Monday, November 10, 2014

The "kaajerlok" of Calcutta

The kaajerlok are many. Kaaj = Work, Lok = People. These are the working people of Calcutta, the energy that keeps the machine going. Drivers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, rickshawallahs, shop assistants, odd-job men, labourers; they are all over the streets of the city.

Incomes range from Rs 50 a day for basic jobs, to Rs 300 for more skilled jobs. Some look more prosperous, like these two men I saw, one of them has a cell phone in his hand, and I wondered if they had some specialist skill or trade for which they could be hired for the day. 
Waiting for the day's work to begin. Early morning photo, side street somewhere off Sadananda Road
Often you can identify the kaajerlok by what they wear. There is almost a uniform sometimes - the red gamcha (towel), banian (sleeveless vest), and the lungi (sarong). The gamcha is bright red when it is new; it is starched, crisp, so much so that even after 5 washes it continues to be stubbornly stiff. But as time goes, the red fades, it becomes very soft. It is versatile, a cloth put to many uses, to wipe off sweat, to shield the nape of the neck, to protect from the mid-day sun.
Labourers outside a grain market in Calcutta
The kaajerlok are also women; some wizened, some young, and many work as domestic help. You don't see them on the streets that much, unless they have been sent out on an errand. But they exist - an army of maids, washing clothes, doing the dishes and sweeping floors. If you go to a middle-class Bengali home, you will see them. Many of them work in multiple homes. They assist with cooking as well.

The kaajerlok all have one thing in common - a desh, or a gaon, a village to which they return year after year. This is of course, the very village whose clutches they escaped to come to the city. But they will return, as frequently as they can. It is a hungry gaping maw, this desh, it takes every last scrap of their city earnings and leaves them more broke than ever.

If you talk to labourers in Calcutta, you will hear tales of a small village home, of extended family, old debts and above all, of poverty. But they will speak of the village with fondness and nostalgia, even though it sucks every penny they save in the city. Often they go to the village for extended periods; and when they return, they are half the size that they were, they come back sunburnt and looking half-starved, and ready to let the city grind their bones all over again.
Cart-puller and assistant, Howrah
Young shop assistants in a tiny snack-shop, Chitpur

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