Life lessons in class realities from the migrant ‘subaltern’

Photo: Deccan Herald

By Umang Kumar

The security guard in my building is very talkative. I thought I would turn my ‘anthropological gaze’ towards him (all I am capable of doing) and enquire about his life, to bridge the social divide and distance, as far is possible and advisable.

Does anyone even talk to him at length, I thought to myself, rather charitably? Maybe I’ll be the first to take this deep interest in his life…

So, after accosting him one day in an artificially casual manner, I found out that he was from Rajasthan and had 4 children and his wife back home.

Achcha. Kya karte hain aapke bachche? What do you children do?

He told me what each one did – one was in a job, the other two still studying – and ruefully added that the youngest son had wanted to be a cricketer but had to give up on his dreams.

Kyun, I asked with all sincerity and naiveté.

Sir, ek baat bataoon bura mat manana. Woh koi training academy join karna chahta tha. Lekin bahut mehnga that woh mere liye…aap log to kisi bhi cheez par paisa phenk dete ho…humaare liye to woh sambhav nahin hota hai naa…

I’ll say something please don’t mind. That training academy he wanted to join was too expensive for me. You people can throw money at things [to gain access to them no matter how expensive they are]…that is not possible for us.

So I was “aap log” – one of those people – who could afford to “phenko paisa” – throw money – to get things the way I wanted.

He could have been a card-carrying member of some left group; but I don’t think he needed canned ideology to allow him to see the world the way it was. He knew about income and wealth disparities, he knew about the whole business of “paisa phenkna” – the luxury to spend from the vast disposable incomes and the wealth accruing from the legacies of our privileged backgrounds…he did not need a Marx or even a Thomas Piketty to tell him about class conflict and inequalities in the world.


Didi, aapnader chaad merammot hoye gayche?

Didi, the roof of your house [back in Midnapore (WB)] that was damaged [during Cyclone Amphan]…has that been repaired? I asked our cook in Bengali.

Naa…amader to kaacha badi, chaad tile-er chilo, tile gulo bhenge gayche…aabar notoon tile aante hobeekhon ekta tarpolin diyeche…

No, our house is a kutcha house and the roof was made of tiles – the tiles have broken…we’ll have to arrange for new tiles. Right now we have a tarpaulin in place.

Oh…taholey aapni ebaar ekta pucca badi korben, apni to Dillir moton ekta mahanogori te kaaj korchen. I tried to cheer her up, caught slightly off-balance as I was, by trying to remind her of her agency and how she could turn the fortunes of her family around, a proud working woman that she was in a major city, by constructing a pucca house…but it came out all lame. The “agency” bit that I had imbibed from academic and liberal discourses did not seem to fly either.

Can I chalk up that kutcha house to idyllic rural living, in an eco-friendly manner (which it is), something that seems to be the obsession with a lot of people looking for post-Covid utopias, in their gram-wapsi imaginings?


Another apartment complex, another security guard. Yadav ji is 70 plus; he is from Bihar. He used to cycle from Northeast Delhi to our apartment each day, a distance of about 5 kilometers each way. The road he took was often choked with trucks, buses, auto-rickshaws and tempos. One day I saw him with a plaster on his right fore-arm. Kya hua, I naturally asked.

Woh ek tempo-wallah ne peeche se cycle ko maar diya tha kal. Hum gir pade. A tempo hit my cycle from behind yesterday and I fell…

Still, he had come to work on that day, and only when he felt considerable pain he was asked by some other guards to go home and get his hand checked. He had gone to the hospital; the diagnosis was a fracture of his forearm, which had been put in a plaster and sling.

He was back to work the very next day, now spending about 20 rupees each way in a shared-auto.

Society waalon ne kuch diya aapko, I asked? Did the housing society members offer any help?

Nahin…main kuch maanga bhi nahin…No…I did not ask for anything…

Kyun aaye aap, Why did you turn up today? I asked, with touching concern.

Kya karen…dooti to bharna hi padega…What to do, I have to work (do my ‘duty’).

Dooti. Duty.

Of ‘duty’ I had read a lot, in the many moral science classes and later in the sense of ethical norms, and expected behavior and action.

But what did I know of dooti and the ironclad constraints it brings for some of us, more terrible than any call of duty ever.

Umang Kumar is a writer in Delhi NCR.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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