A Dozen New Families And Construction Noise

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 5, 2008

NEW DELHI -- One morning, I awoke to find that we had 60 new neighbors. And most of them had brought their own sledgehammers.

They were laborers hired to knock down a three-story house of reinforced cement and build a grander one in its place.

Our days and nights have been filled with noise: pounding hammers and yelling. Occasional shouting matches have broken out. There has been a lot of dust and general tumult, along with power outages and crashing sounds at dawn.

In India, construction workers and their families usually dwell next to building sites, often in tent cities known in Hindi as jhuggis. That is true even in our leafy neighborhood, where about a dozen families live amid the ruins of the house they have been knocking down.

For months, I had been noticing that the jhuggis were everywhere. They seem to accompany the symbols of progress in India. Shopping mall. Jhuggi. Corporate office park. Jhuggi. Luxury high-rise. Jhuggi.

Visitors see them from the air as their planes descend into New Delhi and Mumbai. Most Indians don't like them to be so visible, but where else are people going to live, they ask. Airport. Jhuggi.

In a country of 1.1 billion people, there's not enough housing to go around. If the new India is five-star hotels and state-of-the-art call centers, the old India is camping. The two exist side by side. Hyatt hotel. Across the street, you guessed it, jhuggi.

When I first arrived in India more than a year ago, I was surprised to see so many jhuggis in Gurgaon, a boomtown suburb of New Delhi, with shopping malls, call centers and gated condominiums with names such as "Santa Barbara Marina" or "Beverly Hills."

When my husband and I need an occasional "America" day -- a reminder of home -- we go to Gurgaon, about an hour's drive from New Delhi, usually in a thick snarl of traffic. Two of our favorite places are Ruby Tuesday and T.G.I. Friday's, where Indian waiters -- in cowboy hats and denim vests with smiley-face buttons -- push nachos, grilled chicken burgers and happy-hour margaritas.

From the windows of some of the Western-style restaurants, diners can see the jhuggis -- the two Indias on either side of an economic chasm. A margarita costs more than two days' pay. A pair of jeans is nearly three months' earnings.

"Being poor is a curse. You can't have a job that brings you joy," said Sumedha, 35, who moved here from the countryside to work on a construction site. I met her one afternoon after interviewing many of the workers' children, who were studying at a mobile day-care center opened by a nonprofit group. She was angry, hot, frustrated and smart. She said she would have been a teacher or a nurse had she been able to go to school.

"The sun is like fire on my head," she said. "But we really don't have a choice. Maybe our children will do better."

After a few weeks, I became curious about the workers next door. I wondered what a typical day was like for them.

One afternoon, I met a 34-year-old woman who seemed always to be carrying a basket of dirt on her head. She said she moved here from Bihar, one of India's poorest states. She was from a low-caste family.

After she moved to New Delhi, she renamed herself Lakshmi, after the Hindu goddess of wealth.

She smiled widely, her mouth full of rotting teeth, and covered her face with her scarf, her plastic bangles jangling as she giggled.

"I'm a poor woman, not rich," she said as she shooed her toddler away from a pile of rubble. "But my name can be anything. So I picked wealth."

As her neighbor, I notice a rhythm to her days. She is up before dawn and puts in a morning shift hauling dirt before the sun gets too hot. She bathes in her sari. She uses water from a blue plastic barrel at the corner of the site. She dips her tin pitcher and douses herself to rinse off the soap.

She takes a long break in the afternoon to breast-feed her 9-month-old son. Along with everyone else at the site, she works past sundown and often well into the night.

Sometimes when I'm up late writing, I hear the workers loading the day's rubble onto a dump truck, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning. While others sleep, they are building the new India.

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