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People of Bharat: Ajmal

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

Ajmal is reticent. He cautiously steps out of his makeshift tenement on the margins of the kiln site. He is off work this afternoon. He plans to spend his time lying on the mud floor of his sparse quarter, on top of a plastic gunny bag. His children, an infant and a toddler, giggle unattended on the tiny porch outside of their quarter. Their mother sweeps this patch and levels it with mud every morning. She is away at the moment, most likely doing her laundry by the side of a nearby pond.

I ask Ajmal whether he would mind a brief conversation. He tells me he does not speak my language. Neighbours curiously gather around his porch. They elbow one another. “Is she an NGO worker? Is she from the labour office? How did she get here? Why is she on her own?” they whisper to each other and draw blanks. One among them is 55 year old Pawan Bhai. He is a share-cropper back in his village and is at the kiln to collect funds for his son’s graduation fee.

“What are you doing here, Miss?” he ventures good naturedly. I tell him. He turns to Ajmal and bellows, “She just wants to ask you a few questions. She is writing about us. Tell her, don’t be afraid.”

The stab of attention makes Ajmal nervous. He smiles weakly and repeats that he does not speak my language. Pawan Bhai shakes his head in disdain. “These people, they have no education, no goals in life. There is nothing you can do for them” he says. Ajmal finds himself in a spot. “Ask” he says weakly, “I will tell you what I can.”

I ask him his name. He is rattled. “I cannot spell it for you, wait…wait”, he says rushing into his quarters before I can stop him. He returns and produces his aadhaar card. He points to where he thinks his name should be and says, “There. That is who I am.” I note it down politely, his neighbours approve. Ajmal continues to hold on to his aadhaar card, as though it were the very material of his identity. As though without the artefact, his legitimacy as a person would dissolve.

I make light conversation. He answers in clipped sentences. Pawan Bhai derides his ‘ignorance’. Ajmal looks at his toes. The crowd is bored in about twenty minutes, I do not ask Ajmal anything they do not already know about him.

Ajmal is 30 years old. He comes from a village near Jalgaon in interior Maharashtra. He is working at a brick kiln on the outskirts of Panvel, a suburb of Mumbai’s satellite town Navi Mumbai. He and his wife were recruited by a thekedar, a labour contractor in his village sometime in August 2017 for the production season (October to May) for an advance loan of Rs. 30,000.

The couple is paid in piece wages for their work at the kiln, Rs. 900 for every 1000 bricks produced. Ajmal and his wife manage upto 900 bricks a day.

They will be handed their consolidated wages at the end of the season, post the deduction of the loaned advance. For the time being, he and his wife receive weekly allowances of Rs. 1500 for living expenditures. These advances too, will be deducted from their final payment.

Ajmal and his wife toil for over 14 hours each day, six days a week. Monday is allowance day. All male workers line up with the site supervisor. The supervisor hands money in cash and makes notes in a pair of account booklets. The supervisor has one booklet for each wage pair, which he retains with himself. Workers maintain a counter booklet for transparency.Following the morning pay out, Ajmal treks to a grocery store over a mile away to refill supplies.

On an average week day, Ajmal and his wife start work at 3:30 am in the morning, digging up earth for the day’s production, mixing it with water and silica to make a slurry, smoothening the mix for lumps and leaving the mix to coagulate for about 3 hours under a coat of husk.

Shaping of bricks starts at 8 am and continues till it is time to break for lunch. His wife, Nafisa fetches slurry in batches and does the preliminary shaping. Ajmal then uses a rudimentary hand tool to refine the shapes and spreads the wet bricks in rows to dry in the sun. After lunch, Ajmal and Nafisa stack dry bricks in columns, leaving them for the brick firers. Their work day ends at 6 pm. Through the day, Nafisa moves toe to toe with Ajmal, yet manages to find time to cook and tend to her two young children.

As we talk, Ajmal drones out a rehearsed script — He is at the kiln to make money, his family is poor. No, he has no plans for the future. He will work at kilns till his strength gives way.

The pall of neighbours starts to clear eventually. By the time the last of them have strolled away, a shadow of discomfort lifts from amidst us. He sees me check for the last of our audience. We recognize the relief on each other’s faces. Ajmal smiles at me.

“I am a farmer, you know” he quips. “Finally, we introduce ourselves,” I think to myself.

Ajmal carries on. “Between three brothers, we own 9 acres of land” he says. “The monsoon patterns have changed over the past years, with rainfall getting more and more erratic. Three years back, there was no rain at all. We cultivate four crops- wheat and corn in winter and cotton and jowar during the rains. But that year, three years back, our harvest failed completely. We were penniless, we had no money to hire a bull for the next season. So I sought out a labour contractor and decided to come work at a kiln.” Ajmal’s words now flow uninhibited.

He tells me that he asked for an advance of Rs. 10,000 for his first season at the kiln. He returned to his village with an additional Rs. 15,000 at the end of the season. He invested all his earnings on the farm. For Ajmal, the kiln turned out to be a cheap source of credit. He was not required to pay interest on the advance. The following year he mortgaged his land to a farmers’ cooperative and raised Rs. 50,000.

“We lived in a jhopdi” he recalls, “I decided to rebuild the family home, hence the loan. I wanted to pay it back as soon as I could. So I came back to the kiln the next year as well”. This time he asked for Rs. 15,000 in advance.

He cleared his debt with the farmers’ cooperative on returning to his village that season.

“The moneylenders in our village are blood suckers. I would rather work here to pay for big expenses than darken the doorstep of a money lender” Ajmal says with a thin smile. Ajmal and his brothers have reaped good harvests in the two years after the failure that pushed him to the brink of destitution.

“I have used our kiln earnings to take care of the big expenses and I saved my income from cultivation. I have managed to save Rs. 50,000. I am planning to set up my own grocery store back in the village. I will sell tea, sugar, chilli powder and other such items” he lists on his fingers. Ajmal says his savings are safe in a bank account. He prefers to keep this information to himself.

Ajmal shares that he intends to return to the kiln for the last time next season. He wants to ensure that he has enough resources to set up his store. “This work, this place, the conditions here are inhuman. You don’t feel like a person. It breaks your body and pushes your mind into a daze. I work with fever, my head and back split in pain” he laments.

Ajmal looks forward to his final season. “People talk here, say all kinds of things about me. I do not really care. My children are too young to be in school. So I have them here with me. I know what I am doing,” he says with a light in his eyes.

Life is an unspeakable drudgery at the kiln, but Ajmal hopes that for him and his family,a gentler life patiently awaits.

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