Delhiwale: Portrait of a contented man
Subbal Chowdhury grew up in a village in Malda, in West Bengal, as his parents’ only child. His father had no agricultural land and would rent himself out as a labourer in other people’s fields. His mother died when he was 12.Updated: Jun 29, 2020, 05:19 IST
Can you look back at your life and tell yourself confidently that “yes, I made it!”?
“Office Pantry boy” Subbal Chowdhury feels that about himself.
“I transformed my fate,” he says. “I’m satisfied with myself.”
Mr Chowdhury has reached this contented state of being while still in his early 30s. He does double jobs, actually. He spends the whole day as the so-called “pantry boy” in an office in Delhi’s Aerocity but, early in the morning, he is a “car cleaner”, dusting and mopping about a dozen private cars in a Gurugram apartment complex. He lives in the Millenium City and this late morning is talking on WhatsApp video from his one-room dwelling in Prem Puri neighbourhood in Sector 32.
Mr Chowdhury gives a quick survey of his house through the phone screen that connects him to this reporter. The place looks sparse except for two mattresses on the floor and a small wooden shrine—the household “mandir”—on the window ledge. He shares the place with his wife and two young sons. “Just a few days ago, I sent them to her parents’ place until this mahamari ends,” he says, referring to the coronavirus pandemic. The idea was to save his family from himself. Mr Chowdhury started going to the office again, shortly after the lifting of the prolonged lockdown, and “every evening on my return home my kids would rush to hug me... now what if some day I inadvertently catch the infection while outside, and pass it on to them?”
So he convinced his unwilling wife to take the kids for the time being to her parental home in West Bengal—an especially chartered bus was heading to their district, taking many Prem Puri residents wanting to escape to their villages in the same district.
Returning to the subject of his contentment with life, Mr Chowdhury reveals that both he and his wife are illiterate “but my school-going kids can read newspapers.”
He concedes that thousands of day-jobbers in Delhi offices might not feel the same satisfaction as him “but I had to struggle to reach here.”
He grew up in a village in Malda, in West Bengal, as his parents’ only child. His father had no agricultural land and would rent himself out as a labourer in other people’s fields. His mother died when he was 12. “Babuji soon became too ill too work.” Mr Chowdhury, still a teenager, somehow managed to get work in a brick kiln on the village’s outskirts. “They initially refused to hire me because of my age, but I insisted.”
He would earn 15 rupees daily, and when it rained too hard for the kiln to be operational, Mr Chowdhury would be without money, forcing him and his ailing father to spend the night without food. “It happened many times... we were that poor.”
Ultimately, a few acquaintances who were from the same village but were working in Delhi took him with them to the big city. “I had no money except for five rupees... my friends paid for my train ticket.”
Those kind men also helped him get a job as a pantry boy. “And gradually I built up my life.” Fifteen years have passed since then and that former brick kiln labourer progressed enough to be able to rent a room, get his father to move to the Millennium City with him, and he also married and raised a family.
“Working in cities like Delhi can greatly improve your life if you are responsible,” he observes, informing that his wife was also adding to the monthly income by working as a cleaner in two households. “We would spend money wisely.”
Indeed, he saved enough to not only purchase 1.5 beegha of agricultural land in his village (currently looked after by a relative) but he also constructed a two-room brick house in the village. “With a verandah,” he points out. “In my brick kiln days, my father and I lived in a small shelter built of straw.”
Looking intently into the phone screen as if in deep thought, Mr Chaudhury concludes in retrospect that the most decisive moment of his life was when he decided to follow his friends to Delhi. “I wouldn’t have been able to do anything had I stayed in the village.”
His father passed away in 2015. “I think he was satisfied with me.”
Mr Chowdhury convinced his wife to temporarily quit Gurugram with their kids on the assurance that he would join them soon and together they would live in their village house for as long as the pandemic lasts.
“But we can’t go back to where we started... I will have to explain to her that I cannot come... she will understand,” he says.
And after the pandemic fades away, they will again be a working couple, their sons back in school—building up a life “even better than mine.”
A minute after the chat, Mr Chowdhury Whatsapps an image of his family.