His Smile Matters Too: Vikas Bajpai

Guest Post by VIKAS BAJPAI


Ram Teke Bhoi, rickshaw puller from Puri, Odisha

My search for Mr Bhoi, whose sketch I present above, had started on the 1st of January 2017. It culminated sometime around the middle of May 2017 in Puri while on my sojourn to the state of Odisha for conduct of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s entrance exam. Between these two points in time I shall try to weave a tiny story, albeit a true one, of the hundreds of millions of our country’s women and men who live by the sweat of their brow but are expected to remain content with the brow beatings they get in return. Mr Bhoi to me emerges as emblematic of this goings on.

In the last week of December 2016 our ‘twosome awesome’ daughters – Moozna and Amaira, my wife and I had been on a vacation to Meghalaya. On our return back home we decided to have a teat-a-tea with the rhinos at the Kaziranga National Park. Kaziranga in itself was a tame affair and is not relevant to the narrative I attempt to weave here. Rather your attention is solicited for something that transpired on our way back to Guwahati from Kaziranga.

The tenacity with which our rulers have hung on to some of the colonial era derivatives is both amazing and reflective of their attitudes. There is a term ‘Difficult Area Posting’ that exists in the annals of the ‘Government of India’ and the entire North-Eastern part of the country is categorized as such. Courtesy my brother in law, who was then undergoing this ‘Difficult Area Posting’ in the North-East, a visit was arranged for us to see a tea garden on our way back from Kaziranga and there were people at hand to oversee the arrangements.

Parts of Assam where they exist, tea plantations are akin to the paddy or the wheat fields that one sees on either side of the highway connecting Delhi to Chandigarh; miles and miles of tea plant bushes on either side of the road inter-spread with trees that have the middle portion of their barks wrapped in yellow polythene or simply painted white with limestone paint to attract potential pests and thereby facilitate the necessary preemptory measures. The barks of many of these trees could be seen covered with creepers of black pepper which we were to learn later, acts like a bio-pesticide to protect the tea plants from pest attacks.

Add to the lush green visage of tea plantations rolling over the undulating surface of the ground below, a few women here and a few there tending the tea shrubs in the distance; some men upturning the earth, or digging a trench for ensuring proper drainage of the plantation area or carrying on spraying operations; a few tin sheds and cottage like small buildings, the picture appears idyllic and submerged in bliss. Deception can seldom be more beautiful than this.

Our visit had been scheduled at the ‘Kellydine’ tea estate which is situated just a few kilometers ahead of Tezpur town on the highway to Guwahati. This incidentally is only one of several tea estates owned by Tata Tea in the state of Assam. We had intended to visit the tea leave processing plant to see how tea that we finally consume is produced. Unfortunately, the plant as it turned out had been closed for maintenance. The plant manager instead offered to show us around the tea packaging plant; a proposal we readily agreed to.

Even as my wife went to ease herself, I along with the girls was ushered into the packaging plant manager’s office. We had some time at hand before the manager would return to office from lunch. Meanwhile, the few moments that we spent there were enough to impress upon me the strategic location and the authority of manager’s office within the plant; something which merits a little description here.

The manager’s chamber must have been at least a fifteen feet by twelve feet room which had a rather sparse appearance. There wasn’t much material except a desktop on the huge managerial desk which did not suggest that the manager’s job here endured much of paper work; neither was there an almirah or storage of any kind for files etc. Apart from two or three chairs which were strewn more to the lateral edges of the opposite side of his desk there was nothing to hinder the view between the manager and the proceedings inside the plant which could be seen across the huge glass partition that extended from about three feet above the office floor right up to the ceiling of the chamber. The large glass window behind the manager’s seat spanned almost the entire wall length, of course covered with blinds which made way for a window air conditioner to jut in from behind on the wall to the right of the manager’s chair. Overhanging the manager’s desk was a large ceiling fan, the kind one would see in the court room scenes in Hindi films prior to the decade of the eighties. Though somewhat belatedly, I also noticed two television screens about four feet apart from each other, hanging from the roof of the chamber, between one to two feet inside of the glass partition within the manager’s chamber. The screens were relaying the visuals of the portions of the packaging plant which I suppose were obscured to direct vision if one were sitting on the manager’s chair.

