Days ago in the rain, a Saki Naka hillside collapsed on the homes of several construction workers, killing and orphaning. And I've been thinking about my encounter with some such workers, behind my home a few years ago.
An old bungalow stood there for years, then was torn down. The men who did it were migrant workers, hired for the job. While it lasted, they lived on the plot, in a small tin shed in one corner.
But this was the height of pre-monsoon heat in Bombay: still nights, cloudless heat, sweat and swarms of mosquitoes. The tin shed must have been unbearable, and the labourers slept in the open every night. From my window overlooking the plot, I could see them as dusk came each day, cooking, eating, then laying out mats to sleep.
Very early one morning, we woke to an eruption of noise from the plot. Screams, shouts, a running motor. A truck had arrived to pick up rubble. A man had jumped off to guide the driver as he reversed into the plot. Routine job, except that in the pre-dawn dimness, neither driver nor helper had noticed the line of sleeping workers. The truck drove right onto them.
When I first looked out, there was this surreal tableau: truck with its headlights on, rumbling slowly backwards, shouting from somewhere underneath it, one or two men emerging shakily. Two figures racing out through the gate of the plot.
Racing: for as soon as they realized what they had done, aware of what the workers would do to them, driver and helper had abandoned the truck and fled. They hadn't even stopped to switch off the engine. I'm not sure how, but the driverless truck was still moving; it stopped only when it bumped into the wall of the plot. By then, all the labourers had emerged, shaken and enraged. One man's leg was broken, another's thigh was lacerated; luckily, nobody had died.
Went down there later, met the guy with the broken leg. He sat in a chair with an oddly philosophical air. "The way our work is," he said to me, "these things will happen. At least none of us died."
That was that. Next day, the men were back at work. The same truck returned several times for loads of rubble, though I don't know if it was driven by the same team. When the bungalow was completely gone, the labourers vanished to who knows where, likely another job of demolishing. Soon, more migrant labourers moved in, lived on the plot for the next couple of years and erected the plush white sea-facing building that's there now.
Returning from meeting the man with the broken leg, I passed another construction site. Things were much further along there: seven floors and counting. Just outside stood a young woman. Her little daughter squatted nearby, defecating right there on the busy street with people and cars streaming past.
Why, I asked the woman.
"I work on this site," she replied, pointing behind her. "Our huts are in there. But they haven't given us any toilets."
Feeling curiously deflated, I walked home. Then it came to me. Why agonize over this? This was undoubtedly how my own home was built, nearly 30 years ago: on the broken bones and defecating children of bands of migrant Indian labour. And sometimes in a downpour, hillsides come crashing down on the flimsy temporary homes these migrant labourers live in. Orphaning and killing. Onward to a finer India.