The Wait is and is Not
- Nitasha Kaul
You Don't Mess with Viru - Jayant Kripalani
The Last Journey Home - Siddhartha Gigoo
Family Trip - Mihir Vatsa
For the Longest Time - Mridula Koshy
The Tree's Passport - Sumana Roy
I Try to be so Buddhist - Robert Sugg
Oh God, My God - GB Prabhat
Stroke at Noon - KL Chowdhury
Unbroken Awareness - Tendair Mwanaka
Island of a Thousand Mirrors - Nayomi Munaweera
My Hungry Workers - Sourabh Gupta
The Stone - Anupam Choudhary
The Return - Shirani Rajapakse
The Unsent Email - Shyama Laxman
Poetry: Naseer Ahmed Nasir
(Translated by Bina Biswas)
Dr Bhikbab Changes His World - Sheela Jaywant
The Pillar of Society - Manju Kak
- Attia Hosain
London Company - Farrukh Dhondy
The Cripple and His Talismans - Anosh Irani
Their Language of Love - Bapsi Sidhwa
(Arjun Raj Gaind)
Silk Fish Opium - Jaina Sanga
The Blind Man's Garden - Nadeem Aslam
The Almond Tree - Michelle Corasanti
Nobody Can Love You More - Mayank Austen Soofi
Along the Red River - Sabita Goswami
Tales of a Journalist, Bureaucrat, Spy - Som Nath Dhar
Che in Paona Bazaar - Kishalay Bhattacharjee
My Hungry Workers
- Sourabh Gupta
'As soon, therefore, as it occurs to capital (whether from necessity or caprice) no longer to be for the worker, he himself is no longer for himself: he has no work, hence no wages, and since he has no existence as a human being but only as a worker, he can go and bury himself, starve to death, etc.'
-- Karl Marx, 'Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844'
The first time I felt for the shoe factory workers fasting day and night along a busy road in Jalandhar in the winter of 2005, I offered only fruits: apples and bananas in a translucent polythene bag. What I really wanted to give, being a journalist, was my support and solidarity, but I could not think of any subtle way to do it. It was awkward too – the thought of walking up to them, looking into their anguished eyes and saying, 'I support you.' Or worse, 'I want to support you.'
I could also have given them money, which, in hindsight, I think they would have accepted. But I did not have any extra money to give away that time. However, I was brimming with solidarity. No matter how much I gave away, the cup was always full, always spilling over at every little nudge. That season, I believed solidarity could change the world. I still believed it could, but only if the world was interested. And I was interested – deeply and truly.
It was not a communist sentiment. I knew about Karl Marx, but had not learnt to see 'the world according to Marx' then. My sentiment was organic, not initiated by any external agency. So the feeling welled up within, inspired by those slighted but defiant people, on its own, like grass after rain. Yet, my decision to offer fruits to the hunger strikers was to mask my failure at a being able to offer concrete advantage, something tangible they could set store by. So the first time I felt for them, I only offered them food.
There was a cloth banner mounted on the wall in front of which they were sitting on tattered durries. The English and Punjabi words on the banner identified them and their grievance for the passing traffic in this old and chaotic city of Punjab.
An old woman in a soiled salwar-kameez was fasting that morning, and I looked at her well only when we were face-to-face. She had soft eyes on a robust face, and despite her age, she had stayed tender. Her eyes lit up when she saw me trying to say something. I knelt down, and parting the clips of the bag a little, showed her the little offering.
Sitting behind her were two haggard-looking elderly men. They moved forward. One of them accepted the bag with a smile, and passed it to another person. They did not say anything, so I enquired about their cause gently, showing care. The man said they used to make shoes in a factory in Amritsar, which had been forcibly shut down, without the owner having paid them their salaries and other dues.
They wanted their hard-earned money and savings, hence this chain hunger-strike with one worker fasting every day – sharing the misery and being able to carry on the struggle longer. (When it ended, it had gone on for nearly three months.)
Looking at them, I knew there was no other way to fight.
