It’s 1.30 pm. Devram Sonawane, 48, pedals to the side of the road and reaches for a yellow napkin tucked between two of the six empty cylinders in his rusty tricycle cart.
“This heat just saps me,” he says, wiping rivulets of sweat from his forehead. “I have to drink a lot of nimbu pani to keep going in the summer.”
Sonawane is on his way to a Hindustan Petroleum dealer’s office in Tardeo, to deposit Rs. 2,490 collected in payments from six customers in Tulsiwadi.
After that, he will head to a cylinder-collection point nearby, load the next set of six cylinders onto his cart and peddle off to Tulsiwadi again.
Sonawane completes five such cycles a day, come rain or shine, delivering 30 cylinders over a total of nine hours. He has been doing this for 30 years.
Originally from Junnar village near Pune, Sonawane, the second of 10 siblings, grew up working in the family’s banana, chikoo and potato fields.
“Ours was a poor family,” he says. “My father couldn’t afford to send any of us to school beyond Class 4.”
He was 18 when one of his sisters was married to a gas delivery boy in Tardeo. As a favour to the family, the boy agreed to take Sonawane to Mumbai and help him find a job. Back then, a cylinder of gas cost Rs. 34, against the current Rs. 412, and Sonawane was signed on for the lordly sum of Rs. 260.
“I was so frail then, my legs trembled every time I lifted a cylinder,” he says, laughing. “Often, I was reduced to tears by the ache in my shoulders.”
A father of three, Sonawane now earns Rs. 6,000 a month and another Rs. 2,000 or so in tips.
By saving carefully through the years, he managed to put away enough money to buy in 2008 a one-bedroom flat in Diva, a far-flung suburb 43 km north-east of the city. His rented, one-room tenement home in Govandi was much closer to his office, he admits, but the flat is much nicer. “There’s not much furniture, just our TV set, refrigerator and bed, but it’s spacious,” he says.
Sonawane’s day starts at 6.30 am. After a quick bath, he says his prayers and gobbles a breakfast of tea, three rotis and sabzi, some of which his wife packs for lunch in a tiny steel tiffin.
At 7 am, he begins the 10-minute walk to Diva station, where he catches a local train to Dadar on the Central line, then switches to the Western line, alights at Mumbai Central and walks to the Tardeo office to clock in at 8.25. Here, he slips into his red uniform, then gets his delivery addresses for the day.
Except for a one-hour lunch break, Sonawane will spend the rest of the day pedalling in the sun and hauling cylinders up and down stairs.
“The most difficult part of my job is getting the cylinders up the narrow stairways of the old buildings,” he says. At 6 pm, Sonawane finally parks his tricycle cart outside the dealer’s office and heads home, where he has his second bath of the day, then sits down with his family for a home-cooked dinner of roti and two sabzis.
Sonawane is not entitled to leave. Aside from his weekly day off, Sunday, his only holidays are festival days such as Diwali, Ganesh Chaturthi and Holi. So, every Sunday, Sonawane and his wife take an ST bus home to Junnar. Now, he is now looking forward to retirement.
“I will quit in three years,” he says. “Then I will return to Junnar, tend our fields through the day, take long naps in the afternoon and spend the evenings in light-hearted conversation with my wife, over chai and poha.”
(This weekly feature explores the lives of those unseen Mumbaiites essential to your day)