My Life In Labour

By Sunita K. as told to Devyani Nighoskar

Uttar Pradesh, India — Child-led story

On a warm summer day, as I meticulously plucked the wheat harvest; the malik (boss) yelled out my name from the outskirts of the field—asking me to see him immediately. Nervous, I wiped the sweat off my forehead and rushed to him. I knew that he was angry at me because I had forgotten to tie back the goats after feeding them. They had wandered into the field and destroyed some of the crops. As the malik rambled through his wrath, I zoned out the casteist slurs he threw at me and glimpsed at his children who were coming back from school. They hardly paid attention to me—a 13-year-old girl who worked as a daily wage labourer at their father’s farm. Their father, surprisingly, had been kind enough to not cut my wage over my carelessness. I did not bother much about him or his scolding. The goats, however, deserved to wander free. 

Freedom is a complex concept, especially when your life has been laid down for you from the very beginning—no questions asked. The day my mother passed away, was my last day at school. I was 8 and had to fill in her shoes. Immediately, I learned to make tea, cook daal, make round rotis and take care of my 4-year-old brother and 5-year-old sister. 

In between the chores, I worked a job tending to cattle in a nearby shed. The little money and some harvest that I got as remuneration supplemented my father’s meagre income as a landless labourer. I was proud of myself, as was my father. He was happy that I was able to help out with groceries and some clothes for my siblings with the INR 70 ($1), I got as my wage. Within a few years when I started working in the fields, my father told me that I was his son and not his daughter.

I hardly realised the embedded patriarchy in that compliment then. I was also afraid to speak up when the male labourers, that then also included my brother, got paid more for the same nature and amount of work. It angered me that, unlike us, not many men have to go back home and do domestic chores. I guess, women’s work and agency are undervalued everywhere. I felt it the most when I turned 16 and had an arranged marriage. Rumours in the village suggested that my soon-to-be husband was not a good man. I protested, but only a bit. The decision had been made. The rumours were true.

I continued working in the fields post my marriage. I had to work harder because my husband spent most of our money on alcohol. If I refused to give him my money, he would beat me up. Had I left him, I would have brought shame to my father and our village. So I stayed. Soon we moved to a bigger town for more employment opportunities. I found a job as domestic help and my husband started working as a cleaner. Within a few years, I had two children. I wanted them to study and make a life for themselves that was different from ours. Importantly I wanted them to have a ‘normal’ childhood.

Funnily, when I was a child I didn’t think my childhood was not normal. At that moment, I was happy and busy responding to the needs that demanded me. You’re telling me that child labour is illegal? That is news to me. Nobody told us. No one came to check. But I guess it makes sense. Watching my children grow up, I knew putting them into work was not morally right.

I was happy that we were able to send them to school. Fortunately, living in a bigger town meant we had access to better schemes and a more functional public education system that was free. Education was the priority and this was one of the very few things my husband and I agreed upon. 

I wish now, that I had gone to school beyond third grade. I would have become a teacher.  I loved Hindi literature and reading stories to my siblings. I did attend some free adult classes being run by a charity, a few years ago. I learned to write my name and also took on stitching as a skill. But in today’s world, that’s not enough, is it?

But for the first time in my life, what does seem to be enough is money. It is hardly anything but gets us by, maybe because I have finally gotten my husband to give up alcohol. My daughter has finished high school and is happily married. She chooses not to work. My son has a cleaning job at the municipality. We encouraged him to go to university after he turned 18, but he wanted to get a job. I am not too happy about it. But I am happy we give him the freedom to make his own decisions—the freedom, I was denied as a child.

But I guess I was never a child, was I?

I am 50-years-old now. I am a hard-working woman who has been working for the last 42 years. My body is exhausted but I have to continue working to maintain the life that I have worked so hard for. In this informal, unorganised sector, we do not have retirement pensions or benefits. 

They don’t realise that most of us know that we are systematically being pushed into the same cycle of caste, class and capitalism induced poverty. They never want us to break out of it. 

But in a small way, I have found a way to rupture this cycle, by making sure my children never worked at the expense of their education before they turned 18. Perhaps, when they are slightly more well-settled, I can depend on them and relax—have a little bit of my childhood back. But as of now, I have to get back to work.