I closed my eyes momentarily to bring the above constellation of things in the manager’s office to life. I imagined a person sitting on the manager’s chair, toying with the mouse of his desktop and peering through the screens under his purview. His face appeared changing many shades of agitation leading to thumping of fist on the table and before he could rush to the glass partition and start shouting at the workers inside I shuddered and opened my eyes.

I am acutely aware that words fail me here in capturing the dread of my imagination, much less in succeeding to convey the same to the readers; but to facilitate a better comprehension of the scene this manager’s office appeared poised for, I would strongly recommend that you see the 1936 Charlie Chaplin starrer – ‘Modern Times.’ Chaplin’s remarkable capability of capturing the poignancy of precarious existence of the laboring masses and human suffering under capitalism, deploying wit and humor as his weapons, remains unparalleled till date.

Anyhow, this was just my imagination and as such would be rubbished straight away unless substantiated further.

No sooner were we ushered into the manager’s office my daughters made straight for the glass wall in front; the elder one pressing her cheek against it while the younger one pressed her nose hard against the glass in what I suppose was their effort to preen through the proceedings inside the plant. I stood guard one or two steps behind them, facing the glass partition with my two Nikon cameras, one with a tele and the other with a wide angle lens, hanging by either shoulder.

Even before I could settle my gaze at the plant inside, the door of the manager’s office creaked wide open and there upon entered the persona of this security guard wearing a grey uniform who may at best have been five feet one or two inches in height. He was businesslike and seemed almost pulverized, nay scandalized at the sight of cameras hanging by my side. Without losing even a second he pointed out to me the only explicit warning in the room which somehow had evaded my attention. Pointing his finger to the warning pasted on the glass partition between the plant and the manager’s office the guard proclaimed – ‘Saar, fhato lena mana hai’ (Sir, taking photos is not allowed). I was in awe of this power pack of authority I was suddenly confronted with and assured him with all humility at my command that I had no intention whatsoever to offend the instructions.

Carefully rearranging the chairs in front of the manager’s desk with their backs turned towards the glass partition he now issued the second instruction – ‘Saar, aap log baith jaaiye please (emphasis mine)’ (‘Sir, all of you please sit down’). Given the manner in which it was deployed, seldom had I realized ever before that ‘please’ could also be an expression of curt authority. The situation was indeed getting onerous, but thankfully it wasn’t long before the manager of the packaging plant made his appearance and our visit to the plant inside could officially begin. But before that I was asked to deposit my cameras at a counter just outside the manager’s office, again by the same pocket sized power pack of authority.

The cameras it seems were a big hurdle in our being made to feel welcome at the packaging plant. No sooner were the cameras safely deposited with the authorities and even before I had put down all the required details in the register, I heard our being formally welcomed, by the same guard,  at the door that led to the inside space where the actual operations were taking place. This time he even folded his hands in namste and followed it up with another round of instructions regarding dos’ and don’ts to ensure, as we were told, our own safety as also to ensure that there was no disturbance to the functioning of the plant inside. Thereafter we were handed over to this young mechanical engineer, still in his mid twenties, working at the plant, who had graduated from regional institute of science and technology, Silchar, Assam just about a year back. For Debjyoti Sorcar (name changed) this was the first job after his graduation as an engineer. He hailed from the city of Guwahati. Lean and thin with boyish looks, Debjyoti proved to be a charming bundle of energy ever too enthusiastic to answer our queries except the ones I put to him right at the end of our round inside the plant.

The most domineering presence inside the plant was that of the constant humming noise of the machines. Our effort to dominate this humming by straining our vocal cords to keep up the conversation, though valiant, but seemed effete. There, it seems, was not even a whimper of noise arising from the workers if the stillness of their lips was anything to go by. Nonetheless, Debjyoti took pains in explaining the features of different machines, the level of their automation, how quality control in packaging was exercised and other such details. In between he volunteered that if the company wanted they could easily get rid of at least half the workforce in the plant by introducing further automation; however, there were some problems in doing so.

