The other half up close

Our previously peaceful residential locality is slowly becoming a central commercial district. Construction activity goes on constantly as old houses give way to new buildings. Apart from the dust, noise and debris, we have also had to face the problem of resident labourers.

These are the migrants, who double up as watchmen in the night and labourers by day. One such migrant family lives just a few feet away from my house and literally on the street as the owner has impudently built a 5x5 shed on the road for them. This family’s belongings are meagre and children many.

The woman does backbreaking work from dawn to dusk. The man doesn’t appear to be too bad either. He has so far fought loudly with the wife only once after getting drunk.

But the clatter of firewood chopping, children screaming and the family’s clothes’ washing at the crack of dawn have become irritants. Add to it the sight of tattered clothes hung on all available space. But all of us in the neighbourhood have only grumbled without taking any concrete action. Seeing the family from such close quarters also makes some of us feel guilty about our comparative affluence.

The children don’t obviously go to school. The youngest still suckles at his mother’s breast. He is street smart and can snatch the ball from another kid if no one is watching.

The TV in any house is a major attraction for him and his siblings. They rush in to watch it, never entering the house but always sitting near the threshold or peeping through the window. If you ask them to go away they instantly obey, only to be back a couple of minutes later. Unable to yell at them, we turn off the TV. The eldest, already in a saree takes care of her younger brothers and sister and also helps in cooking.

The family gets left-over food and they have become the recipients of all the hand-me-downs of the neighbourhood. So, the eight-year-old, who would earlier be seen only in long skirts, now wears frocks and churidars. The toddlers’ feet are shod in squeaking shoes and now the children even have some actual toys to play with. Their joy at these acquisitions is enormous.

The family will soon go away as the building is almost complete. Our street will be cleaner and less noisy till such time another building is brought down. But one can only imagine the effects of this cycle of displacement on these children’s well being.

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