October 25, 2004

Sand in the Eyes

Great todo in the lobby of my building one morning some weeks ago: one of the residents had slapped Joga, our rather frail old watchman. Now in the past, this very resident has insisted that we call him "Captain" and not "Mister"; in the book in which we keep the minutes of our meetings, he scratches out "Mr" and scribbles "Captain" alongside his name. This, because he was once in the merchant navy. "Captain", he believes, carries the respect "Mr" doesn't, respect he thinks he deserves. (Do First Mates insist on being called that? Admirals?)

Anyway, when I went down to try to make peace, the resident said he and Joga were involved in some impossible-to-understand argument over washing his car, at the end of which he had merely "pushed" Joga. I replied that whatever their argument might have been, he had no right to lay a hand on Joga. That was a line he could not cross.

At this, the man said: "I only pushed him, no slap! Will you believe me or a watchman?" Implying, "I, being a Captain, being a higher-class dude, deserve more respect than this mere watchman."

I still kick myself for not saying what I should have: Indeed I do believe Joga and not you, precisely because of the respect I have for him and not for you.

But despite that beginning, this is really about Joga. He is our day-shift watchman, officially on duty 8am on, but always here an hour earlier because he washes several of our residents' cars. (No, he has stopped washing the Admiral's, sorry the Captain's, car). (And we have a night-shift man as well, and he washes several cars as well).

Joga gets off duty at 8pm, after which he walks an hour to the little room he rents in a Juhu slum. The bus would cost him Rs 5 each way, or Rs 300 a month, a substantial chunk of his take home. Not affordable. Thus he walks. Once home, he cooks a meal for himself and his 12-year-old son. Grabs a few hours of sleep and by 6am, he starts on his trek back to our building. His family, like those of so many of his watchmen colleagues in Bombay, is in their UP village.

Every few weeks, the night-shift man won't turn up for duty because he's ill (Joga too, but less often). When that happens, Joga has to do 36 hours at a stretch. His son has to guess that dad isn't coming home, though how he manages for food I don't know. Perhaps in the most efficient way possible: he doesn't eat.

Anyway, three days ago, Joga spoke to me about doing this 36 hour stint.

"Meals are always difficult. The only food hereabouts is off the Chinese cart at the corner, and that taste is not for everybody." (i.e. not for him). "I can't go further away to eat daal-chaval because who will do the duty then?" Who indeed.

"But the eyes," he went on, "the eyes are the worst. They feel like they have sand in them. But I have to stay awake, or people complain. And if I miss a bit of dirt on the cars because I'm tired, they call me, point it out and abuse me."

Oh yes, Joga gets no days off. He's here 7 days a week, on Diwali and Sundays and your birthday and Holi and Christmas and I-Day and every other day in between. He gets a break only when he goes home to his family. Only, it's a break without pay.

Oh yes too, for working like this, for having to put up with inflated Captains too free with their fists, for the occasional 36 hours duty stretch, for the hour long slog to and from "home", for sand in his eyes and complainers in his face -- for all this, Joga takes home just under Rs 2000 a month. A little over a dollar a day.

And oh yes, for washing a car every second day, Joga earns Rs 100 a month. The complaints are a bonus.

And this is how much of middle-class Bombay gives itself "security." And spotless (well, not always) cars.


Melaina RN, PHN, MS, CNS, ACHPN said...

How sad for Joga and for other watchmen like him.

Anonymous said...


Great way of putting to light, the world as seen by Joga. Life in Mumbai, or any sprawling metropolis is indeed tough for inncoent, hard working people like him. May his God bless him with happiness.


daycruz said...

Dilip, I'm not quite sure why you can't simply just give the watchman a few hundred bucks more. Wouldn't hurt him or yourself now would it? What have you done for this man? Enjoyed your post though, it was very interesting. Put it up on my blog.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Why don't I pay the watchman more? Well, let's put it this way, whether I do or not is hardly what I want to put in a post like this. Glad you enjoyed it, though.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Neela (not my ma, I presume...):

Nobody should tolerate inefficiency. No employer should pay more than passing attention to personal sob stories. No disagreement there.

But I have two responses:

One, in my experience, none of the above, nor the rest of your note, apply to Joga. He works hard, he makes no excuses for himself. (The story about the sand in the eyes was told to me matter-of-factly, no excuse-making in the least). He is not perfect, but he is diligent and sincere. I couldn't ask for more.

Two, the point I really wanted to make was about how so many aspects of our lives here depend on paying others a small wage -- which is nevertheless more than they might earn elsewhere -- to do some hard work. This is a pattern that repeats. For example, I don't think there's anywhere else that I could get my car washed every day for three rupees a wash. Except in my building.

I am trying hard not to pass some kind of judgement on this -- as I said, they would earn less at home in Bihar, let's say -- but it is still something I think about.

seaferns said...

hey D-cube
once again a thought provoking gem of the flip side of life in the time of India Inc.
its a little unreasonable to expect (as some comment-ers seem to) that a post will completely explain every aspect of an issue.
rather its a starting point to thinking about a "blind spot" or "numb spot" in a different manner.
On another note, I strongly feel that today's co-operative housing societies can easily be the building blocks of societal change - from one's own home to the society to the ALM and neighbourhood... and who know's destination next
keep posting