The day after my visit to the silica factories in Godhra, I am taken to meet three dead men.
Heading east on the highway to Indore with Magan, my guide from the workers’ union, we turn on to a secondary road and wind our way through the countryside. The air is fresh and, again, the fields are green and full. But up close, I’m suddenly not sure about the quality of the crop. Maybe I’m imagining it, but the stalks of corn and millet look thin and reedy; they already rustle too much.
Every now and then we pass a village set back a little from the road, the thatched roofs steep and descending almost to the ground. We reach a village called Kharkua – Salty Well – and we gun off the road and on to a dirt track. Parking in a lane, we walk through a small gate in a thorn hedge and then down through a field to a thatched house. As we approach, Magan calls out and there is a quiet, almost inaudible response from within.
Ducking almost to a crouch, we pass under the roof and enter the shadowy vault of the hut. There are two men standing there. Both are younger than thirty, but I can’t tell their age with any precision – they both look young and old at the same time.
‘This is Hajiriya and this is Gajiriya,’ Magan tells me. The men greet me with small gestures of folded hands, not quite meeting my eyes. Both are wearing the traditional short tribal dhoti and frayed T-shirts. Behind the men sits an old woman, staring into the distance. ‘And this is the boys’ mother,’ Magan says. The woman looks at me but says nothing, giving us only the faintest of nods. Magan turns to me ‘You know she has five sons, all afflicted with the illness. The older three are not here, two are at work and one has gone to another village, and then there are these two here. Can you imagine?’
As I finish nodding to the men and their mother, I see there is another woman, maybe in her early thirties, standing a bit further back. There are four kids clinging to her but looking straight at me, children between the age of two and eight. She is the wife of one of the older brothers, the only one who’s married.
The younger woman pushes the children off and gestures to me to sit on the large string bed. I do so, sinking into the net, my legs awkwardly crossing the wooden frame. There is a nervousness, a timidity of greeting that makes me uneasy. I’ve hardly been expecting a cheerful reception, but nor did I expect such a passive welcome.Hajiriya
Hajiriya and Gajiriya are not the first tribals to have gone looking for work in a city. That bleak migration, that long, slow yo-yo-ing between the unreliable land and the brutal town has been happening since the arrival of industrialisation in the nineteenth century. The difference is that these two migrant workers have come back with their future hacked off.
They live in an old space, connected simply to the land around it, which should normally be liberating; but here, hard poverty has dried everything up, squeezed, wrinkled and made brittle all the soft edges you find even in the simplest of India’s rural households. I look around and see the bumpy, mud walls, the bent tree trunks on which the loft is supported above the main seating area. There are odds bits of vegetation and vessels hanging from the walls and rafters, chickens running around, a big billy-goat tethered just outside, chewing something. I notice there is no offer of tea or anything to eat, unusual even among the poorest villagers, and it occurs to me there may not be any milk or tea to offer visitors. Or maybe they just don’t want to offer it to us.
Magan sits next to me and starts to chat with Hajiriya in a mixture of Hindi and Bhilali, going through what sounds like a check-list. Did this happen? No. Has so-and-so come yet? No. Have you had this letter? No. How’s the coughing and the breathlessness? What about this medicine? Yes. You and him both? Yes. Since when? What about the other brothers?
Slowly, between the silences and asides, I put the story together for myself. Their father died a while back, leaving a small piece of land that doesn’t yield enough, specially for five brothers, with nothing much to harvest between February and August. When the labour contractor came to the village, saying that there is work in the silica factories, when he offered crazy amounts of money per day, who didn’t want to go? First the two older brothers went, then the third, then Hajiriya, and finally, for the longest stint, Gajiriya, who is the youngest. All the work was ‘unofficial’ – all the payment was in cash and there was no record on paper. At night they slept in sheds provided by the factory or in huts nearby. Every now and then they took a break, came home on the bus, bringing back the money and a cough.
‘Here we can’t make much,’ Hajiriya says, ‘maybe thirty to forty rupees a day, at most. There they said they would pay two rupees per sack, however many boris we could fill in a day. So if I filled sixty boris that meant a hundred and twenty rupees. Per day.’
Later, as an exercise, I try and do the sums in Sterling. Forty rupees is about sixty pence now, but a few years ago it was less, between forty and fifty pence. One hundred and twenty rupees is £1.62 today, three or four years ago it would have been about £1.30 for almost twelve hours of labour. Two rupees per bori, per sack, is an almost indecipherable £0.0271. I give up – the different numbers don’t talk
the same language.
‘And how long did you work there?’
‘I worked there for less than a year, but not in one go. I would come home after every couple of weeks. Gajiriya went on and off for about two years.’
When I ask at what age they went, the boys tell me ten and eleven, but Magan later corrects that: ‘They would have gone at about thirteen or fourteen. No ten-year-old can pick up one of those boris.’
‘I am twenty,’ says Hajiriya, ‘and this fellow is…how old are you, rey? He’s seventeen.’
Gajiriya squats next to me, staring at the ground, saying nothing, nodding every now and then, to agree or disagree. When I ask him something, other people answer for him. It doesn’t feel as if he’s unable to talk; there seems to be no physical impediment. It’s as if life has robbed him of speech, as if a disbelief at his own condition has turned him mute. Following his gaze downwards, I notice something: there are small balloons at the end of each of Gajiriya’s fingers, the fingertips are swollen, turning each finger into a weird probe shape. Arching over its swelling, the thumb of his left hand still has a long, manicured vanity nail, typical of western Indian men.
‘I came and warned you, didn’t I?’ Magan breaks the silence. ‘Four years ago, right? Before these two went.’
‘Yes, you did. We didn’t listen to you.’ The old woman’s voice is clear. ‘Even when the older ones came back coughing, we didn’t listen.’
She quickly covers her mouth with the end of her sari, as if she shouldn’t have allowed the words to come out.
‘We should have listened.’
We’ve been joined by a third young man, who lives next door. I can see his thin body under the torn vest, bulging with the same distensions as Hajiriya and Gajiriya, arms swollen where they shouldn’t be, muscles absent where they should be, his torso caved in, his eyes cul-de-sacs. I try and calculate how much each of these young men weighs – none seems to be more than fifty kilos, all the flesh horribly redistributed by the silicosis. The medicines given to silicosis victims are basically the ones for tuberculosis and these are nothing more than elaborate placebos. The compensation the Farmers and Workers Union is demanding from the Government is a million rupees for the family of a worker who has died from silicosis and half amillion for a victim who is still alive. It’s still a demand – there is no agreement yet from any authority.
At some point, I feel I should try and say something. I open my mouth but nothing very much comes out. Every question I think of sounds stupid. The answers are all there, inscribed on the faces and bodies of everyone around me.
I take recourse to my camera and it’s just as bad. What do I frame? I ask the three boys to stand up for a ‘portrait’. First each one alone and then all three together. Then one of Hajiriya and Gajiriya with their mother. I distrust the pictures the moment I take them, pictures that have been taken many, many times over, too many times, in independent India. The subaltern in his sparse habitat, the tribal as victim, the afflicted industrial worker as photographed object.
As I’m photographing the boys, they start talking about the contractor who came to recruit them.
‘Does he still come?’ I ask.
‘He doesn’t come.’ Hajiriya shakes his head. ‘He knows we know. We all know what those factories do to you.’
‘So now they are recruiting from much further away,’ Magan adds, ‘from other states, all the way north in Rajasthan, from further south in Gujarat.’
‘We will kill that contractor if he comes here again.’ Suddenly there is a small pulse from Gajiriya. ‘The villagers will all gather and kill him.’