant workers, to avoid any discussions that might imperil their jobs. Some of the workers were teenage boys, in the most obvious violation of laws against hiring children, and they were the ones most anxious to avoid me, replying in monosyllables or smiling and walking away when I asked them questions.
But there was more than just caution involved in their refusal to engage. I was so well fed and well rested in contrast to them that I might as well have come from another planet. They encountered men similar to me every day in the engineers and accountants who also worked at the factory. But the hierarchy and division were clear in those encounters, and men from the managerial class did not cross the border into this living space of theirs. This was their domain, and the only people from outside their class who came here were the labor contractors, the tough middlemen straddling the decent, bourgeois world of management and the rough, desperate realm of the workers.
The workers continued to avoid me as I sat on an unoccupied cot, watching the men as they wandered around in the afternoon heat, bare-chested and clad in faded, checked cotton towels or in grimy underpants. The men appeared shabby and their bodies looked worn out by the work, shorn of flab without being muscular. Some of them carried pots of water to go behind the barracks for a shit. Others pumped small stoves to get the fire going for their evening meal. There was no hint of domesticity about the food being prepared, nor any sign of pleasure. They chopped the vegetables mechanically, smoked a cigarette or a beedi, and urinated into the gutter. In spite of the heat and the absence of fans inside the cubicles, the doors were closed. Some of the rooms had television sets, and there was an occasional flicker of color and noise when a door opened briefly, giving me a glimpse of men huddled around a screen watching a Bollywood film.
But if the place seemed settled in its hard rhythm, around the edges of that was a sense of flux. A group of five workers from Orissa arrived even as I sat there, having got off a train that morning at Hyderabad and then taken a bus to Kothur. They were all boys of thirteen or fourteen, slightly built and holding cheap duffel bags, looking almost like schoolboys playing truant except for their mature, cautious faces. When I approached them, they answered my questions about where they had come from uneasily, refusing to give me their names. They had worked at the factory before, but they did not yet know what work might be available for them this time around. Then they walked away from me, heading for a room that was apparently vacant.
There were no women and no children in this world—only men who were either hard, broken-down, or both, a dystopian realm of worker drones producing objects whose purpose seemed unfathomable to me.
The largest contingent of workers came from the states of Orissa and Bihar, although there were also men from West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Assam. The barracks were divided along ethnic groups, and I was sitting roughly on the dividing line between the Bihari and the Oriya quarters. A man named Rabinder had been getting his dinner ready nearby—the workers cooked early, around four or five, so that those going off to evening shifts could have dinner before starting out—and I tried talking to him. He was from Orissa, a short man with a paunch and a mustache, his gaze shifty as he responded to my questions. He had been a tailor in his village, he said, and he hoped to go back to that when he had saved enough money.
As I was talking to Rabinder, another man came out of a nearby room and stood listening to us. He seemed different from the workers I had come across so far. He looked cleaner, to begin with, less broken down than even the Oriya teenagers who had just arrived. He was wiry in build, dressed in a yellow T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, and his face had prominently Mongoloid features, with wide cheekbones and tapering eyes. I asked him where he was from and he said that he had come from Assam. I have forgotten almost all the Assamese I once knew, but I remembered enough to be able to ask him his name. His face lit up and he replied in a volley of words, sitting down next to me and smiling even as Rabinder curled his lips in a sneer and walked away. The man’s name was Mohanta Mising. He was twenty-one years old, and he hadn’t been at the factory for more than a couple of weeks.
4. Encounter with a stranger
At the turn of the century, Kothur was sliced into two halves by the highway. The marketplace and the steel factory were on one side, most of the houses and fields on the other. Vijay had a small house in the village, a rudimentary concrete building full of cobwebs and beetles that he had built many years ago. He lived in Hyderabad, and I was on my own in the house except for the watchman and his family who lived in a separate hut diagonally across from me. In the morning, it was a pleasant, almost pastoral place, surrounded by agricultural plots and looking out at the settlement of the Lambadas. The women were striking in their independence and manner of dress, always walking in front of their husbands and dressed in bright skirts and a profusion of jewelry.
Yet the rural life was on the retreat. There were factories everywhere, Papyrus Port close by and, a little further away, the new Hyderabad airport. Much of the land between the city and the airport had apparently been bought up by real estate developers anticipating the expansion of the city, and it seemed just a matter of time before the Lambadas were forced off the land entirely. Vijay’s house was separated by the highway from the Kothur market and the steel factory, which meant that I had to cross the highway on foot, like most of the villagers. I did so with some anxiety the first time, walking past paddy fields pockmarked with slag to the ramp leading up to the highway. There I followed the example of two villagers, waiting for a break in the traffic coming from Hyderabad and scampering to the median, then waiting again for a gap in the stream of vehicles from Bangalore before completing my crossing. After that, it was a ten-minute walk to the market arranged along the road that had been the main thoroughfare until it was superseded by the new highway.
The market that was the center of Kothur was a hard, dusty settlement with carts selling vegetables and fruit, pharmacies, liquor stores that traded mainly in pint bottles of cheap whiskey, and a couple of cybercafés where the computers seemed weighed down by all the porn that had been surfed on them. There were concrete houses around the edges of the market, looking as if they had been dropped at random on to the fields, some poultry shacks, a jewelry store that doubled as a money-lending operation, and three restaurants. It was at one of these that I took my breakfast and lunch, a cheap meal consisting largely of potatoes and watery dal. Served by ten-year-old boys, the food was consumed eagerly by the tired-looking workers and farmers who ate at the restaurant.
