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People of Bharat: Karthik

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

Kartik sits on a low parapet, sipping tea with his fellow workmates. He works as a housekeeping staff for an agency contracting housekeeping jobs for large offices and institutions. His current contract involves a premier college in Ahmedabad. The college campus echoes with the calls of peacocks, cuckoos and chirping of squirrels.Kartik smiles with a faraway look when I ask him where he is from. “I am from Kolkata,” he says and adds that “it’s a long way from here”.

Kartik left home in 1998 when he was about 25, in search of better-paying work. He worked in Mumbai as a plumber for many years before moving to Ahmedabad two years back. Here, he ended up working as a housekeeping staff since there was hardly any work to be found as a plumber.

His family in Kolkata owns two weaving machines which are operated by his father and brother. “The machines can weave and print at the same time”, he says, “we have to attach a naksha (design template) to it and the machine prints it.”

Kartik’s wife and children live at his parents’ house in Kolkata. “They all live together” he says matter-of-factly. “My parents, my brother, and his wife and kids, and my wife and kids as well.”

In Ahmedabad, Kartik shares a room with four co-workers. The agency takes care of rent, utilities and provides two meals a day. Sometimes on weekends, Kartik either cooks or orders in, to tickle his taste buds. Apart from these occasional cook-ins or take-outs, he has no other expenses.

“So, how much money do you make?” I ask him. He glances at the sky for a moment and replies, “After PF and other deductions, I get 7000 rupees in hand.” I enquire about the amount he sends home. His response is immediate, “I send minimum 5000 every month. Sometimes when I have more, I send more. But 5000 I always send”, he says.

Kartik receives his salary on the 7th of every month. To send money home, he visits the SBI Branch situated within the college campus. He deposits his money into his wife’s SBI account in Kolkata using a Green Card,through money transfer. The transfer is easy to do since he can give the money in cash, and he receives an SMS confirming the transaction. His wife then withdraws the money and uses it to meet household expenses. She is left with about 1000–2000 rupees at the end of each month and deposits her savings in fixed deposits from time to time.

Kartik and his friends invested in chit funds earlier, but for some years now, chit funds have been banned by the state in West Bengal. This happened after the Saradha scam in 2014. Kartik remembers the events leading up to the ban. He recounts, “Poor people’s money was being directed into running political parties. There was a lot of anger among people. Many people were killed also.”

Kartik knows that the CEO of the chit fund has been under arrest. Some agents were caught, some were killed and many have gone into hiding. But this has not solved problems faced by people Kartik, who lost their hard-earned money. “Imagine if you are poor,” he says, “and you put your money somewhere. And then you come to know it is gone! You could wait for a year or two, but after that won’t you demand your money back? Whom will you blame? You catch the agent and ask him ‘where is my money?’ Who else can you catch?” According to Kartik, people now invest in government insurance like LIC. “There is a lot of that is happening everywhere (in Kolkata)”, he observes.

I ask him what he is saving for. “I want to buy another weaving machine. It costs about 1 to 1.5 lakh rupees,” he confesses. “How much have you saved already?” I probe further. “60–70 thousand we have saved” he calculates, “When we have enough, we will approach a dalal (broker). He will get us a new machine.”

Kartik is not sure of how long he plans to work. “Koi thikana nahi hai!” he says, shaking his hand. While this literally means ‘there is no place’, his vague response also reflects his idea of a life adrift; a life similar to thousands of men in India, who leave their homes, families and villages in search of work. Echoing my thoughts, he trails on, “I left home in ’98. Every year I go home for 20 days. That’s it! Now I don’t feel at home there (in Kolkata). Mujhe kuch samaj me nahi aata hai udhar. (I don’t understand what goes on there).I wander outside (Kolkata).”

“Will you ever go back?” I enquire. “I would,” he says, “if something happened to my father or brother! You know…if one of them should pass on. I will have to then.” As I struggle to comprehend his detached response, Kartik laughs cryptically at the shocked expression on my face.

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