I was not from Punjab. I had arrived in the city three months before on a rickety state transport bus from Chandigarh, holding my girlfriend's hand. Soon, she distanced herself, saying I was apathetic towards the relationship. As such, I lived a lonely life – thinking about her, smoking cigarettes, eating at dhabas, and in between working late into the night as a sub-editor at The Tribune – bringing out the newspaper's local edition for which I had been hired.
I had met the laid off workers when I was without a focus. I thought of them as I roamed on the terrace of my rented room, and mulled over their stand and its possible outcome. And I saw only failure. I had just turned twenty-seven that year, and was untrained in labour politics, unionism, and nuances of industrial action. But I felt I could lead them into a tussle from which would emerge justice, even if they had to face a messy situation.
I wanted to feel the passion my girlfriend once used to feel for me, but who now saw me only as a disappointment. And I wanted to rub that passion on the workers I planned to lead. However, some days later, when I went to look for their leader – a woman – for this purpose, I did fear entering a territory I did not know, getting involved in a dispute which was no business of mine.
Yet, the misery of the workers drew me in.
Devi Kumari, leading the Bawa Shoe Workers' Union, had a husky voice and a finger missing on her left hand. She listened to me without suspicion when I said I could do something for them. I said I could make public through the newspaper the torture the workers were facing, and maybe expose the factory owner. I spoke to her with empathy and anger, and felt I shared their burden.
Once in the office, I looked for the phone number of the factory owner and the next day called her up. Then I filed the news story, putting all my heart into it. It appeared the next morning (November 8) on the third page.
'The Never-ending Ordeal of Bawa Shoes Workers,' was my carefully chosen headline.
'The agitation against the owners of Bawa Shoes Ltd by workers of the factory is picking up pace. Today's demonstration saw CPI and the workers' union leaders converging in front of the factory owner's house here, delivering fiery speeches to the helpless workers. The protest has been going on for months now.
Bawa Shoes Ltd at Siri Goindwal Sahib, near Amritsar, has existed for twenty years. From its humble foundations, it grew and became a big league exporter. Then suddenly the machines fell silent and more than six hundred workers (mostly women), after a lifetime of hard work, were left jobless. Production of shoes ceased, the gates were locked, and the company owners, as the employees allege, moved base to Jalandhar, and a new factory was set up in Basti Danishmanda under a new name.
All the dues of the workers, including more than a year's salary, PF, gratuity and two years' bonus -- an amount over nine crore rupees – went up in smoke.
The status now, according to the frustrated workers, is a few legal suits, four big demonstrations (including burning of effigies of the factory owners), memorandums to the state labour minister, transport minister, food and supplies minister, assistant labour commissioner, and even the Punjab State Commission for Scheduled Castes.
Now, for the past one month, they have been on a chain hunger strike in front the house of Ms Harkiran Janeja, the owner of Bawa Shoes Ltd, in GTB. Nagar. A suit has been filed in the local court asking for a stay order to keep the protesters away. Meanwhile, Ms Harkiran Janeja says Bawa Shoes is bankrupt, that she is helpless in sorting out the matter in any way.
But the real story began with the lay-offs. 'During the lay-off period, they took away the machinery illegally,' alleged Ms Devi Kumari and Mr Baldev Singh, heading the Bawa Shoes Workers' Union. But Ms Juneja said the machines are still there. 'If I can find some money, I am willing to start the work.'
She also said she will try to pay back the dues, though gradually.'
There was no visible ripple after the story appeared; I did not know who had read the news. But it had an unexpected effect. Since I had talked to Harkiran Juneja and heard her stern, capitalist voice promise on phone that she would pay back the dues, the workers began to see me as a link to the factory owner, someone she did not shun – unlike her workers.
They began to feel I could do more, which made me uncomfortable. The stalemate continued. The hopes of a swift and concentrated assault gradually began to fade. As fog spread with the onset of winter, the workers, like others along the road, were lost in it. They became just outlines – lumbering or motionless figures draped in shawls and blankets, retreating within.
