12 May 2013


A big landowners’ farm in the locality of Jagdabad, Bardhaman district

First meeting with Soyjuddin and Yanush, two among a group of seasonal labourers from Murshidabad

According to Tanmoy, our link to the Hindu family that stays in this big farmhouse built, as per an unfortunately fading tradition, in mud and wood, we could easily meet and talk to their hired workers during the lunch break. And always according to Tanmoy, the employers wouldn’t mind at all if we asked a few questions. So there we are, waiting for the lunch break and observing the still nameless “workers” while they husk the freshly harvested rice on an open space just opposite the farmhouse’s main gate. Whenever the terribly noisy husking machine stops, we can hear jolly pop-music playing from someone’s mobile phone; all of them are wearing sunglasses in order to protect their eyes from dangerous splitters: failing to understand the thoroughly practical/functional reason of this unexpected, so little “rural”, accessory, we can’t avoid the thought that such a cool team could feature well in a Bollywood movie. But Bombay is far away from here; and the circumstances these men will tell us about later would rather provide stuff for a classic by Satyajit Roy.

They’ve all come together from a village with the evocative name of Raninagar, in the district of Murshidabad. Their names, in turn, indicate they are Muslims. When it’s finally time for lunch, all six of them leave the place but against our expectation, they don’t enter the farm through the close-by main gate and instead walk a little further, towards what seems to be an outer storehouse: it is made of mud, but it hasn’t been painted and instead of terracotta tiles, it has a corrugated iron-bamboo structure as roof. This is the workers’ quarter; they and the family members don’t sit together for lunch. As we don’t belong to either group, we wait outside. In spite of some cracks, the small storehouse-cum-workers quarter looks solid; a thick coat of straw, similar to those traditionally used to cover roofs, has been fixed on the two sides of the structure that are particularly exposed to the rain. These coats also keep buildings cool in summer, however, as against the “smart” exterior, in the interior there aren’t any specific arrangements to accommodate anybody: the workers, when they come, must sleep and eat on the floor. A few gamcha, thin coloured cotton towels, and small travel bags are the only signs of Soyjuddin and his fellows’ presence.

While in agricultural areas all over West Bengal (probably, also India) or Bangladesh, this kind of accommodation for hired labourers has “always” been the norm rather than an exception and they themselves wouldn’t probably have much to complain about it given the temporary character of their employment); and while social i.e. class, caste and community distinction in the Subcontinent has “always” found expression also in food habits, the fact that these preconceptions and allegedly traditional practices continue to be accepted by workers in the 21st century should strike. With the evolution of our friendship, Soyjuddin told us about instances of Hindu-Muslim-discrimination concentrated exactly around the issues of food and “cleanliness” that made him and his fellows decide to leave the employers, renouncing to an extremely needed salary. In what kind of social and political environment or “habitat” do minorities, dalit communities and more generally, the uneducated poor in urban and rural areas find themselves living?