A photographer-friend, who was planning to shoot migrant labourers in Bangalore, asked me recently what images of these people come to mind: 'What strong visuals of these labourers remain etched in your memory?' That was a question out of the blue because I have never consciously chased these people for a story. But yet, I recalled, while commuting between home and office and back, they have unconsciously become a part of my visual-life. Since the whole of Bangalore has turned into a construction site in the last few years, I realised that you do not have to go chasing these migrant labourers, as they are constantly travelling with you. They cross your sight-path almost every time you go out of home or office.
During the day, sometimes, I am following these images; sometimes I am driving over them as I take the flyovers; a few other times they are chasing me and when lucky, at times, we park next to each other at traffic lights. But, most of the time, they are at a distance with the blaring top light of the noon sun over their helmet-heads. Or, like a yellow stream marching out of their workplaces with the twilight sun on their dry faces.
Let us get specific and run through three images that have haunted me the most.
The first image is of a mini goods truck in which the labourers were being transported from their temporary tin-homes to a construction site. I was driving behind this mini truck and what stuck me was that labourers (men, women and children included) were bundled into this truck and in the middle was a concrete mixer. The life and lifeless, man and machine seemed to have dissolved into a single entity inside that truck. The men were in faded white dhotis with Gandhi caps; women in gaudy synthentic saris, you couldn't miss the jasmine strands in their plaits. The children were just buried in the mass of those adult legs and hands. But what scared me in that image was the precariousness with which some young men in the group were hanging on to the moving truck. Their rubber slippers with balded soles rested on a slippery iron half-shutter of the truck. I wondered for a moment what would happen if the shutter bolt comes off or the rope they held on to gives way. Would they get run over by my vehicle?
The second image is something that I saw one evening on my way to Chennai as I was leaving the precincts of Bangalore. There was enveloping darkness outside. At a distance there were illuminated multi-storeyed buildings. Between my car and the buildings were human settlements and you could make out that they existed because the thick blue plastic sheets that was spread over the hutments feebly reflected light. It was like a Van Gogh painting and it was primarily the aesthetics of the sinking night that drew my attention. But this settlement got exposed during my return journey, as I was passing by it in proper daylight. The blue plastic sheets were fluttering as a mild breeze swept through them, but what caught my attention was not the sheets but the tombstones. It was a human settlement in a graveyard. By making enquiries, I found out to my horror that it was an abandoned graveyard and people who had migrated out of the poverty-stricken North Karnataka district of Gulbarga had made it their colony. The abandoned graveyard was called 'Gulbarga Colony.' The tombstones had been improvised to become cots, sofas, kitchen platforms to roll rotis and also drying area for clothes. Children used them to play. I looked around and there was no proper sanitation, people lived in absolute squalour.
The third image that moves, and moves with, me is of marching men with yellow helmets. I often find them walking into or out of Vijay Mallya's UB City construction site in the middle of Bangalore that falls in the route between my home and office. The reluctant pace with which these men walk -- talking, looking all around, smoking a beedi or chewing paan and slapping each others' back and the way they gather in neat circles to eat their afternoon lunch is a study by itself. Whatever they do during the day, they keep the yellow helmet on. I have often wondered if they go to bed with it. What does that helmet protect them from? At a stone's throw from UB City is the Cubbon Park, but I have never seen these men sit below the trees and chat or walk on those lanes that have minimal traffic. For these men who have come to build Bangalore from faraway Orissa, Bihar, Rajasthan or UP, the green does not exist and leisure is unheard of. They have blinkered paths, and they are well conditioned to take them each morning and tread back in the twilight hour. Nobody in this herd strays. There are also old men in this herd. Clearly past 60, frail-looking, I see the young men humouring them and they too build sturdy structures to house rich businesses. This image has no concrete associations in my mind, but sometimes when I am feeling low, my mind goes blank with yellow and I know what it is.
Here are only three images, but there are surely hundreds of such images that define the migrant labour population in Bangalore. The images that we may capture of these people may not get into history pages when Bangalore gets even bigger. The labourers will surely be forgotten. They will also be banished from the parts of the city that they are now building. Probably they will never be around to visit Cubbon Park because they will be busy building another city elsewhere. But, at a later date, whoever catches a glimpse of these pictures that my
friend may take would realise the quality of sweat that went into the making of Bangalore.