It’s 4:30 a.m. The birds have not started chirping yet, but the sound of flowing water, the clinking and banging of steel and plastic buckets leave no doubt that the women of Asiaki Gorawas are up and about.
Sumitra (she uses only this name) is taking water from a public tap on the main street in a small dabba (container) which she then uses to fill a row of steel buckets and plastic or mud pots.
Water is supplied every day through the public tap, but the timings vary. Getting the water that a household needs in this village of Jatusana tehsil in Rewari District requires a combination of conjecture, luck and a little help from your neighbours – one needs to get there before it runs out. Sumitra, with all the other work on her hands, might show up here at 11 p.m., 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. the timing dictated by that of the water supply.
She doesn’t miss a day and she doesn’t rely on anyone else to do this job. In fact, my mother doesn’t rely on anyone else to earn, cook and feed her family.
“Kahaan se din shuru aur kahaan khatam, hamen koi andaaza nahi” (when does the day start and when does it end; I have no clue), she says. A series of endless chores fill her day and a good part of the night. Mother is 55, with four adult children – including my older brother, Hariram, 29, my sisters Manju Kumari and Ritu aged 26 and 23. At 21, I am the youngest.
Once water is gathered and stored, Sumitra begins to cook the morning meal of chapati and a vegetable curry on a chulha (mud stove) for our family of six. Then she rushes around finishing other household chores before leaving for work.
Daily wage workers like my mother cannot afford to dawdle or the jobs will go to someone else. Even the cup of tea she has made for herself must be gulped down quickly, in one long swallow. Shouting and calling out loudly to her neighbours and co-workers, she leaves home with her family still asleep inside their mud and brick house in this village in Haryana.
Next door Shanta Devi, 45, is cooking the meal for the day. But hearing my mother’s call she hands over everything to her daughter and rushes towards the waiting tractor sent by the landlord to bring daily wage labourers like her to the fields. From a nail near the door, she grabs the men’s-style shirt to wear over her kurta while working in the fields and a dupatta to cover her head as she runs out of the house.
Being late again has put Shanta in a bad mood; faced with another day of hard labour ahead, she curses her fate. “Bhage jawen bhage aawen, na khaane ko time na peene ka time,” (All the time on the run; no time to eat, no time to drink), she says to no one in particular as she joins the other women, climbing into the waiting tractor.
My mother and Shanta are joined by Sunno, Rajan Devi, Aarti and Leelabati, all women from Asiaki Gorawas seeking wage work. They are agricultural labourers, daily wagers working in the fields of big farmers to feed themselves and their families. They can journey up to 100 kilometres to their place of work and back – every day that they find work.
My village, Asiaki Gorawas, lies around 200 kilometres south of Delhi in Rewari district and has a population of 2,862, of which 1,049 are Dalits who, like my mother, own no land.
My father Likhi Ram, 63, worked as a feriwallah – collecting old household items made of plastic, copper, iron or any material with resale value. He would cycle around Jatusana block collecting the items that he would later sell at a kabadi ka dukan [junk shop].
Two years ago, he fell off a ladder and injured his knee. Since then he has been at home. My mother wishes he would at least look for work in a shop to add to the family’s income.
If mother is lucky, she will get up to 20 days of wage work in a month. But there are times when getting even two days of work can be difficult. On such days she gets busy with household chores, all the while hoping some wage work will come along.
Women like her can earn an average monthly income of 5,000 to 6,000 rupees. “Household expenses like food, electricity bills, fees, schoolbooks, and other expenditures here and there take up all our earnings. There is almost nothing left to spare. So it’s rare for us to buy a dupatta or bangles for ourselves,” she would explain when I asked her about buying something for herself.
Mother has been working for low wages since she was a 13-year-old girl, stopping just once for two months after her marriage at age 15. She continued working even through her four pregnancies, carrying her first child, my older brother Hariram, when she went to work in the fields.
Labouring in the open fields, mother dreads both the heat of summer and icy winter mornings. She knows the farming rhythms through the year and says that while harvesting wheat in the April sun is hard, doing the same during the kasani (chicory) harvest in the months of May and June is even harder, as temperatures in Haryana climb to 45 degrees Celsius in those months.
During the paddy transplanting season in July, she works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m, taking only an hour off for lunch. For 11 hours, her legs are firmly planted in water more than a foot deep. She bends over the whole time. She describes her work saying: “the water I am planting [the paddy in] is mostly two feet deep and completely muddy, so I can’t see the ground beneath. The sun above is so strong that one feels the water will boil over.”
An acre of paddy needs around eight to 10 workers, and the landowner pays the group around 3,500 rupees. That works out to 350-400 rupees a day for each worker. Mother says she has seen a visible decline in the amount of work available in the last 20 years and she puts this down to, “first, the arrival of harvesting machines and more recently, migrants from Bihar who are willing to work for lower wages.”
