Our forgotten, unsung heroes
When was the last time you took the trouble to find out what your watchman's life was like?
I grew up in a three-storey building in one of Bombay's quieter suburbs. The place is no longer quiet because our city bid goodbye to silence in the nineties, but the building itself still stands, inhabited, more decrepit, and unguarded like it always was. We didn't have watchmen because we didn't need to. I don't remember any other building in my locality with a watchman either.
This isn't to say there were no burglaries, but no one felt the need to hire someone to stand outside all day and night to create a deterrent.
Today, finding a building without a watchman is as rare as finding a politician with a college degree. They sit outside townships, grocery stores and bookshops, aided by CCTV cameras in lobbies, inside elevators, and outside gates.
Everything we own is now a commodity to be guarded, our premises policed to ensure the right people get in. And while a lot of people applaud this as a means of generating employment for people from rural India who have nothing to do back home, I have often thought of it as a failure.
Watchmen exist because we have failed to offer gainful employment to millions of Indians born, by accidents of fate alone, outside the borders of our cities. Millions of young men, armed with degrees from colleges and universities in their hometowns, are routinely compelled to leave their families and move to cities, abandoning everything they were taught in order to sit on plastic chairs for every waking hour of their days.
This isn't an exaggeration. Speak to your building's watchman if and when you find the time, get a sense of who he is as a person, and ask about what he did before he ended up in the job he currently holds. The responses may surprise you.
Our watchmen are rarely treated as human beings. Neither their feelings matter, nor their comforts. They must guard our homes at all hours, in all kinds of weather, while we sit in air-conditioned rooms oblivious to the heat, cold, rain, or ubiquitous presence of mosquitoes. They do this for monthly salaries that wouldn't cover our dinners at half-decent restaurants, because that is the only option we have left them.
The last place I lived in had two watchmen because there were two wings that needed to be protected. They worked in shifts, sharing a single room at the back of the compound, eating the same meal of dal and rice every day because they had to send a bulk of their salaries home, and disappearing for short vacations once every year or two. They had to double as errand boys too, sent off to buy vegetables by residents in the building until someone protested.
I imagined them connecting with wives and parents, sharing fleeting memories with children who barely remembered them, then preparing to return almost as soon as they had arrived.
I tried to think of what this would mean for myself, were I to find myself in a similar situation away from family and friends for 11 months of every year, and couldn't wrap my head around the sense of isolation.
A virus compelled millions of migrants to leave our cities earlier this year, and return to homes devoid of electricity, livelihoods, and hope. They did this because they knew how ruthless we could be in urban India. We withhold salaries for maids who fail to turn up when they're ill, chastise watchmen for taking naps at 2 am and expect migrant workers to work well beyond the hours we do, threatening them with the sack if they ever dare to complain.
There has reportedly been a rise in petty crime across the city in the wake of the pandemic. Rising unemployment, coupled with the failure of a government that doesn't understand economics, has created a crisis that will only get worse before it begins to get better.
I have friends in the suburbs who tell me of burglaries and the helplessness of an understaffed police force. They are all being asked to get more watchmen instead, and these unarmed men are now expected to stand at the frontline and take on gangs of thieves so we can sleep a little more soundly.
Our world isn't what it used to be. We need to be more kind, more accommodating, and more sensitive if we are to get through this. Look around and try being in someone else's shoes for a change. Start with your watchman.
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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