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People of Bharat: Maheshwara tāta

The recent Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on health and economy. India’s migrant workers have been at the worst end of it. On watching the news about mass migrations, I couldn’t help but wonder and worry as to what would have happened to the respondents of the People of Bharat blog.

Last year around the same time, I was walking down a highway on the outskirts of Hyderabad accompanied by my translator. I was on my way to meet Maheshwara who sells coconuts from a small, thatched shed on the side of the road to truck drivers and other travelers.

Taking respite from the sweltering heat under the thatched shed, I looked around. A large poster of the Hindu deity ‘Shani Dev’ (the deity associated with Saturn) was nailed to a wooden post supporting the roof. A wooden table served as a work area of sorts. A pile of tender, green coconuts were heaped at one end of it. I found Maheshwara sorting through the pile when I arrived. I greeted him with a ‘namaste’ but he only nodded in acknowledgement.

Masheshwara was well built and dark haired. He sported a broad moustache and a thick mop of hair which I found unusual for his age. At 59, he looked much younger — I was inclined to think he looked like a south-Indian actor in his prime. Hailing from a village in Eluru district of Andhra Pradesh, he was born to a farmer who also kept livestock — cows, buffaloes and goats. Maheshwara’s childhood was spent taking the animals out to graze on permitted pastures. He never went to school but can manage to sign his name.

Maheshwara’s family consists of his wife and two sons. Both his sons are married and he is a proud grandfather of three children. His title grandfather sticks with him at his workplace too as everyone here calls him tāta (meaning grandfather), as he goes about his daily business. His younger son, his daughter-in-law and their two children live with him and his wife in a rented three-room house a little ahead of where he works. Maheshwara’s wife and daughter-in-law work in a plastic factory close by that manufactures buckets. His son is in the same business as him, selling coconuts.

Maheshwara came to Hyderabad in 2007 for better prospects and started working as a security guard for a solar product company. He worked for two years and left because of low income. With Rs. 6000 of his savings from the job, he started selling daabh (tender coconuts) at the highway. Maheshwara’s brother was a truck driver and frequently transported tender coconuts from villages to towns. This gave Maheshwara the idea of starting his own business. He buys his coconuts in bulk every few days from a truck driver who also doubles as a supplier. He pays Rs. 2000 for a load of 100 coconuts and buys 1000 coconuts each time. The supplier brings coconuts from Eluru and other nearby towns — coconuts are available all year round. Each coconut is sold for Rs. 25. He makes an average net profit of Rs. 300 daily though the amount varies with demand and season. Maheshwara spends Rs. 10,000 on monthly groceries, Rs. 4500 on rent and about Rs. 300 on transportation.

Maheshwara reaches his place of work at 10 in the morning and works till 7 in the evening. He starts by sweeping up some of the area around the premises. Then he inspects the stock and sorts the load for the day. He uses a curved sickle (katti) to trim the coconuts and pierce them. Then he inserts a straw and hands it to the customer. The thwack of the sickle is frequent today as it’s a hot day. His customers come almost continuously today. Most of them are truck drivers or travelers on two-wheelers coming or going to some or the other place of work. When customers are done sipping the coconut water, they hand the empty coconuts back to him which he casts on a separate pile. When the pile becomes reasonably big, Maheshwara books an auto rickshaw and disposes it off at a public dump.

I ask Maheshwara if he plans to expand his business. He tells me he has no means for expansion. Besides, he worries he will not be able to make solid plans as he lives in a rented place. If the house-owner suddenly asks him to leave, he will have to change residences to another area and much planning would be wasted. Like many others he wants to own a house; however small, but a fluctuation in income has been the reason his dream has been deferred since a decade now. ‘Na pani ayipoyindhi. Planning untadhi, 10 samvathsaralu nunchi anukuntune unnam jaragatledhu’ (I am done. Yes, we too have planned to have our own house for 10 years, but we couldn’t {because our income was never enough}). He regrets not being able to buy a house despite living in Hyderabad for a long time.

Maheshwara tells me he will continue to work till he can. ‘Emo manakem thelusthadi amma? Eppati varaku chestham ante em cheptham? Manaku opika unte chestham, opika lekapothe chesedhi undhahu. Guarantee puchukolem kadha. Manakemana health bagoledhanuko, museyalsindhe kadha.’(What should we do? One cannot tell how long one can work. If I have the strength I will {work}. If I don’t, well there are no guarantees {to good health} right? If my health suffers, I will close this shop and something else will come my way). Three years ago Maheshwara had used up Rs. 25,000 of his savings to celebrate the first birthday of one of his grandchildren. That’s been the only significant expense of the household in the last three years.

I checked my notes, thanked him and left that day. Fast forward to a year, I am faced with my own challenges in dealing with the lockdown. My family is scattered and I’m always anxious about their health. I have nothing to occupy me except for work; I am grateful that at least I have work.

As soon as the lockdown was lifted, I made a trip that took me down the same highway road where Maheshwara had his small, coconut business. As I drive past, I strain out of the window to see if I can spot him. I see the shed but it’s shut. There are no fresh coconuts on the table and no sign of Maheshwara or his friends who usually frequented his workplace.

I drive away with several questions hammering in my head. Did Maheshwara join the throng of migrants and return to his village? What if his house-owner demanded rent and he was unable to pay? If Maheshwara had to shut shop, so would his son — how would his family manage monthly groceries? Did Maheshwara have enough savings to survive a time like this? Did he fall ill with the virus?

The poster of Shani Dev, the deity who rewards hard work and doles out karmic justice stares back at me from the empty shed. I drive on, hoping fate has been kinder to Maheshwara and his family.

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