I went to another place for dinner, a dhaba at the very end of the marketplace. Hidden by a row of parked trucks and sitting next to the squeaking complex of a factory manufacturing metal pipes, the dhaba had different names—“Bhawani Dhaba” or “Vijai Family Dhaba”—depending on which sign one chose to read. There were a series of concrete cubicles to one side of a patch of grass, with curtains drawn across them in a suggestive manner, and a hallway at the back with plastic tables and chairs. There were never too many customers at the dhaba, but when they showed up, they preferred the booths, groups of tough-looking local businessmen clustered around whiskey and tandoori chicken.
I usually sat in the hallway, surrounded by three or four restless-looking teenage waiters, looking out at the rain falling on the new highway. The rain, which came in fits and starts, suggested that the monsoons would be poor that year. It took the edge off the heat, but it also added to the desolate atmosphere of this place that was neither city, nor town, nor village, the marketplace always deserted by nine or ten in the evening except for the occasional drunken man, while above us traffic sped along on the new highway under a bright orange neon sign that said: “Do not use cell phone while driving.” There were no women and no children in this world—only men who were either hard, broken-down, or both, a dystopian realm of worker drones producing objects whose purpose seemed unfathomable to me.
It was depressing, and even a little frightening, to cross the highway on my way back to Vijay’s house. I could have avoided this by staying at Papyrus Port and hiring a car, but I realized how much I would have missed. The act of walking changed the way I experienced everything around Kothur. My uneasiness while crossing the highway and the diminution I felt as I walked for what seemed like hours across that flat landscape brought me a little closer to the experience of the workers. Walking shrunk me down to the level of an insect, for even as I made my way slowly towards the steel factory along the dirt track that ran under the highway, I could see the cars and trucks speeding past. It made me feel lost, unfit somehow for the new world I could see up there.
One afternoon, as I made my way back from the steel factory through a series of puddles, I needed to take a piss. There was only one other person visible, a man walking in my direction but some distance away. I urinated against a brick wall, feeling slightly embarrassed. I heard the man come closer and expected him to walk on—a man pissing in the open is a common sight in India—but I could feel him stop when he reached me. He was standing right behind me and at first I was worried that he was the owner of the brick wall I was soaking. But he stayed silent, and I began to grow puzzled and annoyed. When I finished, I turned around and looked at him aggressively.
Here, then, was the reality of India. In spite of all the talk about technology, the educated, clean-cut Mishra was looking for work the way a man might have fifty years ago.
The stranger was waiting for me with a smile on his face, as unlikely a figure as I could have expected to encounter in that blighted landscape. He was rather handsome, hair cut cleanly and mustache trimmed well, a man in his twenties dressed in a cream-colored polo shirt and trousers, with strapped sandals on his feet. He had a brown office bag on one shoulder.
“Sir,” he said politely, “where are you coming from?”
“The steel factory,” I said irritably. “What about you?”
“I’m looking for work,” he said, gesturing at his bag.
We stood there amid the puddles and the dirt, the man telling me about himself against the sound of cars passing by high up on the highway. His name was Amit Mishra, and he was from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh. He was working as a clerk at a company in Gujarat and had come to Hyderabad to visit a relative. He wasn’t too happy at his job or with living in Gujarat, and when he had heard from his relative that there were many factories in the Kothur area, he had decided to visit them and see if any of them had a position for him.
This sounded quite futile to me, and there were parts of his story that didn’t fit. Gujarat was a long way from Uttar Pradesh, I said, but so was Andhra Pradesh. He smiled and nodded when I said this, not contradicting me, seemingly much more interested in my reasons for being in the middle of nowhere than in his own reasons for being there. When he heard that I lived in New York, he asked, in the reflexive manner of poorer Indians, whether I could help him emigrate to America. I deflected the question and asked him about his plans for the day. He had taken a bus to Kothur in the morning, he said. He would try as many places as he could before returning to Hyderabad in the evening. Here, then, was the reality of India, and middle-class India at that. In spite of all the talk about technology and the Internet, the educated, clean-cut Mishra was looking for work the way a man might have fifty years ago, walking the many miles from one random factory to another, hoping that his civilized demeanor would get him an interview with an official, dropping off a CV but in all likelihood never hearing back from any of these companies.
Mishra was an accountant, but before he had done accountancy, he had been a student of history. His head was still full of the books he had read, and standing in the muck, he wanted to have a discussion with me about what democracy meant.
“Sir, have you read Amartya Sen?” he said, referring to the Harvard economist and Nobel laureate best known for his work on hunger and inequality. “You remember what he said about famine, that it doesn’t necessarily happen because there isn’t enough food but because the powerful take food away from the powerless? It’s still like that in India. Are you going to write that in your book?”
I asked Mishra if he wanted to come to the market and have a cup of tea, but he shook his head. The sun was beginning to drop over the horizon, and he wanted to put in as many job applications as he could before taking the bus back to Hyderabad. He asked me for directions to the steel factory and then left, walking under the highway towards the smokestacks of the factory.
From The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, published August 30, 2011, by Faber & Faber, Inc. (an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC). © 2011 Siddhartha Deb
Siddhartha Deb was born in northeastern India in 1970. His first novel, The Point of Return, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His reviews and journalism have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Guardian, The Nation, the New Statesman, and the Times Literary Supplement. He came to New York on a literary fellowship in 1998, and now divides his time between India and New York.