India 75 - Lives of Struggle
Senior citizens share their stories
We continue our series recording the voices of ordinary citizens who continue to struggle for a living as India turns 75. MEHRU JAFFER speaks to a cross section of citizens in Lucknow for their stories over the decades:
Sunno Devi (70): She recalls growing up in a slum area of Lucknow, in fear. Colonial rule had ended a few years before Sunno Devi was born, but the fear of the British haunted her neighbourhood for decades after. The scariest story told to children by the women of the family was about the white man coming to get them if they did not behave, or did not stay indoors.
Once Lucknow had a large British presence. There were Europeans living in the city since the 17th Century. In the 20th Century Lucknow was home to the army headquarters of the Northern Command, Northern Railways and to the Post and Telegraph offices. Preference was given to Anglo-Indians in government offices and they enjoyed positions of repute in most hospitals, schools and colleges.
After Colonial rule ended, it took time for the British to gradually move out of the city. For many years after India won Independence in 1947, a large number of employers remained Anglo-Indians, making some of the poor people look upon them in awe.
Sunno Devi's family found accommodation in one of the out houses of the Anglo-Indian neighbourhood called Chaupar. The area was once the royal stables of a 19th Century ruler of Lucknow. After 1857, the British converted the spacious stables of Chaupar to accommodate Anglo-Indian families. The neighbourhood was renamed Lawrence Terrace, after Sir Henry Lawrence, British Resident who led the fight against local freedom fighters in the 1857 War of Independence. Lawrence died defending the presence of the British in Lucknow and is buried in the city.
A row of rooms known as the "servant quarter" was built for those who served the residents of Lawrence Terrace. These included Sunno Devi's elders. Many male members of her family were employed as cooks and waiters in private homes, clubs and in the same neighbourhood.
Sunno Devi is not aware of what her grandfather did for a living, but she remembers her father working in the kitchen of the grand Carlton Hotel built in 1890 by Lincoln Savoy, an Englishman. She grew up on lip smacking left-over cutlets, roast beef, cakes and a variety of puddings brought home by her father. There was no shortage of food in her home but her father's salary was modest, and not enough to fulfill the needs of his eight children.
When medical help was required the family went to the Civil Hospital where they got free of cost treatment. The children were sent to a government-run primary school nearby, but all of them dropped out of school, some after class three and others after class five.
Sunno Devi is unable to read or to write to this day. Her 20-year-old grand-daughter tried to teach her to write her name, but what she scribbled on paper did not read like her name. She was married at the age 15, and life was most difficult for Sunno Devi after her husband died suddenly, leaving the illiterate woman to raise six children.
Along with her older children she would run to cars halted at traffic signals, a rag in her hand wiping their windshields. In return she would receive a few rupees for the day.
After almost a decade of suffering extreme poverty, her eldest son found a job at the state electricity board. That is when a smile returned to her face. However, a few years ago this son passed away, but his widow was given the government job. "My grand-daughter is class 12 pass but these days all that she does is to play with her mobile phone," said Sunno Devi.
She lives in a two-room cemented home with her children and grandchildren in the same neighbourhood of the Chaupar. This is the only world she knows. This is the only corner of Lucknow that is familiar to her. She has no clue what is happening in the rest of the city.
"Here I have no fear of the White man coming to get me. That is what Independence means to me, the freedom from fear that another more powerful human being will come and take away my freedom to feed myself and my family," she said.
Chandrakala (70): She is a long-time neighbour and friend of Sunno Devi. Wearing an attractive pair of earrings and a chain around her neck, Chandrakala laughed when asked if she had more gold jewellery in her possession. "The earring cost me Rs 30 and I bought the chain for Rs 40. It is not gold. I am just a poor widow," said Chandrakala, who is still better off than a lot of citizens unable to afford even one meal a day.