I do not think it was feasible and certainly not advisable to discuss any of this right there and so I did not press Debjyoti any further on this. But one thing is clear that under the prevailing wisdom technological advancement can only mean further ease in facilitating profits for the owners on the one hand, and deepening jeopardy of the workers on the other. Technology up-gradation only translates into lay-offs and almost never into reduction in working hours though that as well could easily happen provided the imperative ceased to be individual profits of the owners of the capital. But let us treat this as an aside for the moment.

No sooner the round of the plant was over, I couldn’t wait to turn around and ask Debjyoti, looking straight in his eyes –tell me, how come I did not see a smile on the face of even one of the workers in the plant? After a moment there was an embarrassed blush on his face.

I spent some of the best years of my youth trying to organize the workers into unions and be a part of their struggles. I have seen the depressing sorrow that threatens to engulf them, their bottomless despair, frustration, agitation; their easily falling prey to the worst of vices let loose on them; and yet I have also seen them laugh, make merry, share their sorrows and joy, come out in solidarity with their struggling sisters and brothers; and just when everything seems to have been lost they spring up, yet another time, the most rugged of resistance against their tormentors. But what I saw here was different. Rarely, if at all, have I seen such a sweeping deadpan appearance on the face of the workers, something that has come to haunt me for almost a year now.

I gathered some more information from Debjyoti, some volunteered and some extracted by way of skillful cajoling. Almost all the workers working on the plant, a total of some two hundred or so, belonged to families who have worked on the plantation for generations. Most of these workers find it difficult to access a viable alternative source of livelihood outside the plantations. Most importantly, even though their work is of permanent nature their job does not even offer the marginal security afforded to a contractual employee. They work as daily wage labor.

Every morning these workers report at the gate of the packaging plant and then the management of the plant takes them in for a day’s work depending on the pair of hands required for the day. The likelihood of getting work for the day need not conform to first come first in criterion, but is more often than not completely arbitrary. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to know that while on one hand this deepens the sense of insecurity among the workers; on the other it instills a sense of utter servility in them towards the employers such that they (the workers) are afforded an existence even if only on day to day basis. If lucky to be employed they ended up getting a daily wage of rupees one twenty five which was at that time less than half of the going rate of daily minimum wage for unskilled workers announced by the government of Assam. Of course, as Debjyoti was to quip, these workers are also given fire wood, some rations and an accommodation on the plantation.

These details are rather dreary unless we can comprehend their meaning for the lives of those who suffer likewise. I shall attempt to facilitate this comprehension by quoting from a conversation I had, about three months back, with a professor who teaches at Satyawati College of Delhi University. Our conversation had veered around to the subject of contract teachers, who probably now outnumber the permanent teachers at Delhi University. The professor volunteered:

“Doctor sahib you won’t believe how grave the situation is. Our principal (of Satyawati college) prides himself in getting his feet touched, in full public view, by the junior faculty of the college most of whom are employed on contract basis. This perversion which started with the college principal has now caught on with some other permanent faculty at the college. The motivation of these contract teachers in putting their servility on display is first to ensure the extension of their contract which comes up for review every three months; and secondly to lick the side that is buttered in a hope that they shall also manage to make the grade as and when the next interview board is constituted for selection of permanent teachers.”

The consequence of this, as he put it, has been that:

“These teachers wear their self esteem in their shoes. And if teachers do not have any sense of self-esteem, then one can easily imagine the self – esteem they shall instill in their students.”

