March 07, 2006

Twice a day paper route

This is my first essay on the Sarai fellowship; my theme is exploring villages in the city.


The thing that strikes me is the mention of 60 kg. 60 kg, carried to Dadar. 60 kg, carried to Dadar on a bicycle. 60 kg, carried to Dadar on a bicycle twice a day, for some 20 years.

I noticed Ramdas's strong and sinewy wrists when he first started coming to our home, especially when he would easily lift big bundles of papers hung from his spring balance to show me how much they weighed. We called him "paperwala" -- so much that I am ashamed to admit that's what I thought his name was -- because he would take away our old newspapers once a month. But it wasn't until he retired recently, and I sat him down for a chat about his life, that I really comprehended the physical magnitude of his work. That I really understood what gave him those sinewy wrists.

The mathematics is simple. He had about 250 clients like me, he says. I would give him about 15 kg of paper every month. If I was typical, that meant he handled about 3800 kg of paper every month. Divide by 30, that's about 125 kg every day. Indeed: two trips to Dadar a day, 60 kg each time. And you cart that kind of load around -- not just to Dadar twice a day, but from the 250 homes to yours -- and you do it over two decades, you develop some serious muscles.

From Chimbai, the small Bandra fishing village where Ramdas lives, to Dadar is easily 5-6 km. That Ramdas biked that distance and back, twice a day with large loads, impressed me greatly. But listening to him, I was more struck by the other, the smaller, details of his life.

Chimbai is known as an old fishing village. By now, it is just another part of Bandra, if a more crowded and downscale part of this upscale suburb. But even so, you'll find women every day, sitting on either side of the lane through Chimbai, calling out from behind little makeshift tables piled high with fresh, dripping, aromatic fish.

The tables make the lane even narrower than it already is. Walking down the lane is difficult, let alone driving along it. When I do either, I invariably remember the time a few years ago when a kid was run over on one of Bandra's main roads during rush hour. This led to an impromptu and angry "rasta-roko" there. The traffic police had the presence of mind to quickly divert traffic through Bandra's leafy lanes. One was the lane through Chimbai. I remember watching bus after BEST bus emerge from the lane, drivers sweaty and exasperated with the effort of maneuvring their giant red beasts past the fish vendors.

The women, of course, were unfazed. Some even tried selling fish to the passengers in the slow-moving buses.

That kind of place, Chimbai. Fishermen, houses nearly on top of each other.

And somewhere in there, a dealer in waste paper.

Ramdas's family left Porbandar, Gujarat, in 1941. His father settled in Chimbai, where Ramdas himself was born in September 1947. Midnight's child? Ramdas seems hardly to think of it that way. To hear him speak, Independence was just a little blip of history. But Chimbai was Bombay, the big city, teeming even then with opportunity that Porbandar could not match. Of course, there was very little in Chimbai at the time, certainly not the narrow lane. But Ramdas's family settled in a one-room tenement on the ground floor of a two-storey chawl, owned by a Kolhapur-based landlord. They have been there since, now paying a rent of Rs 63 a month.

Expectedly, Ramdas is nostalgic about the early days. "There was nothing here," he says again. The only people in Chimbai were the Koli fishermen, and for those who catalogue these things, they were of two kinds. The Christian Kolis lived at the southern end of the village, the Hindus at the northern end. Ramdas's home was bang in between the two communities. It remains that way today: turn left (south) out of his home and about the first establishment you come across is a Catholic undertaker. Turn right and there's a small Hindu shrine. The languages you hear are different, the general "feel" of the two areas are different; all this, along one short street.

Ramdas speaks glowingly about both kinds of neighbours. "Very good people," he says, "very good people." And as if to drive home that point, he says nobody has ever come to ask for money when the Ganesh festival rolls around. "In other parts of Bombay," he says, "Shiv Sena people come and extort money for Ganesh. Not here."

Ramdas's first job was in Mahim in the early '60s, from where he moved on to Marine Lines. He sold purses. He earned Rs 25 a month and his railway pass cost him all of Rs 3.75. As always, numbers like those leave me astonished. Passes are about 20 times as expensive as that today: has the price index gone up to that extent?

But starting in 1969, Ramdas was a rice smuggler like a lot of others were at the time. He would travel beyond the city limits, to Vasai, and bring back bags of rice. This was a worthwhile way of earning because rice sold legitimately in Bombay attracted taxes. So a man who was willing to bring it in on the quiet from outside could both undercut the city retailers and make a small profit. Ramdas was such a man. He would make five or six trips a day, bringing in 10 kg of rice each time. After deducting his weekly bribe of Rs 20 or 25, he made two rupees on each kg. Not a bad salary increment. It must have also been good preparation physically for the work he would turn to next, when the rice route became unprofitable.

Waste paper, that is.

And it is via his paper business, 120 kg a day, that Ramdas put his two sons through English-medium schools and colleges. Do they work with you now, I ask. He gives me a withering look that I've never seen on him before. He doesn't have to say what I know he means: would he have worked this hard just to put them to the waste paper grindstone too? What he does say is, with a hint of acerbity: "No, both are educated!"

That they are. One works in a cargo shipping firm, the other in an online stock-trading firm.

And now that they are both educated, Ramdas has retired. Did you get tired of the work, I ask. "No, no, it's not that. There was no place in the house for us! We only have one 10 by 10 room. Papers piled to the ceiling, no brightness in the room, I was working every day till 2 am. Eating at 130 in the morning!" So he stopped, late last year.

"I'm happy," he says, "but I've become lazy."

He laughs. But I get the sense the laugh hasn't reached his eyes.


Anonymous said...

Yo Dilip dude:

There are blasts, haven't you heard? Quick check you email and let us know if those damn yindooos are out there emailing shit to you. After every blasts you do a stellar job of reporting straight from your inbox. Please, don't break the tradition.

bottled-imp said...

Hi dilip,

I am an irregulare reader of your articles. Havent started reading your book on narmada as yet. it sits on the shelf.

Would love to read more of your stories from micro Bombay, especially on the plethora of livelihoods that the city offers to it citizens.

kuffir said...

one of the best writing/s i've read this year. you're very good at retelling these kind of yarns. reminds me of naipaul's earlier stories on trinidad (i don't know why).