The toothless Chandrakala retired as a peon from the state secretariat and enjoys a pension of Rs 10,000 per month. Many decades ago she had earned Rs 200 per month as she cleaned utensils in the home of rich families. That amount was spent on feeding and clothing nine children, and an alcoholic husband with an irregular income.
"Today I have more money but it is not enough to buy rations. Everything is so expensive. Life is unaffordable," she said. She also supports an unemployed grandson and her two unmarried sons also live with her.
Chandrakala belongs to the scheduled Kori caste called Jaiswara. The name Kori comes from the word for coarse cloth, and refers to the traditional occupation of the community, weaving cloth. But Chandrakala never saw anyone in her family weave cloth. One of her brothers, however, did earn his living as a tailor.
Most of the male members of her family were employed as guards, drivers and food stall owners. Her earliest memory is of growing up in a one room accommodation that was rented by her father for Rs five per month. Chandrakala was the youngest child after four brothers. She was sent to a government school along with her brothers but none of them continued their studies. Her father was illiterate, and employed as a guard. Her illiterate brothers too found jobs as a guard, driver and tailor.
"I did not like going to school so the only way I could earn a living as an adult was to clean the homes of other people. I know my future would have been better if I was educated," regrets Chandrakala. She however, feels lucky to have eventually found a government job that allows her a regular pension now.
What she appreciates most about life today is the gradual fading away of the discrimination of people on the basis of their caste. When she was growing up there was a lot more animosity between people belonging to different caste groups.
Today people like herself from 'lower castes' are far more welcome in many more homes of 'upper caste' families who also share food and water with her. "I am so happy that you have come to see me, and enjoyed the poori and paneer lunch I prepared for you," Chandrakala said, hugging this reporter.
Bharat Kashyap (75): He was busy setting up his stall on the pavement in the busy Narhi market. He is proud to belong to the Scheduled Caste community called Kahar. He has never attended school and comes from a family of traditional fishermen originally from district Ballia in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP).
Kashyap's father had left the village to make a living in the city. He was born in Lucknow and grew up watching his father struggle to make a living. Kashyap's father bought fish from contractors and sold it on the pavement.
According to Bharat Kashyap, the livelihood of small fishermen is under a cloud of uncertainty and poverty amongst them is increasing. Traditional fishermen do not fish during the rainy season, but big businessmen do. That has adversely affected the breeding pattern of fish and is depleting their population.
There is a demand to improve the interest and rights of small fishermen like Bharat Kashyap who suffer most due to poor working conditions. He has five daughters and two sons, who were sent to school but dropped out after class three. His daughters are married and both his sons work with him, selling fish from a make-shift stall on a pavement.
Traditional fishermen like Kashyap feel that they are losing out to modernisation and they are the ones to suffer most when natural disasters strike. He looked annoyed when asked what 75 years of Independence means to him. "What can Independence and freedom mean to a man who works day and night and still enjoys no comfort," he snapped.
Kashyap's dream is to have his own pond where he can harvest fish. Before he dies he would like to have a plot of land which he can cultivate, and where he can build a proper home for his family. That is the most burning desire in his heart and the one reason why he votes for Sanjay Nishad who is from the same community as he is.
He admires Nishad, as he feels that the politician has been trying to unite different sub-castes of the Nishads in an effort to empower communities whose traditional occupation revolves around the river like boatmen and fishermen. Whether Sanjay Nishad, a minister in the Uttar Pradesh government is aware of the high expectations that Bharat Kashyap has of him is not known.
Parveen, (65): He lives on the sprawling premises surrounding the Shah Najaf Imambara, near the Carlton Hotel. The onion domed building with spacious lawns on all sides was built on the banks of the Gomti river by king Ghaziuddin Haider in the 1820s. The impressive gateway leads into a garden. The main building of the Imambara is encircled by a cluster of shanties that are home to the family of the original caretakers of the premises.
Parveen's father was a tourist guide at the historic site and so was her husband. She is the mother of six sons and one daughter. In her plastic covered shanty she runs a general store to make ends meet. She misses the carefree days of her childhood but feels safe and secure surrounded by her children and neighbours who are like an extended family on the premises of the Imambara.
