Sulochana Palav cooks a complete meal for her family of four only once a day.
“Until our son finishes his education, we’ll have to make compromises,” says the 46-year-old. Her 18-year-old son, Sachin, seated on a wooden stool in their 100-sq-ft house in a chawl in Malad’s Kurar village, is staring at the floor.
Sulochana and her husband Sumant (53), a former mill worker who now drives a rickshaw, are saving every penny they can to fund Sachin’s mechanical engineering studies.
Neither ever thought life would be so tough. After all Sumant, who came to Mumbai from Poip village in Malvan in 1980, had a job in a textile mill. It was a prestigious job at that time and Sumant, employed as a helper in the screen-printing department of Sriram Mills in Lower Parel, thought he would work his way up.
After spending nearly 10 years as a temporary hand, Sumant was confirmed as a permanent employee in 1994.
Two years later, the mill shut down.
Trouble had already started by then, as Sumant wouldn’t receive his salary for months together. “For three years, I did odd jobs to feed my family. My son was a little more than a year old and my daughter was three,” says Sumant, dressed in a spotless white uniform. “I would pound red chillies at a masala shop, I painted a seven-storey building. I did whatever job came my way.”
Sulochana, who could not leave her young children alone and go out to work, would assemble small electrical fittings at home. In 2000, Sumant learnt to drive a rickshaw. He rents one for Rs 150 a day and drives it for eight hours. Even if he misses work, like he did on Monday for a mill workers’ protest, he has to pay the rent. Sulochana, active in the fight for mill workers’ rights, still assembles electrical fittings. She gets Rs 25 for making 1,000 pieces.
But the couple managed to send their son to an engineering college in Khed. “Our daughter sacrificed her education, saying it was more important for Sachin to study,” says Sulochana, her voice choking. Her daughter, Smita (20), dropped out after Class 12 and works as a computer operator.
The family collectively earns Rs 6,000 to Rs 7,000 a month. They pay Rs 1,500 as rent, while annual expenses for Sachin’s education come up to Rs 1 lakh. Sumant would like to buy his own rickshaw, “but nothing until Sachin graduates,” he says as Sachin shifts uncomfortably in his seat. He knows a lot depends on him.
One good thing that came out of the tribulations was that Sulochana became independent. “She would hardly speak when she came here,” says Sumant. “Now she travels across Maharashtra as part of the workers’ movement and even gives speeches.”
The Palavs are not enthusiastic about the reopening of three mills. “What is the point? Will they give me a job?” asks Sumant. He says he would like to work in a mill again only if he gets a permanent job.
But for now, the couple has joined the one lakh-odd mill workers demanding homes and jobs. “The government has asked for 10 days. We’ll wait. If it does not agree to our demands, we women will agitate,” says Sulochana.