Barely two kilometres from our house in Kanpur was a mill called the J.K. Rayon. The tall chimneys of the mill, the sound of the hooter at the beginning and end of every shift, workers trooping across the playground in front of our house in groups while on their way to the mill or way home – these are landmarks of my childhood.
In that playground we played cricket during winter afternoons – the neighbourhood boys, irrespective of which school they went to. Someone would own the bat, someone would contribute the ball, and someone else would bring the stumps. Pads and gloves were a luxury and largely unnecessary. The umpiring would be done someone who had done with batting for the day, even though his decisions would often be overruled by the ‘third umpire’ – one of the neighbourhood uncles closely following the game standing at the gate of his house.
It was at this playground that I first met Raja. He was about my age, which was around twelve at that time, and he studied in a Hindi-medium school, which wasn’t – and still isn’t – a matter of great pride. His father worked in J.K. Rayon, most likely as a lower-rung employee, considering that Raja wore the same shirt for weeks, maybe months. We never got around to becoming friends, but there were times when we would chat after the sun had set. Deep in my heart, I envied him, and maybe even hated him, for being a good bowler. Then one day, J.K. Rayon closed down. I was fourteen then, studying in class nine. The closure was sudden, because only a year before, when we were in class eight, we – as students – were taken on a guided tour of J.K Rayon so that we got an idea how a mill functions. Suddenly, the hooters stopped calling. Workers no longer trooped across the playground. There was total silence. It was like being in a theatre without the front-benchers.
I was myself at a crucial stage of my life then: board exams were barely a year away, and I had started taking tuitions to strengthen my grip on mathematics and physics. Every morning I would wake up at five and walk to the tuition master’s home, which was not very far. But on winter mornings, under the blanket of darkness and dense fog, it was a challenge to navigate even half a kilometre of familiar territory. Worse, there were street dogs to contend with. On the way back, however, there would be daylight and the fog would have cleared a little.
It was on one of these mornings that I noticed, on the same playground, a familiar figure emerging out of the fog on a bicycle. He was calling out, in a lyrical manner, “Andey! Double roti!” Andey means eggs, while ‘double roti’, in Hindi, means bread. To protect himself against the biting cold, he was wearing a muffler and a pair of woollen gloves, and his bicycle had a large tin box saddled to it. “Andey! Double roti!” he called again. It was Raja. Our eyes met, but he promptly looked away, as if he did not know me. Subsequently, I tried not crossing his path while on my way back from the tuition classes, but he was always there, desperately trying to sell bread and eggs to families that were just waking up on a chilly morning to wonder what’s for breakfast. After a point, he did not matter to me, and neither did I to him. He had become a seasoned hawker. He was no longer the bowler I envied. All this, because the mill his father worked in had closed down. Since he was the most able-bodied in the family, it fell upon him to sell bread in order to earn the daily bread.
I have always wondered if there would have been trade unions or calls for strikes had this been a woman’s and not a man’s world. Had managements and trade unions been headed by women, I am sure they would have arrived at a mutual compromise during standoffs to ensure that the kitchen fires kept burning. Women rarely talk big or raise slogans: they are always in touch with what you call the ground reality.