A Dwarf in My Own Eyes
Her name was Dulari but she was a Bilaspuri (hailing from Bilaspur- an area of very poor tribal people in the state of Chhattisgarh who migrate to richer states for six months from October to April every year to work as house construction labourers); and a Dulari hailing from Bilaspur does not remain a dulari. Dulari literally means a woman that is loved by all, but if she is a Bilaspuri, then her mother, father, brother, sister, husband, son, daughter, friends, etc. none have any time to express their love towards her. Immediately after getting up in the mornings they become busy working with bricks, mortar, sand, cement and steel and continue like machines till dusk. Thereafter the women and girls cook food and eat only after feeding the men folk. By this time their body and soul both get so tired that no energy or inclination is left for giving or receiving love.
Dulari was one of those twenty Bilaspuris whom the labour-contractor had brought from Bilaspur for working as labourer in house construction work and had put them at the site of my house under construction- but Dulari was special among them. Among those twenty Bilaspuris there were 10 men, 5 women, 4 children and Dulari. If you have ever got a house constructed then you would be knowing that Bilaspuris are not ordinary human beings, they are robot-beings. They dig the ground like robots, make mortar like robots, carry bricks like robots, pull ground-water by hand-pumps like robots, eat like robots and during work speak only when it is essential for their work. Like Arjun they remain focused on their work alone. They can be seen smiling or sulking only when something connected with their work creates such a situation. Like robots they never cry; their eyes remain full of such abject helplessness that no other emotion ever becomes visible in them. And then, when have we learnt to speak and interact with these robots as human beings? And why should we spoil our mouth’s taste by peeping into the sub-human life of these robots? Like other Bilaspuris Dulari also never spoke or smiled until it became unavoidable,
but there was something in her big black eyes which expressed everything without her tongue uttering a word. The expression of permanent helplessness had not yet entered her eyes. In her expressive eyes calmness of
Mansarovar, turbulence of Atlantic ocean, coolness of snow-clad Himalayan peaks and
alertness of a doe’s eyes could be seen frequently.
None of us knew among those twenty Bilaspuris who was whose grandpa-grandson, wife-husband, father-son, uncle-nephew, brother-sister, friend-foe, etc. Even the contractor who had brought them had not bothered to go into such ‘unnecessary’ details. Twenty robots were needed for the house construction which the contractor had brought from Bilaspur. However, everybody had soon come to know that the name of the one with piercing looks was Dulari and she was the wife of one named Lokus among those twenty robot-beings. This fact of her marriage had become public so soon because of the bulge of her stomach on otherwise a slim and very shapely body. I had often noticed the contractor gazing at the lifted breasts of the women climbing the stairs with bricks or mortar as head-load and he was the one who had told me about Dulari being the wife of Lokus and being pregnant.
One day out of curiosity I had asked the contractor about the rate at which he had brought these Bilaspuris. The contractor had replied that the grown ups were at the rate of Rs. seventy (less than two dollars) a day and the children were at the rate of Rs. forty a day. Then in a conspiratorial tone he had added,
“Although Dulari is incapable of lifting heavy loads, yet I pay her Rs. seventy a day.”
For such a hard work this rate had appeared to me to be too low and I had told the contractor, “You have brought them too cheap.” The contractor had replied with a smile,
“In the dry region of Bilaspur hardly anything grows and moreover this is a drought year. If we don’t provide employment to them, they will starve………………..”
The contractor was saying all this with pride of a cunning tradesman, but I was feeling sorry at the plight of these hapless labourers. As the contractor’s blurting of his exploits became intolerable, I interjected,
“But is it possible to even feed the family properly at this rate?”
I was unaware that Dulari was working quite close to us and was listening to our conversation. Suddenly I looked back and found her looking straight at my eyes as if she was trying to fathom my heart and read that my words had any real sympathy for them or were mere impotent fulminations. I felt that my persona had become an open book before her and in that she had read that my words were hollow and there was no ability or irrepressible desire in them to do something for the Bilaspuris. Then Dulari turned her eyes off me and restarted quietly preparing mortar as if nothing had happened in between, but I felt that in the short duration of those moments Dulari had made me a dwarf in my own eyes.
