Life on the edge

February 18th, 201112:55 pm @


Workers dye clothes in a Noida village.

In a small dye works outside Delhi, guys in lungis are hard at it soaking, spinning and drying clothes. As they empty old bathtubs full of water for the next batch, the ground floods with water stained a deep indigo blue. An old washing machine provides the means to spin the bulk of the water from the clothes, which are then lobbed to a guy on the roof, where women get busy hanging them out to dry.

The dye works are in a village on the outskirts of Noida, a satellite city southwest of Delhi built as part of India’s push to urbanise in the 1970s. It’s a place with a fetchingly functional title – named for the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority.

Once a series of villages, it’s now home to sprawling residential developments, much of Delhi’s media and its film industry. Along with Delhi’s other satellite city, Gurgaon, it’s the shiny – actually, dusty – new face of India’s urban development.

However, we weren’t here to see that side of things. We’d ventured across the Yamuna River to accompany one of my wife’s journalism students, who was interviewing local villagers still living on the outskirts of the city.

The village we were visiting was on the edge of one of Noida’s “sectors” – the city’s suburbs have equally functional names: “sector 29”, “sector 50” – making it sound like something from Æon Flux or Gattaca, but without Charlize Theron or Uma Thurman.

The village was a series of tight alleys along what was once-upon-a-time a stream, but was now a sewer/rubbish dump/stray dog feeding area/kids’ playground. The people here had lived where Noida now stands, but “sold” their land and been moved to what looked like emergency accommodation.

My wife’s student struck up a conversation with a group of women cutting up cabbage leaves by the side of the noisome stream. As they talked, the local kids started appearing, slowly at first, but then with increasing boldness they gathered around to see who the hell these strangers were. After a while they became bored with adults just talking and retired to a charpoy to wait, just in case anything interesting happened.

They eventually became our guides through the village. Whenever we’d stop to interview someone, they’d disappear into the distance, playing games until they saw us move on, when they’d come running back to guide us further.

Just inside the village was a row of brick huts, with kitchens set up out front along a dirt path. Further on, welders had set up shop next to some mechanics; we’d reached the industrial quarter. Guys using an oxyacetylene torch were cutting metal – eye masks optional – while an incongruously placed tractor provided a resting spot for a local water buffalo.

And so we went, led randomly through the village by the local kids, past their temple, into empty schools with their wooden benches askew, cast aside in the previous day’s exodus of students. At one school the head teacher – there to supervise some Sunday repairs – called us into her office, which gave me flashbacks to primary school and Sister Elaine. Were we going to get six of the best?

Rather than pulling out the cane, she pulled out some chairs and invited us for a chat. The three of us crowded into her small office, which was adorned with various teaching aides – a poster of a cross-section of soil, a model of a solar eclipse. The doors of the grey steel cabinets along one wall were covered in posters of Indian freedom fighters.

While the head teacher and my wife’s student chatted, I quietly excused myself and went out into the bright sunshine, where the local kids, now joined by the kids who had been helping out at the school, were sitting around – bored again with all this talking.

Eventually our guides led us through a gate and out of the village. Like popping through the wardrobe we’d suddenly entered a new world, which could have been anywhere in Delhi – modern three-storey houses, brand new cars, manicured gardens.

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