"None of us ever use a lock on the door and we share everything that we have with each other," Parveen said. She added that she will fly the Tricolour and celebrate 75 years of Indian Independence just like the other residents in the neighbourhood.
There are about 35 families living on the premises of the Imambara including Muslims and Hindus. They serve the Imambara in different capacities like scholars, tourist guides, guards, caretakers and gardeners.
Harivansh, (70): On the way out of the Imambara Harivansh was hawking vegetables on the road leading towards the magnificent Sikandar Bagh. His pushcart displayed all the vegetables of the season from pumpkins to potatoes. But due to the scorching heat of the day he kept the vegetables covered under a water soaked sackcloth. He said that he has no time to chit chat and he did not allow his vegetables to be photographed.
However, he continued the conversation saying that every day has been the same for him for the past 50 years. It is difficult for him to imagine a life that is different to his present existence. He has not heard of health insurance and the idea of going to school never occurred to him. Independence day will be like any other day for him but if he finds a tricolour he will surely fly it on his pushcart.
Harivansh left his village in Gorakhpur district in east UP to earn a living in Lucknow some five decades ago. His wife and other family members continue to live in the village. He did not want to say how many children he has, and what they do.
On the river bank there is a row of temporary housing, and he said that he rents a room there which he shares with other labourers. He visits his village regularly but always returns to earn a living in Lucknow. He did not share how much he earns in a day.
He goes to sleep at sunset and wakes up early to buy vegetables from the wholesale market nearby. He spends the entire day selling his ware on the same streets of the city. Just before the sun disappears for the day he returns to his shanty to wash himself and to cook the vegetables that he was unable to sell during the day. He pats a thick wheat roti, and after his dinner he stretches out for a good night's rest on the floor.
After a few minutes, Harivansh grew impatient and said that he wanted to move on instead of answering questions asked of him by a stranger. For a request to pose for the camera just one more time Harivansh said, "go away and let me be. I don't have time to talk to you anymore. I have business to take care of".
Ram Chander, (75): He said that at this stage in his life he has few worries. He spends time enjoying his grandchildren. He is pleased that the country is Independent and that Colonial rule has ended. Ram Chander feels that there was more poverty during colonial rule in India. Belonging to the Jaiswara community, recognised as a Scheduled Caste. The community's name translates as 'people from the old town of Jais', near Raebareli.
According to him, the worst thing during the rule of the British was that people like him could not dream of a government job. As a peon in the office of the Lucknow Development Authority (LDA), he started with a salary of Rs 260 per month. By the time he retired in 2011 his salary was Rs 18,00per month . Today he gets a pension of Rs 1,200 per month.
Out of three children, he has lost a son, but his grandson has a job at a mobile phone store. Ram Chander said he can hardly complain about life and plans to celebrate 75 years of Indian Independence, like he celebrates all the other festivals all year round.
He recalled his elders being supporters of the Congress Party, but in the last few elections he has voted for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, because his friends praised the party for distributing free rations. "I thought if everyone is voting for the ruling party then let me also vote for the same party," smiled Ram Chander.
Nirmala (70): Toothless Nirmala, was not smiling as she begged for alms at the busy crossroad of the National Botanical Garden. She said that she began begging only five years ago. There was no time to ask Nirmala how she had spent her time before that. Or, what 75 years of Independence means to her.
After she broke her arm, Nirmala said that nobody came to her help. She was starving and one day she took to the streets to beg. "What would she like to do instead of begging if she had the choice?" I asked.
But before Nirmala could answer that question, and before one could take a photograph of her, the traffic light turned green and all the honking of vehicles behind forced this writer to drive on. I watched Nirmala walk away in the opposite direction till she was out of sight. She vanished in between the jam packed traffic, but not before she had plucked the Rs 10 offered to her.
Read Part 1 of India 75 here