A Bitter City

My cousin Faizy, who lives in Kanpur’s infamous Chamanganj neighbourhood describes the city’s residents as “kadwe log” (bitter people). By this he is not referring to the cynical and nihilistic bitterness that is supposed to set in with age and misfortune, rather using local slang for a mixture of hardiness, street smartness and chicanery. Bitter as opposed to the sweet people who live in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

When we came to Delhi after a very hectic two months production schedule in Kanpur last month, there was a sense of relief. Our time in Kanpur was intense; with the crew working feverishly to turn a shoot that was in jeopardy on day zero into a success. We are far from the end still; but at the end of the two months, we felt like the groaning old mills of the city: present but barely functioning.

We were shooting with the-katiyabaaz- electricity thieves in Kanpur, the bitterest of bitter Kanpur stock. They put their lives at risk everyday climbing up electricity poles to attach naked wires in order to provide electricity to households and factories in their areas. Their work is fraught with risk, hearing of a katiyabaaz who got ‘stuck’, due to the strong magnetic pull of high volatage lines is not rare.

The most interesting amongst them was Loha Singh. Loha has been ripping at electricity lines ever since he was 14: cutting electricity carrying cables with his teeth, attaching katiyas to high voltage cables with his bare hands. And he has got the marks to prove it: a number of deep gashes on each of his fingers, and on his back, are reminders of the times that he had got ‘stuck’ to a wire or a transformer.

Loha earns by the day and spends whatever he earns on drinking. He does not want the trouble of marrying (it would oblige him to beat up his wife, an unsavory thought for him), or a sit-down job (unsavory-er). He sleeps on a pushcart and gets up every morning to a breakfast of chewing tobacco. He then fixes his one katiya for the day and heads to the country liquor store to drink until his money runs out.

Certainly looks like Manchester of the East

Loha’s employers are small workshops that have opened up in Kanpur in the aftermath of the nationalized mills closing down. This was in the 1990s, following economic reforms that opened the markets, where one after the other the mils succumbed to bad-planning, government or labour strife. Tens of thousands mill workers became unemployed.

Early morning sirens, meant to announce the beginning of the working day, sound in some of the mills even today. The bitter workers of the past remember with fondness how at dawn and dusk the streets of Kanpur would have phalanxes of workers marching towards and away from the mills, their lunch boxes in hand, humming tunes from the latest Hindi film to hit the talkies.

Today instead of manning the mill floors, they sit in dark holes operating a forlorn machine that would churn out one forlorn part of a finished product that would go out in the global marketplace: elastics for shorts, soles for shoes.

Workers houses, or hathas, were typical of Kanpur’s urban geography: constructed by mill owners to provide single room accommodation for their labour, and put under charge of an overseer. Many were impressive and some even aesthetically pleasing, built around an open courtyard reminiscent of old musafirkhanas and madrasas. Today, they are overflowing; transformed into entire slum neighbourhoods, each single room housing a family and a workshop.

The leather and cotton goods that the hathas churn out today are just as important to the national and international markets as was the loom cloth of a quarter century ago. Brands that adorn malls in Delhi, source cotton and leather from Kanpur, the manufacturers of which outsource smaller operations to these petty workshops. Everyone that I talked to in the city had the same refrain “Kanpur used to be the Manchester of the East…”; misty eyed in the vision of a glorious past. It was eery how everyone used these exact words. Even more eerily, each one of them had the exact words about the condition of their city now: “Hum keeday makaudon ki zindagi jee rahe hain” (we are living the lives of insects).

Kanpur is a workers city running out of ways to keep them working. The electricity crisis has already caused many industries to move out from Kanpur to more energy rich parts of India. Those that stay are a burden on the national grid. Workers have to work day and night, whenever sufficient electricity is available, to ensure that their targets are met, otherwise their families face starvation. The urban migration from the countryside also seems to be giving Kanpur the short shrift, most prefer to go onto Delhi or Lucknow next door to capitalize on the corporate driven growth there. Benefits to workers, when they are sanctioned, rarely reach them.

