Everything about Gurgaon is unique. It is a city that thrives on being different and often that difference is about a lack of empathy. There is this brazen, wannabe streak here that is disturbing. So many of us live here and continue to not see its underbelly.
Why this sudden negativity? Well, I just spent the evening driving around town touring it’s shanty settlements. Jhuggis that existed a few months ago we found barely a trace of. This was the jhuggi we had helped rehabilitate after a fire burnt it down. Turns out the owners, two brothers, quarrelled and the jhuggi was asked to be pulled down. Another site where a large jhuggi settlement had been disbanded in 2010 before the Commonwealth Games was now the scene of much excavating and concrete pouring. Makes one wonder about how the lives of the poor migrants in this city are putty in the hands of politicians, land owners and builders, a lot of the times working hand in glove with each other. And certainly all on the same side.
How do these people deal with these tremendous uncertainties? Especially those migrants that work as domestic help and I have encountered many families in which the wife swabs and sweeps in homes while the man washes cars or sweeps roads.
The construction labor seem to live in contractor-built shanties. These are dismantled once the building is complete and the workers move to a new site. Even so, there are many amenities they simply go without and they continue to dream a future of prosperity for their children in situations when they cannot even send them to school! Yet, they smile and welcome us into their jhuggis. They apologise for not having chairs, they talk to us with a sense of dignity. These are people poor in resources but scarcely poor in culture or etiquette. They do not deserve to live like this.
How much we take for granted something as basic as shelter. It’s because we have a relatively permanent address and quality housing that we remain largely healthy, our belongings remain safe, our kids go to reputed schools and are able to study well and sleep in peace. Even with our nation firmly rooted onto a path of capitalistic growth, I do believe there are some basic needs the state and society must strive to provide, in whatever way. So the poor have opportunity to exit the trap of poverty and despair.
As the research for my fellowship commences, I find myself part excited and part scared by the many truths I will discover, the many voices I will hear. I hope to, and this is a tall order, find some reasonable ways to deal with migrant housing for a city like Gurgaon. I hope to build a case for inclusiveness.
I’m reading ‘A Free Man’ by Aman Sethi. It is a peek into the lives of homeless laborers living in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar and follows closely the stories of a certain group. I know now why my mother left the book on my table a few days ago. She has read it before me and she must have known how greedily I would lap up its pages, seeing as I am soon to embark on primary research work in Gurgaon’s immigrant labor community, many of whom would have compulsions and circumstances much like the men in the book.
And yet, a homeless man is a very different sort of person. Much misunderstood, much maligned, not even considered inside the frame of reference of society as we understand it. ‘A Free Man’ hits you with the immense intelligence with which its protagonist Ashraf, a safediwala who has spent a couple decades living in Sadar Bazar’s Bara Tooti Chowk, views his life and situation. An intelligence that can make incredibly complex questions appear simple. Consider these- Why does a many run away from home? Why do people disappear and never return? Why does the government run homeless shelters for three months a year? Where do they think those people will go the rest of the year? And then, why do they have a cell that randomly locks up homeless people considering them beggars? Who is a friend? If you have only two rupees to your name, what would you do with them- buy chai or pay for a shit?
In our work at mHS, we have tried to look at the problems of the homeless from a shelter perspective; but it is truly hard working around the government’s conflicting policies. However, the real problem with addressing homelessness is that in truth, we do really understand why someone would choose to be homeless and vulnerable (mHS is a part of a task force that is working to make homeless shelters an integral aspect of municipal infrastructure and specifically. We are working to develop a construction manual to aid local governments. Harsh Mander is spearheading this and his understanding of the homless is a lot better than anyone else’s).
In a vague sense, we all know that people leave their villages in search of employment and land up in a city. We assume most of them come for employment because their land can no longer support them. But many come for trivial reasons. Someone could have stolen a few rupees from their father and got slapped when he got found out. Another got drunk on local liquor and simple sat in a bus and found himself in a city. Yet another was insulted by his employer and did not work without honor. Yes, these are people who dream, who have a certain self respect, who hope and aspire. In that, they are much like us and we can understand that.
But because it is unimaginable for us that we could live without a roof above our heads and enough money to feed our needs, whatever they may be, we cannot understand many things. The book reveals that the homeless are also people with emotion, who react as much to heartbreak as to poverty. They value friendships and yet live lives so fragile that they dare not question when a friend disappears. They live in suspicion, yet trust everyone. They form bonds so close and yet they can walk away from everything. They drown their sorrows and the ache in their bodies in drink and smoke, but they cannot drown their sense of rootlessness, and the feeling that they have come far away from identity. They cling to classifications- bihari, rikshawala, charsi (substance abuser), gappi (teller of fantastic tales) and so on. They are laawaaris (belong nowhere), akelapan (loneliness) is their only true friend, they will always be ajnabis (strangers) to many and even to themselves and yet, in a sense, they are the only ones who taste true azadi (freedom) as they have no maalik (owner), no family, no one to answer to at all; these are the four overriding emotions around which ‘A Free Man’ tells the stories of the people we don’t really know.
In the sense of really feeling what these people are all about, this book has opened my eyes and my heart. I know it will become an important reference point for the research I am about to begin.