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People of Bharat: Hirabhai

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

Hirabhai sits across from me at a wooden table in the canteen of the college where he works as a peon. His arms are crossed defensively across his chest as he answers my questions about his income and savings. “Why are you asking me these questions? Is something coming up?”, he asks anxiously.

I ask him for tea or coffee. He says no. When I insist, he asks for a lemon juice. “I have no bad habits.”, he explains. “I don’t drink (alcohol) or gamble or keep someone on the side. I don’t even drink tea-coffee. I believe in working hard and going home every day and living peacefully with everyone (around).”

Hirabhai lives in a two-room structure in an urban slum settlement in the Western part of Ahmedabad city with his wife, youngest son, daughter-in-law and their two children. I ask him if it is a kaccha or a pucca house. He uses his hands to depict a box. “It’s a house — but it’s open at the top. We have put cement (corrugated metal/cement) sheets on top.” He clearly does not want to undermine his dwelling place by calling it a slum-house.

Hirabhai was born to daily wage labourers in Zhanzharva village of Viramgam Taluka about 60 kilometres from Ahmedabad. (Curious,I tried locating the village on Google Maps but it showed Zezarva. Perhaps they call it Zhanzharva in the local dialect). His parents worked as farm labour on fields for Rs. 20 a day. He went to the government school, where he completed his secondary education.

After his schooling, he gave his details at a government employment agency in his town. That is how he heard about an opening in a school in Ahmedabad as a peon. He applied for the position while simultaneously giving interviews at other places. He started work and within four months received a call from a prestigious college in Ahmedabad. He resigned from from him erstwhile job and joined the college as a peon in 1981. “I have worked here for 35 years. Next year I am retiring”, he says. “Then it will be 36 years.” Thirty six years in the same position at the same organisation is beyond what I can imagine. I know I would have wanted more.

Hirabhai’s typical work day consists of running errands between offices or departments, posting announcements on the college’s notice boards and filling water bottles for the teaching staff. Sometimes he is called to lend a hand during seminars and conferences that the college organizes. He earns a salary of Rs. 30,000 out of which he takes home a net amount of Rs. 20,000. He spends everything on household expenses and groceries. Although his son lives with him, he does not contribute to groceries or other daily expenses of the household. According to Hirabhai, he only spends for his own family’s (wife and kids’) expenses. His daughter-in-law, who works at another college as a cleaning maid, manages to save. She invests in post office saving schemes. Hirabhai is aware of bank fixed deposits but does not know about other savings options through mutual funds, NGOs or microfinance institutions. He has a government life insurance policy (Pradhan Mantri Bima Yojana) -which he is entitled to through his organization- that deducts a premium from his salary every month.

Currently, Hirabhai has two loans on his name. He bought his current house for Rs. 2 lakhs. He took a loan for Rs. 1.75 lakhs from the State Bank of India as well as from a credit cooperative society for staff and other workers, run by his organization. He pays a monthly instalment amounting to Rs. 3000 to repay these loans. He travels by BRTS (Bus Rapid Transit System) and the one-way fare costs him Rs. 14. No one in his family owns a two-wheeler. He is thankful about not spending money on any major illness in the past year. “Bhagwan ni daya che (God is good to me)”, he says, folding his hands together.

His biggest expenses are during social events especially weddings; in particular with the traditional gift-giving ritual to his daughter’s side of the family. He has to give a ‘mameru’ or financial support to his daughter’s family if they are celebrating a wedding. This means getting new clothes for her husband’s family, silver and gold jewellery for her husband, herself and the marrying couple. He has to do this for his daughter, who in turn has to support weddings or functions of her husband’s maternal family. “There are a lot of things I need to give my daughter as a guardian/elder. I have only one daughter. As long as I live, I will support her. After me, my sons will support her. After all they are ‘mamas’ (uncles) to her children.”

Hirabhai has three sons and a daughter. The eldest son has a permanent job in the same college as him but the other two are on contractual positions. Usually, his eldest son is the one who chips in with expenses.

He feels he has to incur certain expenses around maintaining social traditions. “Apnane sachavu pade. Jooni padati ane baap dadaona hisabe. (I have to care for the teachings of my father and grandfather)”, he says. Expenses during weddings range from Rs. 2 to 5 lakhs as he has to get gold and silver jewellery made. He also has to buy a large brass urn, kitchen utensils and give good gifts for the girl getting married. He feels these gifts justify his social status and standing. “If I don’t give, people talk. They say ‘her father is working at a job; he is employed well. Is that all he could (afford to) give?’ The society talks about how nothing (much) was given. We have to help out.”

Hirabhai volunteers as a negotiator, advisor or middle-man in his social networks to iron out quarrels and misunderstandings between fighting parties. These are typically fights between quarrelling couples or parents and their children. “Suppose I have a daughter and am not letting her go to her in-laws (because of a fight) and they don’t want her too. I approach first one party and then try to make them understand things. Then I do the same for the other party. I don’t get any (money) for this. But I get a good (social) standing.” He and his family have to reciprocate with meals and expenses when people (guests) come home. “We have been to their house, and received hospitality. So we have to do the same. Otherwise people will say, he eats everywhere but doesn’t feed (anyone).”

So far, Hirabhai has no plans to retire even after his term gets over. “As long as my bones are strong, I shall work” he says. Besides, he still has a couple of years left to pay off the loans. He hopes to get a contractual position after his retirement so he can continue working. Then he plans to renovate his house in the village. “My parents never owned a single piece of land during their lifetime. They were very garib (poor). But I am an owner of two-two houses!”, he says, holding up two fingers in my face. He has no financial worries at the present, but he thinks about the future when two years from hence, he is expecting another wedding in his daughter’s side. The occasion seems far away but he has savings to do.

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