I work as an istriwalla [ironing man]. I did not expect this; I completed my Bachelor’s in Arts from Kanpur University. I pursued a college degree because I liked studying, and thought I would find some work. I applied for various jobs after my BA, such as a manager in the local bank, a lekhpal (government clerk), and the railways. But I soon realised that a degree does not promise a job, unless you have family money and connections.

My name is Fakeere Lal Kannaujiya. I am 55-years-old. I was born in Baghiyari village in Bilgram tehsil of Hardoi district’s Sandi block. It’s around a hundred kilometres from Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, and about 400 kilometres from Delhi. 

When I was a student in Kanpur, my friends and I would travel 15 kms – on foot or by cycle – to attend class. We used to chat as we went along and the journey would pass quickly; I enjoyed spending time with my friends. I liked my subjects in college – geography, economics, civics, Sanskrit and Hindi. Achha lagta hai ki aap bhi shiksharan karte ho, [I feel happy that you too are getting an education].

After I graduated and couldn’t find a job in Kanpur, I moved with my brother to Delhi and have been here since 1988. I iron clothes for a living and I am content. I enjoy the freedom I have here. I have been to see India Gate and even visited the railway museum [in Delhi]!

When I first came here, I lived with my uncle in south Delhi. He was an istriwalla and operated out of my current workplace – a residential colony in south Delhi. When my daughter Ruby was born in 1991, my wife Guddi and I moved out of his house to live in a jhuggi [a low income settlement with mostly makeshift houses]. We lived there for 12 years until our set of jhuggis – near Jasola in south Delhi – were demolished. Then we moved to Mithapur, nearly 10 kilometres away from my workplace.

My earnings from ironing work were not enough to run my home even before the pandemic. I used to wash cars to earn extra money. Once the first lockdown was imposed, I could not come out to work for nearly two months and I could not access the 13 families who give me regular ironing work. I only left home to collect my monthly ration – 16 kilograms of wheat and four kilograms of rice. 

At my age now I feel there is not much else [work] that I can do but we still need money for our household expenses. When the lockdown lifted, only half my customers returned. Now, during the second-wave [of Covid-19], the colony where my customers live has allowed me to come and go, so that helps. To reach the colony, it takes me around an hour on my cycle. 

I operate a coal iron and the rates for coal were two rupees per kilo when I started ironing work [in 1991]. Now it’s nearly 40 rupees. But the rate for ironing a garment remains almost unchanged – for a single garment I earn five rupees, while earlier [a decade ago] I would get four rupees. There has been no real increase in my income I feel, but with my earnings I was able to buy this house that I live in [in Mithapur].

‘I operate a coal iron and the rates for coal were two rupees per kilo when I started ironing work [in 1991]. Now it’s nearly 40 rupees.’ Photo by Rohan Chopra

Working with a hot iron all day, I tend to perspire a lot – as the coal burns, the heat from the iron rises towards me. Delhi’s summers have become warmer in the last 33 years that I have been doing this job. Sometimes it is unbearable, and I drink a lot of water during the summers but that is not enough. My wife Guddi often helps out and takes over the ironing when I am tired, and also delivers the ironed clothes to our customers.  

Our son, Vinay, 19, is pursuing a B.A. from Delhi University’s open courses. His subjects are geography, history, political science and Hindi. He would often help out before the pandemic and now when I need someone to help deliver the clothes he does it.

Fakeere’s son Vinay (right) would often help him out before the pandemic. Now he helps when his father needs someone to deliver the clothes. Photo by Rohan Chopra

In my village I own four bighas (roughly two acres) of land, and three years ago I made an agreement with Desraj, my chacha [paternal uncle] who now manages it and shares the harvest with me. There is a forest about half a kilometre from our farm and it has all kinds of trees – babul, neem and ber. Cows and monkeys from the forest cause havoc to our crops. There are more monkeys than humans there and so farmers have to stay awake till late at night to drive away the animals.  

When I was young we grew a variety of crops that got us good money – wheat, bajra, jowar, corn and groundnut. Today, to plant one bigha of wheat I must invest nearly 5,000 rupees. We grow only wheat now – we get close to two quintals of harvested grain, enough for our consumption and we also manage to sell some. 

Farming has become a very difficult occupation. Only the people who farm know what is best for their land. The three new farm laws have been created just to benefit politicians. Farmers do not see any benefit in them so they are fighting for their rights.

Editor's note

Rohan Chopra is a second year student of Political Science at Ashoka University. He interned with PARI in the summer of 2021 and chose to do this story because he wanted to learn more about the lives of the people who provide every day services in his locality. He says, “With PARI, I got a chance to learn from my conversations with someone who I have known and seen around, but whose life I knew little about. I have now become friends with Kannaujiya ji and visit him as often as I can. He draws me into long exchanges about nature and life, and he has taught me the joy of walking barefoot on grass.”