Thirty-eight-year-old Raju has lived in Delhi since 1998, with his wife and four children away in Gorakhpur, UP. As a sanitation worker, he has cleaned streets and hospitals, police stations and footpaths. “The joke in my village for at least five years was that my wife would have a baby every time I would go home. People would ask if I just went home to father children,” he says, as his colleagues snigger. They are all sipping on tea after unexpected showers have “vacuum cleaned” the streets of central Delhi. “Why else would a man go home?”
Like Raju, millions of Indian men live away from their homes, having travelled to urban constellations and metros in search of work. They form the bulk of the labour force that runs cities and fuels construction. Their lives are often difficult, without the company of family and friends.
Raju’s home in the city is a single room in a house in Sultanpur Majra in northwest Delhi; he shares a bathroom with two other tenants. Every day, he travels nearly 40 km to reach central Delhi for work. All these years, Raju has never asked his wife to live with him. When he fell ill about 10 years ago, he called his mother over to take care of him. The few times his wife has visited him, he says she nags about the way he keeps his room. “For her everything is wrong. The room is a mess, she rants about how I cook near the bathroom. She is a village woman, not used to having a bathroom inside the house — exactly why she cannot survive here beyond a few days,” he says.
The longest she — Raju does not want her named “for everybody to read and see”— stayed in Delhi was for two months when their youngest son was born. He misses her, he says, and talks to her once every day despite the roaming charges. “Now we have a roaming pack. I bought her a phone three years ago,” he says with a smile. The gift of a phone, he says, as he moves away from the group of safai karmacharis enjoying their afternoon snooze near Mandir Marg, was perhaps born of guilt. On a winter evening last year, Raju took in a “longtime lady friend” for one night to his house. “There was another woman, but that was just a few months after I was married, and we did not have children then. I told my wife about her, she did not say anything. But now I am scared,” he says. He says he still speaks to his “friend”, but there is “nothing else”. “It is difficult for a man to live alone in a big city with only men, pretending to be bachelors after all these years. Women can live with children and cooking, my wife she even reads a bit. But what do I do after work?” he says, stubbing out the last of his bidi.
The biggest responsibility is that of being the breadwinner, and that is what defines their lives.
Sohan Lal, 42, left his home in Bhind in Madhya Pradesh, to find work in Delhi as a young 18-year-old soon after he got married. The construction worker has been working on one of the many residential projects on the Noida Extension, near NH 24, for the last two years. “My parents worked as brick kiln labour, barely scraping through. They tried really hard to make me study, but I never did. I had to write every exam thrice to pass. I was really stupid,” he says. But marriage changed him. “My wife was beautiful and she was Class X pass. Some recent movie is about a fat, educated woman who marries a useless but handsome man. My wife was never fat, but that is our story,” Lal says.
His wife had dreams of coming to Delhi with me and working in a shop or an office as a clerk. “That did it. My father always felt guilty about making my mother work, I could not repeat the same mistake. Besides, if she lived with me on the street, imagine what would have happened! Delhi is not a safe place,” he says with a shudder. The couple have four children.
Lal turned down her requests of working in the city over the years. “I worked with a man who sold chhole kulche off a moving cart for the first 3-4 years. The money was not very good so I could not send anything home, even though I got to eat. Then I stumbled on to my first construction site and everything changed.”
As the construction business boomed in National Capital Region through the 2000s, Lal hopped along. “I did double shifts so I could send Rs 2,000-3,000 home at least,” he says. The only time his wife had to work — in the village fields — was when he got tuberculosis in 2001 and returned home for two years. “How she cursed me! That woman thinks she is meant for office work, she does not know the Delhi we live in, she thinks it’s about rich shops and big offices only,” Lal says, squatting near a tea shop at Char Murti Chowk. But he is happy to struggle for his wife. “Besides if she starts working, what use will I be? Look at how families break up in cities. If there is one breadwinner, there is some respect and love,” he says thoughtfully. He is back at work even after the doctor warned him to stay away from construction sites.
If there are solid lines demarcating the lives of men and women back home, in the city, they turn fuzzy. Akram, 27, from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, says his father would cringe at having to sell lingerie on the street,calling out cup sizes and material. “I couldn’t care less. I made two good decisions. Moving from men’s clothes to women’s clothes, because women shop far more. Adding lingerie to my kit was the second. I used to sell shorts for men, and I never realised I can sell the same clothes for women at three times the rate,” he says, arranging bras by colour and material at Connaught Place. In his village, his father would beat him if he was ever caught holding a girl’s hand. “I hardly spoke to women before I came here. But it is a done thing here, hardly any woman gives you a second glance for selling this stuff. Now I train new boys in the business,” he says.
Akram believes he is a progressive man. “When I have a wife, I will tell her to go out and work. I have had many girlfriends. They all wear jeans. I went on a date with one and kissed her on the cheek — on the road,” he says with a laugh.
Not everyone is comfortable with the changed dynamic. Sapna came to Delhi with dreams of getting a job as a driver, and making “big money”. Eight years later, he wakes up at 5 am to dust 618 cars every day. That earns him around Rs 1,800 a month. Almost every few weeks, he tries to convince his employers to let him have a go at driving their cars. But with no one relenting, the 28-year-old from Purulia in West Bengal blames his name. “Who will let a man with a woman’s name drive their car? In Delhi, Sapna is a woman’s name,” he rues. Sapna spends extra time on cars owned by women. “They dent cars more, and then they blame everybody, even the cleaners. They also grumble if there is a speck of dust, or if the birds shit on their bonnet. I am not fond of women drivers,” he says firmly. He has learnt, he says, to be wary of them.