(Photo: Amanda Allen)

When majboori met mazdoori

The story of every informal daily wage worker in the developing world.

I wake up each morning yearning for a new experience and to embrace my to-do list. There is no denying that I am in love with my job. It’s the kind of job where you ‘don’t work a day in your life’. Every now and then, however, I realise that there are lessons I am not quite equipped to handle.

It’s a beautiful rainy morning at my studio in Delhi. A gentleman barely 5 feet tall walks in. He is here to talk about the opening for the teacher’s position at the MasterG skill development training centre soon to be launched.

Interviews for potential teachers last several hours at MasterG HQ, and sometimes more than a day because we like to ensure that they have the right knowledge, temperament and interpersonal skills to conduct classes that meet our high standards. While it takes up a whole lot of precious time, it is most rewarding and joyful because there is storytelling, debating, experience sharing, patternmaking and sewing. The not-so-fun part though, is hearing about the misery industry-veterens experience at all stages of their careers owing to the notoriously exploitative nature of the fashion industries of the developing world.

The reason I am writing this piece is to share the story of one Mr. Khan, who was once a young accidental migrant to Delhi from Bharatpur, Rajasthan in the 80’s when ‘bell bottoms’ were the rage. Back then, “Shirts were so tight!”, he laughs. “We needn’t have incoporated any ease at all and plackets pealed around the belly”, he gestures around his own. In the name of fashion, he sewed hundreds, one after another. Times were good and the money was in abundance. Fifty years old today, he has 4 children, one married and 3 in school. He lives in an informal housing settlement in the city far away from his hometown and extended family. His monthly income is unpredictable because he is on a piece wage, relying on the erratic orders coming in from overseas corporations routed through contractors and fabricators. The assembly line system of manufacturing is now prevelant. Millions have now turned ‘jack of all but master of only one’ part of the garment that they sew in hundreds per day. There are many like him, who pursued this skill growing up; first as a hobby and soon after to augment the family income. They learnt at stores thier forefathers ran in the village or at neighbourhood workshops. Such lessons are only learnt in the field, the hard way.

This is a heart wrenching story because during the course of the day, he chose to refer to himself as a ‘mazdoor’, which is a commonly used word in India for a daily wage labourer who is usually uneducated and unskilled. These individuals or families tend to migrate to the city hunting for better opportunities and rarely do they emerge prosperously from this dark abyss. If they possess no education or skill (and I am not including farming, knitting, crochet etc.) they become domestic workers to exploitative middle or upper class homes in the city or construction workers. Few like him land sought after full-time jobs with benefits like health care.

It is uncanny how perfect dejected Mr. Khan is, for the job role I am looking to fill for our first rural MasterG fashion design skill development classroom. These are big shoes to fill. With his patience and resilience, he could train upwards of 100 women a year who will be able to make patterns, sew and cut fabric as long as he generously shares his knowledge and experience that took him decades to amass. Once he passes on these skills, the ladies will be spared the trouble of wasting away years of their lives running errands for their industry mentors in exchange for some knowledge, shared sporadically. Most women from ‘respectful’ families don’t enjoy that luxury or freedom anyhow. Mr. K would probably have never met these women in his life given the complicated web of social structures one must tackle in India but thankfully, now we have MasterG to take care of that. Passing on the oral traditions and skill reserved only for the khandaani darzi, in a classroom setting where there is structure is the only way to immortalise it.

I am most grateful to destiny because Mr. K came over today. Now, he must no longer call himself a mazdoor because by the end of his day-long interview, I am convinced that he has what it takes to be a good teacher. He doesnt know this yet, but I have already imagined him teaching a bunch of exuberant ladies. So overwhelmed with the respect he has been given this day for his skill, his last words before he left the studio were that he would never give me the opportunity to be dissatisfied with his duties and responsiblities as a teacher.

Everyone must now refer to him as Khan Sir, professor sahab or mister Khan. Dignity feeds the soul.

— GJ, MasterG