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People of Bharat: Govind Kumar

A few blocks from where I live is a residential colony of low-rise apartments. Its occupants are middle class families. Under the staircase of one such apartment a man is seen ironing clothes at a table. I approach him for my scheduled interview in ‘siesta hours’ of the afternoon, assuming, that like most people, he too would be on a break from work. Instead, I find him busy at work; his hand movements resembling the irregular yet predictable movements of a fish underwater. He smiles in recognition and beckons me over with a nod of his head. I walk over to the table and look for a place to sit. Failing to find one, I opt to stand next to my respondent as I ask my questions.

Govind Kumar has a lean built. His sunken cheeks and eye sockets, starkly contrast against his muscular arms; formed as a result of lifting the weight of the iron. The iron is a traditional (almost vintage) make, cast in heavy metal with a wooden handle. He shows me how it works; he lifts the lid and I see hot coal chunks underneath. The wooden handle has several pieces of cloth draped over it. Govind explains how that helps him get a better grip while ironing.

Govind 48, lives in a village 14 kilometers away from Lucknow city. His parents farmed their land and also worked on the side washing and ironing laundry to make ends meet. He regales to me the story of how his father arrived at the big city. During their stay at the village, his father was offered a laundry job by a visiting doctor. He explained how the prospects were better in the city and also offered to give his father a space next to his house. After his father set up work there, other customers arrived as well. He worked for years at the same place till he died five years ago.

Govind and his two brothers followed their father’s vocation — setting up laundry services of their own. While his brothers opted to work in the village, Govind set up work in an area; not far from where his father did. Govind’s father had also tilled his own land on which he grew wheat. After his death, the land was sold for Rs. 13 lakh and the amount equally distributed among the three brothers. Govind used up his share of the inheritance in 2003 to buy a house of his own in the same village. The house is a concrete dwelling with four rooms; there is no area designated for kitchen and there is no toilet. Govind walks out half a kilometer if he needs to relieve himself at night. His children feel scared of going out alone at night. I ask him if he ever experimented with other jobs or plans to in future. “Kya hi karenge. Jab padhe hi nahi hai, toh yahi karenge.” (What else can I do? I am not educated.)

Govind’s family consists of his wife and three children; a daughter and two sons. His daughter is about to complete her graduation and aspires to become a teacher. One of his sons is studying in his first year of engineering while the youngest is yet to pass his higher secondary exams. His daughter and older son study at the same college; it’s a few minutes away from where he lives. I ask him if his wife works, ‘Woh to khadi hoke ek glass pani laa de, wohi badi baat hai. (It would be a miracle if she just gets up to fetch a glass of water.)’ Various assumptions race through my mind: Is she lazy? Do they have marital conflicts? Govind clarifies that his wife is immobile as she is ill. He doesn’t know what exactly she suffers from but knows that she has unbearable pain in the joints. ‘I took her to a few doctors in the beginning; but they were too expensive. I couldn’t afford it.’ His wife begged him to stop all treatments for her condition and instead save the money for their daughter’s wedding. He brings her medicines at a substantially subsidized price from the local public health center. He feels their quality is sub-standard as he can gauge no improvement in his wife’s health when compared to the effect of medicines from a private doctor.

Govind bicycles to work as transport would cost him Rs. 40 per day and reaches by 10:30 AM. He gets his lunch from home. Leaving at 10 PM, he cycles back home, sometimes stopping at the village grocer for a few things. ‘Shyam ko poori hadiyan tut jati hai. Umar bhi toh ho gayi hai.’ (Because of my age, by the evening my body aches and bones rattle due to exertion.) Five years ago Govind discovered he is eligible for free rations under a government scheme and gets a monthly stock of 25 kilos — 10 kilos of rice and 15 kilos of wheat. The family grows vegetables on their land and he spends less than Rs. 1000 every month on groceries and about the same on utilities. He buys groceries on a needs basis. ‘Jab jo cheej ki jarurat padh gayi, tabh le li.’ (If I need something, I buy it then.) His biggest expense is health; every month he spends Rs. 1000–2000 on medicines, mainly for his wife. He tells me he has already spent Rs. 1–2 lakhs for her treatments. I ask Govind about his earnings. He shares that he takes home Rs. 200–300 daily; the amount changes every day. He spends Rs. 25 for one kilo of coal; he uses 3–4 pieces of hot coal per day. He keeps no account of how much he earns and spends. ‘Hamaari koi lekha padhi nahi hai kharchon ki. Jab jaisi zaroorat, tabh waisa kharcha’ (I don’t keep account for how much I spend. We spend as per our need prompts us.)

Govind does not invest in any insurance either and saves whatever he spares in cash, at home. His wife has a bank account in her name but the family does not use it much. Govind has borrowed money from his customers to meet health and other expenses. While he is yet to pay back the money, many of them haven’t probed him to return. He feels it’s because of his ‘vyahavaar’ (good behavior) that they trust him.

Govind does not own a phone. His children pooled in their pocket money and convinced him to release a part of the family’s savings to buy a second-hand smartphone. They told him that they would also use the phone to study. They don’t get a lot of calls although his son’s teacher calls up once in while to talk to him. Govind feels good to talk to his son’s teacher — it reinforces his belief in the college. He feels the college is good place (a place of learning) and its proximity is most convenient for his children’s education.

Govind’s greatest worry is finding a suitor for his daughter. In a community where men are wedded as early as 25 years of age, his daughter is already older for most suitors. ‘Ab toh diya lekar pure area me dhundhne pe bhi nahi milega. (I won’t get a groom even if I search the entire locality with a lamp.)’ He also wishes to marry his daughter in a better household. But fears of dowry, keep him worried. Sharing further, he confesses, ‘Humaari toh do pahiye ki aukaad nahi aur yahan sabh chaar pahiye maangte hain, bataiye, kya karen. Zara padha denge to maange bhi badh jayengi; phir kaise hoga sabh?’ (We cannot afford a two-wheeler and here people demand four wheeler {as dowry}. If we educate her, the demands for dowry will increase too. Tell me, how will I manage everything?) I try to allay his fears by explaining to him that once his daughter completes her education, she will find work and add to their household income. He responds that sometimes he regrets getting his daughter educated. I wonder if education has really liberated people like Govind Kumar and his daughter; the ancient practices of dowry still haunt today’s society and marriage is still viewed as a transaction of sorts.

I try to change the topic a little and ask him how he plans to meet the expenses for his daughter’s wedding. ‘I am not worried about that!’ he says heartily, ‘I will borrow again from my customers; this time the sum will be larger of course!’

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