Those that can afford it buy diesel, and pour it down the throats of monstrous machines that belch out the smog that hangs over Kanpur. It is the city with the highest reported cases of respiratory illnesses in India. A recent W.H.O report puts Kanpur amongst the worst air-polluted cities in the world. In the meantime the malls, symbol of our burgeoning economy, have come to Kanpur too, running exclusively on gigantic electricity generators, which keeps them lit throughout the dark, powerless nights of Kanpur. Loha, on the other hand, is the poor mans electricity generator. Those that cannot afford to buy diesel everyday, hire people like Loha. In Kanpur, that is over 80 percent of the population.

Loha despises rich people. He cannot understand why the people who sleep in ACs cannot pay a few hundred bucks to him for electricity. He therefore extorts them, cutting off their connections at will and demanding money to ‘fix’ it. To the poor households in his own hatha, he supplies electricity for free. Small wonder that the rich feel beleaguered, as they do in the rest of the country, devising all sorts of ways to keep the poor, uneducated out of their lives.

Caught in a web

As the winter sets in there is more electricity for the workers to run their looms and their tanning drums. The rich have stopped using air conditioning and fridges, meaning there is lesser load on the grid. In the summer the city turns into a frying pan. The grab for every bit of available space and monetizing has not helped either. Chicken coup apartment blocks that barely let in any air or light, necessitating the coolers and ACs, have replaced houses built around open courtyards. When there is a power cut at night, people drag their cots out on to the streets to sleep.

Police teams fan out across the city to curb electricity theft. It accounts for more than 30 percent of the losses, putting the electricity supply company in a very tight spot. However, these teams never hit Lohas neighbourhood. Kanpur is a city heavily divided amongst communal lines, and Chamanganj is a Muslim ghetto with a history of violence. The administration calls it a sensitive area. Police are said to be too scared to go into it to control organized crime, let alone realize electricity bills. Loha and his ilk have a free rein here, testified by the web of wires that they have spun over the entire neighbourhood.

The insular nature of the neighbourhood was clear to us. There is not a single bank branch in the area, and none of the addresses here are credit worthy. Grand structures that reflect a glorious past-orphanages, travelers lodges and havelis-seem to be crumbling, reflecting the neglect in the neighbourhood. In their place, new apartment buildings and mosques, several stories high. Once we were filming Loha fixing a katiya, barely an arms distance from an onlooking policeman, stationed there to maintain law and order in the ramazan markets, without a care. It’s a curious administrative setup: a policeman sitting around and watching a thief stealing.

Chamanganj has been a Muslim ghetto since the riots of the early 1990s, when the city’s Muslim population migrated here. Longtime resident and politician Subhashini Ali tells me that since then the administration is only too happy to leave Chamanganj alone. And so it seems are the people living there.

While preparing to shoot in Chamanganj, we were warned by hundreds of people about how dangerous the place and its residents are. I was born in this ‘sensitive area’, and the problems that we encountered were largely limited to over-curious onlookers and my father’s childhood friends who often came to ask me about the well being of my parents.

As we wrapped up shooting the Kanpuri’s asked Maria, our Austrian crew member, why she came to their powerless, waterless city. Do you want to observe our lives, or find out what it feels like to live like us? Maria replied saying that perhaps in Kanpur she experienced a life different from her own. They were pleased. In some one’s eyes, if not their own, they were not being considered keeday-makaude.

And yet, almost inexplicably, Kanpur is one of the highest revenue generators for Uttar Pradesh, the biggest and one of the most impoverished state in India. It’s workshops and factories supply the country with tailored cloth and the world with leather shoes and bags. How does a city living an infrastructural nightmare manage to do this? Perhaps it’s the bitterness that my cousin glorifies- the grit required to keep going on.

POWERLESS Teaser2: Katiya from Maria Trieb on Vimeo.

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