A teacher still has a lot more worth in the society than what is held out for daily wage manual labor. If these regressive terms of employment can so utterly destroy a university teacher, it shouldn’t take a wild imagination to figure out the impact of far more regressive terms imposed on these tea garden workers. But the management of Kellydine tea plantation and others such couldn’t care less. Their nihilism towards the plight of their workers is best capped by the following words, which most surprisingly were uttered by a policeman standing on sentry duty, just last week, at the collect-orate building in Bhabhua, headquarter of the Kaimur district of Bihar where I went to see the district magistrate in connection with an enquiry into the brutal murder of a tribal by the district police. The sentry submitted thus:

“Are sir, ek garib ki aukaat to inke joote se bhi kam hai. Apna raub gaanthane ke liye sahib log apne joote ko to phir chamka ke rakhte hain lekin garib sirf is layak hain ki chup-chaap ek kone mein jiyen aur mar jaayen. Agar woh aawaz uthate hain to bas lathi aur goli se ilaaj hoga.” (Sir, a poor man’s worth is even less than that of their shoe. In order to impose their authority the Sahibs at least care to keep their shoes shining, but the poor are fit only to live and die quietly in a corner. If they dare make noise then blows and bullets are deemed as the only possible treatment.)

With the visit over, my family and the friends who had arranged the visit along with the manager of the packaging plant strolled down up to the plant’s main gate. Just as the plant manager was presenting a two kg pack of tea to my wife, I again heard the now familiar cry of ‘saar…..saar ….’ coming from behind. The sound sent a chill down my spine. I turned around nervously and this time it was my turn to be panic struck at the sight of my cameras. Indeed it takes a dense like me to simply forget photography equipment worth no less than at least one and a half lakh of rupees and walk away assumingly, both hands in pocket.

I saw my tormentor holding my cameras, one in each hand and secured tightly half way up his torso lest they were to make good their escape. He was almost goose-stepping (the marching style typical of the North Korean soldiers) as he approached us. The loud thump of his boot’s heel on the ground which sent up a tiny cloud of dust and brought him to a vigorous halt was enough to convey the seriousness of his purpose. Most surprisingly though, he extended both the cameras to the plant manager and the same were handed over to me only when the manager subtly gestured him towards me. Having handed over the cameras he saluted us, about turned and marched back in the same military fashion to his post inside the plant.

I may submit here with all sincerity my thankfulness to this gentleman for having safely ensured the return of my property, but at the same time his conduct is no laughing matter either. It was clear that this guard was playing along in serving as an extension arm of the management. In order that he serves as dependable eyes and ears of the management it need be ensured that he partakes in management’s authority at least with respect to activities where the managers may not want to sully their hands directly. He also needs to be inculcated with a sense of importance about himself in the given scheme of things. His curt demeanor, salutes and the militarized style of marching are all a part of the process to inculcate a sense of authority in him. But of course all of this must take place under the overarching gaze of and in subservience to the need of the management. His fidelity to the management seemed absolute; anything less won’t be approved. Despite knowing very well who the owner of the cameras was, he extended them over to those who owned his loyalty.

The twisted genius of capitalism lies in the fact that it manages to leverage ‘individual interest’ not as a part of ‘collective interest’ but in its direct juxtaposition. I am reminded of the words of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which she articulated in an interview given to the magazine ‘Women’s Own’ in 1987. She said:

“They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbors.”

One would be hard pressed to find a better embodiment of these ideas than this decurtate bundle of authority. I had enquired and got to know from Debjyoti that this gentleman belonged to one of the families who had been settled on the plantation over generations. It could well be possible that some other member of his immediate or extended family would be having to try her / his luck every morning at finding work at the same or some other processing plant on the estate; and yet he had been so seamlessly incorporated into the process of wiping out smiles from the faces of his fellow compatriots.

Our drive from there on back to Guwahati was an uneasy one for me. I resolved to find a genuine smile of a member of India’s working masses in 2017, capture her/his smile to make a sketch and possibly write something about them. This piece is a result of this perseverance. But I must admit that it has sapped me of a lot of energy. Perhaps that is innate to a labor of love.

