The Gol Baithak Chowk area of Seelampur, in East Delhi, is a maze of buildings narrowly packed together. In one such building in ‘Gali No. 8’, one of Seelampur’s most crowded, this morning is as chaotic as most. A fight has just broken out over someone using the toilet for more than the stipulated two-three minutes. Some are hurling abuses, others mumbling in frustration.
Sanjay, 34, is the fourth in the queue outside the toilet on his floor. The floor has more than 10 families, one family each to a room, who share a single toilet. The building has three floors. The fights are “roz ka jhamela”, Sanjay says. “This happens almost every day, someone or the other takes too long in the toilet and someone loses his composure. I think defecating in the open is better. I used to go to the fields in the village. There was so much space there,” Sanjay says, spitting out the tobacco he has been chewing.
In neighbouring buildings, located little more than a hand-stretch away, the queues outside toilets have started building up too.
Sanjay shares his room with his wife and five children. The rent is Rs 2,200, a lot, he says, considering they don’t have own toilets.
In one such room, in one such building in Old Seelampur, a four-year-old girl called Ayaat died on July 24, reportedly after she fell into a pot of boiling tea. There was little space in the room for Ayaat and her six siblings and, police suspect, she was playing on the cot when the accident happened.
Sanjay’s turn to use the toilet finally comes, and he is done in less than two minutes. He heads straight to the tap opposite the toilet and wets his hands with water, then rubs them against the wall to get chuna (lime) on them. “Chuna works best, I use it instead of soap. I have been using it since I moved here five months ago,” he says.
Sanjay now heads to his 10 ft-by-10 ft room. Dark and damp, it has a small window for light in one of its semi-plastered walls. The window looks out onto the chaotic lane, with garbage and people hanging out of balconies. On one of the walls hang the family’s clothes from a nail. The floor is strewn with dishes, a broom, a toothbrush next to the broom, some footwear, a plastic mat that serves as the family’s bedding, and a small table fan. There is no fan overhead.
Sanjay’s eldest child, Shivam, 14, is playing with the pressure cooker and some other dirty dishes his mother, Manju, 29, has stacked in a corner to wash. “We have to wash dishes inside the room, there is no alternative. I have to bathe here too, my husband can bathe in the open, but I can’t. This room is all I have,” Manju says as she stirs the potato curry she has made for breakfast.
There is no washing area though, and she bathes or cleans dishes and clothes right next to the door, using a cloth to wipe the area dry later.
As Manju speaks, Sanjay grows visibly uncomfortable, and searches through his pockets for more tobacco to chew. He doesn’t believe the Ayaat story, he adds. “How can a child die by falling into a pot of tea? The most that can happen is one may get burnt,” he says, his eyes on his children playing in the room.
As Manju serves, Sanjay sits down next to the stove for his breakfast. Done eating in around 10 minutes, he nods to his wife, a cue for her to start eating. “I eat first, then the others do. That is how it was in my house in the village, before my father died of cancer,” says Sanjay, pointing to his throat suggesting his father had cancer there.
After Sanjay is done, his wife and children eat what is left, also sitting next to the stove.
By now, it’s 11.10 am. Looking expectantly at his phone, Sanjay says he is waiting for his “thekedaar (contractor)” to call him for work. A tailor, Sanjay takes up daily jobs, and these days finishes stitched kurtis for Rs 10 a piece. “I wait every day for the thekedaar’s call. I don’t get work all the time,” he says.
To Manju and the children, Sanjay’s life is “adventurous” — he gets to leave the house at least. Sanjay boasts that his wife has not left their room for two months now; the last time was when they went to his native village, Kamalganj in Uttar Pradesh, for his sister’s wedding. “Agar koi lakh rupaye de to bhi yeh is kamre se baahar nahi jayegi. Kyun (Even if someone gives Rs 1 lakh, she won’t leave this room. Isn’t it)?” he asks, looking at his wife, his eyebrows raised.
Manju chooses not to respond. Her eyes fixed on the floor, she is cleaning the curry that the youngest child, a two-month-old girl, has just spilled on the floor. Later, she dips her hands in a glass of water to clean them and throws the water in a far corner.
Asked if Sanjay is right about her not wanting to leave the house, Manju reluctantly says, “The environment in the area is not good.” As she adds, “I never left the house when I lived in Ghaziabad either”, Sanjay snaps at her, telling her to clean the dishes.
After waiting for the thekedaar’s phone call for another 40 minutes, Sanjay gives up. “I don’t think he is going to call me today. It’s almost noon and he has not called.”
On the days he goes to work, he says, he generally comes home during his 45-minute lunch break. “The factory is not far.”
Shivam, who has been roaming around, walks up to Sanjay, who is sitting on his haunches, and whispers something in his ear. Sanjay listens intently and then replies, “Yes, I had asked the school.”
Shivam was asking if he would be able to go to school, like he used to in Ghaziabad, Sanjay later says. “The admissions are not open. I want my children to go to school, especially my girls, because they are paraya dhan (other’s property). The boys can choose if they want to study, but the girls must, at least till Class 5,” he says.
Of their five children — three boys and two girls — the couple are yet to name four. “Naam mein kya hai, rakh denge. Abhi jo mann karta hai bulate hain (What is there in a name, we will name them. Right now, we just call them what we want),” says Sanjay.
Manju leans in to complain to Sanjay about the loud music being played in the building next door. The title song from Bollywood film Biwi No. 1 is blaring. Sanjay says such non-stop music gives him a headache, but that he can hardly complain. “I tell them not to play loud music all the time, but it leads to a fight and I don’t want that. I am cautious here.”
He talks about how, back in the village, everyone knew everyone else. “Yahaan mujhe zyada log nahin jaante, aur mujhe kisi se matlab bhi nahin hai (Here, not a lot of people know me. I too don’t care about anybody).” When friends or relatives come, Sanjay just directs them to meet him at the “bada naala (big drain)” nearby. “It is okay,” he adds. “I hardly have visitors.”
Shaking off such thoughts, Sanjay starts talking about dinner. “I don’t like vegetables, but today I will have to eat potato for dinner too, because I did not get work. I had thought I would cook chicken.” When he gets meat, he adds, he cooks it himself. “I don’t trust her (pointing to Manju) with meat.”
Sanjay realises the small room they have might pose a problem in the future. “We are managing as of now. When the children grow up, we will see,” he shrugs.
Manju looks towards him, appearing like she wants to say something. But as Sanjay pointedly turns the other way, she keeps quiet and continues scrubbing the pressure cooker with a piece of yellow polyethylene.
One of their daughters, around 18 months old, crawls towards a bright red-coloured plate kept next to the cooking stove and a small LPG cylinder. Noticing her, Sanjay says, “We have to be careful around fire.”
He picks her up and puts her down on a small piece of cloth spread a few feet away. A second later, he leaves the room, and spits out his tobacco on a water pipe stained with tobacco marks.