In order to escape the piercing looks of Dulari I did not go to the construction site for the next two days. On the third morning when I gathered courage to go there, I found that no labour had come to work. The contractor informed me,
“Today the labour will come two hours late as they have gone for the cremation of Dulari’s still born baby. Yesterday while climbing the staircase, she had got a jerk in her stomach and had aborted during the night.”
On hearing this I got so upset that I left the site immediately and did not come for the next seven days. After a week when I reached the site, I was surprised to see that Dulari was as usual mixing cement with sand to prepare mortar. On seeing me she only momentarily raised her eyebrows and then immediately became engrossed in preparing the mortar. I knew that in her heart a storm of sorrow was blowing but there was no trace of tears in her eyes. Despite a strong desire to express my condolences I could not speak a word to her. Instead, I took the contractor aside and asked him,
“After the abortion why has she come to work so soon?” The contractor looked at me askance and said,
“Then what will she eat? She has also to repay Rs. One hundred which her husband had taken as advance from me to meet the expenses of cremation of the stillborn baby.”
By the end of the month of February the structure of the house had been raised and the walls had been plastered. Now the plumber and the carpenter had started working on it. One day the contractor had not come. Sitting on a rickety chair I was looking into the book of accounts, when Lokus came to me and told hesitatingly,
“Sahab! The contractor has not given last month’s wages to any of us. He was saying that you have not yet made payment to him for the work done last month.”
I was surprised to hear that because I had made full payment to the contractor for the work done and he had never complained about it. On my assurance that I had already made up-to-date payment to the contractor, Lokus’s face turned yellow as if the blood had been drained out of it. On regaining composure and after gathering some courage, he spoke,
“Sahab, then I think we are being duped in the same way as a contractor had done with us in
years back. Since every year we go back home in the month of April, he had
started delaying payments since the month of February. And when we had reached
the state of starvation, we had left for our homes without receiving payments.”
Then after a pause Lokus added beseechingly, Delhi
“Sahab! Kindly help us to get our dues.”
I got furious at the contractor and straightway proceeded to his house and enquired about the reason for non-payment of wages to Bilaspuris. The contractor casually replied,
“I shall pay. What is the hurry?”
This cavalier attitude further infuriated me. I came back to the construction site and started thinking to do something against the contractor. Lokus’s show of courage to speak against the contractor had enthused me to do something for the Bilaspuris- particularly because Lokus was husband of Dulari whose looks had once dwarfed me in my own estimation. I wrote a complaint addressed to police against the contractor and got it signed by all the Bilaspuris. Then I sent a message to the contractor that if the payment to the Bilaspuris was not made by that evening, I shall get the complaint lodged at the police station and even if Bilaspuris leave for their distant homes, I myself shall give evidence against the contractor. Next day on my way to the construction site I was in a great dilemma that if the contractor had not paid the wages, then the Bilaspuris would soon leave for their homes and then shall I really fight the long drawn and often fruitless case against the contractor. But as soon as I reached the site, I found Dulari staring at me and I don’t know how her eyes convincingly conveyed to me that their payment had been made. I felt that I was not so dwarf as I had thought myself to be; and the comprehension that Dulari’s eyes were also conveying the same message elevated my spirit immensely.
But this feeling of self-esteem could not last long because after a few days only when I reached the construction site I did not find Dulari and Lokus there. When I asked the contractor about them, he casually replied,
“Since the time of miscarriage Dulari had started shirking the work, therefore I have fired her and Lokus.”
This reply hardly convinced me because I had never found Dulari shirking her work- not even during those moments when with the piercing looks of her big eyes she used to decipher truth and falsehood, sin and sacredness, ill-will and goodness, selfishness and altruism in other person’s heart. As nobody came with any other explanation or complaint, I kept quiet at that moment; but within a few days I could know through gossip that one day when Dulari was working alone in the bathroom, the contractor had made an attempt to violate her modesty. For fear of losing her honour in the society she had not complained to anybody but along with her husband had left the work here.
One day when I was going to the market to buy some paint, I saw Dulari working by the side of the road under repair. She raised her eyebrows and her eyes met mine. She kept on looking at me for a few moments without a wink. In those eyes I saw that she was clearly seeing that despite my desire to avenge her dishonour, I had neither the wisdom, nor ability, nor courage to do so. I got a guilt feeling that I was not only incapable of avenging the injustice done to her but was also indirectly a party to it.
Again I started looking like a dwarf in my own eyes.