I do not remember the date now, but sometime in the latter half of May 2017, it was already night when I was roaming the vast esplanade in Puri that hosts the famous rath yatra every year. With my bermudas on and the same Nikon cameras, mounted with respective lenses, hanging by either shoulder, my preying eyes were looking for the smile I so desperately sought. It was in this process that I was confronted by Mr Ram Teke Bhoi who, presuming me to be a tourist, offered to ride me to the Jagannath Puri temple on his cycle rickshaw. Even though I am an atheist, the beaming smile on his face made me look at Mr Bhoi as nothing short of Lord Jagannath’s divine providence. I politely declined the ride, but requested him to pose for a photograph for me. His smile doubled over and the obligation on me by posing for the photo was promptly granted. The words – ‘Saar, fhato lena mana hai’ (Sir, taking photos is not allowed) now seemed so remote in memory. With the photo taken I thanked Mr Bhoi and gave him as much money as the ride on his rickshaw up to the temple would have cost. This seemed to earn him another rush of amusement.

It is my conjecture that rather than being a reflection of a state of true happiness Mr Bhoi’s smile was more a result of his amusement at seeing a loony photographer like me who wanted to photograph a rickshaw puller as against the more conventional attractions of Puri, and was even willing to shell money for same. However, no one else need be reminded more than I myself of the fact that putting back smiles on the faces of those of India’s impoverished children who live by the sweat of their brow would take, in the least, reversing the conditions of their lives which robbed them of their smiles in first place. Effecting such a reversal entails much-much more than just putting up an appearance. Neither can this reversal be effected through an attitude of condescending beneficence. It takes what Faiz describes as ‘Intisab’ (devotion) to the cause of the oppressed in his eponymous poem. Faiz wrote ‘Intisab’ as an active member of ‘Progressive Writers Association’ and a functionary of the Communist Party of India prior to 1947.

I present below a portion of Faiz’s nazm (poem) ‘Intisaab’ and its closest English translation that I could find. I also hope that 2018 shall mark the ‘nukta-e-aagaz’ (starting point) of this ‘Intisaab’ in our hearts burdened with remorse since long. 

aaj ke naam aur

aaj ke gham ke naam

 aaj kaa gham ki hai

zindagii ke bhare gul-sitaan se khafaa

zard patton kaa ban

 zard patton kaa ban jo meraa des hai

dard kaa anjuman jo meraa des hai

 kalarkon ki afsurdaa jaanon ke naam

kirm-khurdaa dilon aur zabaanon ke naam

postmanon ke naam

taangewaalon ke naam

relbaanon ke naam

kaarakhaanon ke bhole jiyaalon ke naam

baadshaah-e-jahaan,

waali-e-maasivaa nae bullaah-e-fil-arz

 dahakaan ke naam

jis ke dhoron ko zaalim hankaa le gaye

jis kii beti ko daaku uthaa le gaye

 haath bhar khet se ek angusht patvaar ne kaat li

doosari maaliye ke bahaane se sarkaar ne kaat li

jis ki pag zor waalon ke paaon tale

dhajjiyaan ho gayi,

un dukhi maaon ke naam

raat mein jin ke bachche bilakhate hain

aur neend ki maar khaaye hue baazuuon se sambhalte nahin, dukh bataate nahin …

 Let me write a song for this day!

This day and the anguish of this day

 For this wilderness of yellowing leaves – which is my homeland

For this carnival of suffering – which is my homeland

 Let me write of the life of office workers

Of the railmen

Of the tonga-wallahs

And the postmen

Let me write of the poor innocents they call – workers

Lord of all the world

Promised heir to all that is to come

 Let me write of the farmer

This lord whose fief was a few animals – stolen

Who knows when?

This heir who once had a daughter – carried off

Who knows where?

Robbed by the expropriators

Even of his marginal land

This chief whose turban is a tattered rag

Beneath the feet of the mighty,

 Let me write of the mothers

Whose children sob in the night

And cradled in tired, toiling arms

Will not tell their woes ………….

English translation by Shoaib Hashmi from the book ” The Way It Was Once. Faiz Ahmed Faiz: His Life, His Poems.” Available from: https://urduwallahs.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/english1.png

Vikas Bajpai teaches at JNU

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