I too suffered – my passion now embarrassingly reduced to embers. Since I had not shared my 'radical ambitions' with any of my colleagues or friends, there was no visible change in me on the outside. But I too was retreating within. The embarrassment, the compromises affected me deeply.
The agitation was sliding towards something we all saw clearly but did not believe. It was like losing a flesh-and-blood human being.
Devi Kumari and Baldev Singh came to the office one evening, distressed. They had a new problem – could I now move beyond solidarity, could I do more, they seemed to ask, as taking turns they explained the issue in their rustic Punjabi.
For the first time, they did not seem to look up to me, but instead saw me as one of them, laying bare the situation like comrades (a word I learnt to use much later).
The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) – grand old industrial workers' union, like its parent, the Communist Party, had taken charge of their agitation, using it to its own advantages and had, alarmingly, introduced its own trappings. The AITUC was leading their meagre protest to the courts, and this, Devi Kumarti said, would be the end. If it went to the industrial tribunal, the case would drag on for years. The old workers neither had the resources nor the will to handle such a situation. Whatever hope they had of receiving their dues, at least a part of them, would be lost forever. The owner would pull out, even if she was thinking of striking a compromise with her former employees. Why sabotage that chance by dragging her to court? Also, with the court moving in, the hunger strike would become illegal.
Somehow, this was moment I had dreamt of and imagined – the slighted workers nudging me to lead them on, but not saying so in so many words.
But, like last the time when I gave them fruits to hide my inability to extend actual support, this time again, I could offer them only an idea; I couldn't offer any practical help. I told them my feelings about the situation: the signs were not good – the owner was unrelenting – and now with this new development, I hinted that they needed to do something drastic and shocking – like lying on railway tracks and holding up a train or pelting stones at the owner's house – scenes conjured up from old news stories and acts of defiance, rebellion, and militancy I had seen on television. I told them they should not give the owner the luxury of ignoring the workers.
Baldev nodded, but Devi Kumari fell silent.
And so, in January, the dispute went to industrial tribunal in Chandigarh. The AITUC activists celebrated – the ninety-day chain hunger strike was over; the jobless workers could now go back home. They had, with the generosity of the labour commissioner, moved the petty fight onto a larger stage, like so many other union disputes.
I saw the celebrations from far away on my way to office, but did not go near. It was over. I had had my chance and had got them nothing. At the end of it I had become a smaller man. Sitting in the office, I imagined the durries being rolled up, the banner being taken down, the old workers boarding Punjab Roadways buses and returning home to the basti to their families who had always known what to expect. The next day I passed the spot where they had sat for weeks and saw poor women, homeless squatters, cooking along the road, their naked children running about, playing with dry twigs.
Some months later, I left Jalandhar and moved to Chandigarh to take up a new job. I had stayed in touch with Devi Kumari on the mobile, eager and sort of duty-bound to track the occasional hearings, where nothing much seemed to be happening now. The owners had not accepted any of the court summons for appearance. They had good lawyers. They were waiting – to make the workers give up the chase themselves.
Almost a year after I first saw them, I met Devi Kumari and Baldev Singh again one day, outside the tribunal's office. She had called me to introduce me to their lawyer. I saw that they still believed in me. Remains of the old faith still lingered on.
'These people will not receive any money. The owners are smart. They are delaying it,' the lawyer said. 'How long will they keep coming here? It is no use. They will become busy earning their livelihood elsewhere and won't be left with time to pursue the case.'
After the lawyer left, I told Devi Kumari I would need the papers of the case. She took me to a clerk who let me photocopy the papers. I hoped to do another story on the failing case – in an effort to revive it. I held the warm Xeroxed pages filled with typed sentences in English on the legal proceedings as we left for the bus stand. My heart was filled with sympathy; I felt guilty of abandoning the workers I had deeply felt for, dreamt of leading, and I genuinely wanted to do something to change the world – for them and for myself.
That was last time I saw them.
Sourabh Gupta is a writer and web journalist based in Noida. His poetry has been published in a Sahitya Akademi anthology.