I walked past the wafting world of horror and entered the room, which was left partially open for me. Inside the arrangements were modest and furnitures were at a minimum. A wooden desk and a few chairs sufficed to give it the look of an office in operation. A closed glass cupboard at one corner was an unmistakable proof of professional record-keeping as it was the files of various sizes packed the shelves with exemplary efficacy. On the other side of the table there was a man of heavy built with wavy dark hair and a pair of refulgent black eyes. He wore a gold chain around his thick flabby neck and the modest belly couldn’t escape a stranger’s eyes since it was disproportionately bulging out of his unbuttoned shirt. Excepting an ashtray with a dozen smashed cigarette buds and a short bamboo stick with a rubber handle, there was nothing on the table. It didn’t take me time to extend my hand when I realised that I was in front of my prospective benefactor. He stretched his thick bulldog cheeks to a smile and resiprocated with a firm handshake. We spoke bussiness for a while.
During the course of our discussions it was clear to me that Mr. Adhir Bagchi (my client) had emassed enough fortune and he was looking forward to whitewash some of his slush funds through a legitimate financial enterprise.The tempting offer made my heart race faster with excitement, however the consequences of laundering money was also playing parallely within my mind. It was true that the astronomical figures would catapault my career to a new level of prominence but a struggle between a hungry stomach and a resuscitated conscience began to unfold within me. I continued listening to my host, though my mind was fighting a battle within its dark corners, hidden from the reality outside.
I was offered some snacks, but in that odd hour I was wituout appetite. My thoughts were fixed on a safe return from that weird place. In the end before departing for Kolkata, I was offered a tour of the area by my client, who also happened to be the owner of the brick kiln. One of his lieutenants volunteered for the task and I was let off in his company to explore the land. I was informed that these were migrant laborers brought from the most remote hamlets, hemmed between obscurity and poverty in the dark underbelly of rural India. Most of them were brought through a complex network of middlemen who deduct a percentage from their earning. They were paid in the end of their seasonal contract which lasts through the entire winter. The living conditions were harsh and only supported a very frugal lifestyle. They were offered around 200 INR that translates to a modicund sum of 3 dollars and some odd cents to buy weekly ration for their families. This amount was conditionally renewed at the end of every week. Only the men folks in the family of laborers were priviledged to the entitled allowance as the women were usually not paid. A women’s labor and contribution was not compensated monetarily as they were treated as one family unit.
After filling the hand kneaded mud in the iron cases that were designed to hold the mixture , it was let out to dry in the sun for days. When the mud was ready, they were orderly arranged in heat chambers for baking. Most of the brick kilns used the traditional method of coal fired tunnels. A large open area with layers of bricks lined up for firing greeted my sight while my tour guide continued his narrative. The use of combustible coal and sand was the practice. Accidents were a common place and there were no safety valves in place. The mud declavity dug to a depth of over 10 feet to house the bricks on a bed of burning coal was covered in a layer of sand. The workers had to exercise extreme caution to prevent themselves from slipping into this deadly vortex of brick,fire and sand. If someone slipped into the mud declavity connected to the tunnel, they roasted along with the bricks. Their cries and wails perished without any possibility of rescue.
When I inquired if this was common; I was told that often children who accompanied their parents during their employment wandered into the vicinity of the furnace. Once a young girl strayed into the area to satiate her curiosity while the kiln was in operation. She disappeared into a plume of smoke and fire and her corpse burnt to cinders without leaving any trace.
The employers did everything to avoid these instances as they led to labor agitation but such incidents were not completely remote or isolated. Sometimes the laborers are made to work overnight to ensure that they meet production deadlines. The wages were 50 paise or an equivalent of less than 0.0066 USD per brick. Each laborer was compelled to carry atleast 500 bricks to the kiln in a day. Anything below that number was not acceptable. For those who retrieved the baked bricks from the burning sand, the wagess were even lower at 0.25 paise or an equivalent of 0.0033 USD per brick.
The abysmal living quarters of these men were their only sanctuary after draining themselves in the heat.There was no electricity in any of the hutments and they were made to use a few ponds in the vicinity for sanitary requirements. Food was scarce, so every morsel was important. Usually the families of laborers saved from their 3 dollar, weekly ration allowance. Perhaps, it was not very different from the life they had grown accustomed to in their villages. Infact, here they had food on their plates,which was better than hunger and unemployment in the villages.
I was simply left speechless at the sight of such severity, where an entire population wilfully surrendered to bondage for survival. These were lives that lived beyond the gray, consumed in imperceptible darkness. On inquiry, about what happened to deserters who tried to flee these conditions, I was told that they had men stationed at every junction point that prevented any such ammetuerish attempts of escape. None could escape the clutches of their employer until the superannuation of their contract that lasted for an entire season of brick production (Usually 4 months). A few renegade rebels who repeatedly attempted to flee suffered severe consequences for their delinquency. My tour guide didn’t hesitate to add that the repeated offenders where flogged and kept in isolation. One exposure to such treatment broke the deserter’s resolve and tied them to their obligation for the reminder of their contract. A bunch of tough men in the employ of the prorietor were famous for tracking absconders and bring them back to the kiln.
I was left dumfounded by the end of my infernal tour. It was an unwarranted exposure to the nightmare that was poverty in the rural pockets of our nation. As darkness descended, I was escorted to the nearest railway station for my return journey. The memory of that fateful day would remain embossed in my mind like a bitter memory for the reminder of my days. I was unable to materialize my ambitions as my heart intervened and disallowed me from contacting him further with a lucrative investment proposal. The deal failed to fructify and I was finally shown the doors.
Years went by, I changed my vocation and got absorbed in a different field. The memory of that fateful day is still afresh in my mind.
Over 12 years have gone by since that fateful rendezvous. I had made a visit to a town by the river Ganges in North 24 parganas. This was before the Covid pandemic triggered a contingency lock down across India. It was one of those early evenings of pleasant winter chill. I was having tea in a local tea stall. On the long wooden bench were seated a few laborers who were busy gossiping among themselves. I observed them silently through the corner of my spectacles. One of them was having tea and the rest had empty earthen cups before them and a few crumbs of left over biscuits on plates. Their clothes were modest and they seem to be speaking Bhojpuri (the native tongue of Bihar). The tea stall owner confirmed that those were migrant workers from a near by brick kiln. My curiosity was reignited. I thought of seizing this opportunity to put some of my long lingering questions and doubts to rest. I had a small talk with one of those guys, who was a little less reticent to speak. As the conversation progressed, I realised that the conditions remain unchanged for these soldiers of the brick republic.
The weekly allowance had gone up by two dollars. The rest had not witnessed any significant increase worthy of mention. Accidents have become less frequent due to a few safety dynamics installed in place. The living conditions are the same. Physical abuse has sharply declined but still remains a scourge; the remaining aspects including the work environment remains unaltered. Needless to say that the soldiers of our brick republic have negligible access to medical care in times of sickness. They are less cared for than the bricks they produce with their life on the line. These are the expandables of the brick republic. In twelve years that passed by many things changed, promises changed,rulers changed but the brick soldiers and their plight just like the bricks born of their hands remain unchanged.
These twelve long years ushered in an epoch that pledged to transform India into a land of greatness and glory. Many real estate projects, infrastructural development projects laid the foundation of a progessing nation. But strangely, the bricks that made this change possible still tells the story of a small unmolested world where men become bricks and bricks become men.