October is a busy month in Rewari as paddy is harvested along with cotton and bajra. A few months later – in December, January and February – my mother like many other agricultural labourers, will collect the leafy green vegetable bathua that grows like a weed between the wheat and mustard plants. Landowners allow the workers to keep the money they earn from selling the bathua at 3-5 rupees a kilogram; they can sell up to 30 kilos a day. That surge in income in this season helps them tide over the lean months of the year.
However, this is still July and the paddy transplantation is on. Around noon or shortly thereafter, the women finally sit down for an hour-long lunch break under a nearby tree. Out come their metal lunch boxes. They share the chapati and vegetable curry made early in the morning – handing out any extra food to those who couldn’t finish cooking before they left.
If they finish quickly, they will stretch their aching legs and backs by lying down, using their dupattas as pillows. They chat and share their news. The previous day’s heavy rain is the topic of discussion on the day I go with them. Referring to the leaks in her house Leelabati says, only half in jest, “there was no difference between the [amount of] rain falling inside and outside our home.”
Leelabati, 55, has also been working in the fields since she was a girl of 13 and is the only earning member of her family of four. “My husband just stays home and my son doesn’t do anything. He only gives me more tension day by day,” says Leelabati. Her situation is not unusual as many young men in the area neither study nor work. “We are poor people. If we earn, we eat or else we starve,” she says, when I ask why she chooses this work.
Our neighbour, Sunno joins her in support: “If I don’t come out to earn, what will we eat?” She too is the only member of her family who regularly seeks work. Her husband Balbir Singh occasionally gets jobs like guarding homes, but she says that her two sons, aged 30 and 26, don’t work or study. Providing for the family of eight – her husband, their two sons, their wives and two grandchildren – is largely left to her. “I just wish my sons would go to work,” she says,
At 34, Rajan is younger than most of the other women. Her husband, a feriwallah like my father, died five years ago when he was struck by paralysis. She lives with her five-year-old son and survives on daily wage work. “We can’t eat only wheat [provided at subsidised cost by the government through the public distribution system]. We need vegetables, masala, milk, oil and gas too,” she says. When she is away at work, her cousin sister helps with looking after her children.
Also out in the fields today is Aarti, 30, who has left behind two very young children aged 2 and 6 at home, to come here to work. Her husband, Laxmi, is a vehicle mechanic and owns a small garage near the town of Pataudi. Both their children have dropped out as the fees in their private school went up in the past year and they can’t afford it any longer. The children stay home under their grandparents’ care, while Aarti goes out for wage work.
At sunset, the women are back in the tractor and on their way home, discussing what they will cook for dinner. My mother too returns tired and covered in wet mud after a 10-12 hour working day in the fields.
Despite being the breadwinners of their families, there is no relief from daily household drudgery for these women. On alighting from the tractor, they get busy preparing the night meal, washing the dirty dishes, catching up on the day with their family, soaking and washing clothes, doing the dishes again after the meal and waiting to fill water at the public tap.
Grown-up daughters help out, but women like Rajan and Sunno who either don’t have girls or whose daughters are too young to help, have to do all the work on their own. Sons are not expected to help. “Household work is meant for girls,” is the common refrain.
My mother hopes that none of us, her four children, will ever have to do what she does. She wants sarkari [government] jobs for all of us. My brother Hariram is now an engineer and is studying to take the civil services entrance exam. My eldest sister has just finished a Master’s in Development Studies and has started working with a non-governmental organisation in the area of education in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh. My sister and I are pursuing our graduation and she wants the same for us – ‘decent’ government jobs.
My parents always gave our education priority – sending us to a private school when this was unheard of in our community and village. They both worked hard to be able to afford this and it was not easy, but they were determined.
In Class 4 my brother bunked school a few times. When my father came to hear of it, he was furious. My brother got a thrashing from my father who told him that leaving school was not an option. He never bunked again and when he was in Class 5, my parents asked a teacher at the government school to fill the form for his admission to the Navodaya school in Rewari. [Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas are residential central schools mostly for talented children from rural areas.] My brother was sent off there and soon the rest of us would follow him.
Mother often says her life would have been different, better, if she had received an education. My father was educated till Class 8, when he dropped out of school and became a daily wage worker. Despite this, both he and my mother never gave us that option of becoming daily wagers. Yet, I don’t remember being ordered to study either. We just understood that it was important to do that, and did so on our own. We all just got on with our homework on returning from school each day.
Over the years, mother has had to hear a lot of criticism and snide comments from relatives and people in our Jatav community [listed as a scheduled caste in the state] on the freedom she has given her children, especially her daughters. She never pays any attention to this and instead of forcing them into marriage at an early age, like herself, she has encouraged, insisted and supported their dreams of an education – despite never having sat in a classroom herself.
“My life is already done. Whatever I am doing now is for all of you [her children] so that you will have a different life, a better life,” she says late at night when we are sitting and talking.
“My life is moving along, just moving along.”
Raman Rewaria is an undergraduate student at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He was a PARI Education intern in the summer of 2021 when he worked on this piece. He says: “The struggles of marginalised rural women are always underrepresented in the media; their lives are very different. I decided to tell the story of my own mother because she inspires me the most. PARI gave me this opportunity and helped me document her life.”