Dhobis, delivery men, chai stall owners: A new Insta series shifts the spotlight

When colleagues joke about quitting their jobs to start a vada pav or chai stall, it always annoys Balram Vishwakarma. “I grew up in a slum and I know what people in such professions go through, even when it comes to basic things such as taking time off, affording healthcare or surviving the monsoon,” he says.

Why is this such a common joke, then? In Mumbai, it’s vada pav stalls; in Delhi, it’s driving a rickshaw; in Bengaluru, it’s being an Uber driver or a Swiggy delivery person. The sense that these professions allow for greater autonomy, flexible hours and an easier pace of life is, to Vishwakarma, not just inaccurate but dismissive. So he set out to offer an alternative narrative, something he has some experience doing.

Vishwakarma, 28, a creative writer, is also founder of @AndheriWestShitposting, an Instagram account that has 111,000 followers for posts that range from commentary on general news to hyperlocal neighbourhood updates and pet peeves about the Mumbai suburb of Andheri West.

Vishwakarma grew up in a Jogeshwari slum. ‘I know what people in such professions go through, even when it comes to basic things such as affording healthcare or surviving the monsoon,’ he says.
Vishwakarma grew up in a Jogeshwari slum. ‘I know what people in such professions go through, even when it comes to basic things such as affording healthcare or surviving the monsoon,’ he says.

Now, in a new series on his personal handle (@balramvishwakarma), he is offering quick takes on what it’s really like to be a gig worker, a small-business owner, or part of the massive informal sector in Mumbai. How do dhobis balance their budgets? How do rickshaw drivers deal with inflation? Vishwakarma has published 11 interviews so far, and has a list of 50 trades that he would like to cover.

His first post, about autorickshaw driver Mohan Lal Yadav, went up in May, five months after he started work on the project. Yadav, 45, from Bhadohi in Uttar Pradesh, has been a rickshaw driver for 22 years. He works six days a week, and earns about 700 a day. He makes a profit of about 7,150 a month.

In Mumbai, he lives in a 120-sq-ft room with three others, and pays 1,500 a month in rent. After accounting for electricity, food, water and other expenses, he is left with a little under 3,500, which he sends home to his wife, four children and his father.

Only about one in every 20 people Vishwakarma approaches wants to talk about their lives in this kind of granular detail. Gig workers for delivery and ride-hailing platforms are generally disallowed from speaking to the media, so some images are posted with faces blurred and names changed.

Vishwakarma grew up in a Jogeshwari slum, with a father who ran a steel fabrication unit, a homemaker mother and seven sisters. It was only last year that he, his mother and his younger sister moved out of the slum and into a rented two-bedroom flat. Even with his direct exposure to Mumbai struggles, listening to some of the stories was upsetting, he says.

A housemaid spoke of losing her husband nearly a decade ago and working to support her two sons and her mother-in-law. She earns 10,000 for eight hours of work a day, seven days a week; she has no savings.

A cigarette vendor with five children, who sells on streets and at traffic signals at night, spoke of physical abuse at the hands of drunk buyers and policemen. He spoke with grief of how, at least four times, he’d had his entire stock of cigarettes stolen. “Sometimes I feel like leaving this job but I have done this work for 14 years. I cannot really switch,” he told Vishwakarma.

Most of these professions exist only as stereotypes in the public imagination, perhaps the worst of these stereotypes being the idea that these people have stashes of hidden wealth and make a killing by paying no taxes. So his is also a social project, Vishwakarma says, an attempt at visibilisation, grounded in raw data from real lives.

Fact-checking is therefore a crucial step. An interview with a dosa-stall owner had to be scrapped after the data he offered didn’t add up, he says.

Compensation is vital too. “Everyone’s data and time are important to them.” Since interviews can take from 30 to 90 minutes, Vishwakarma pays his interviewees between 500 and 2,000 in exchange for their time and participation. Much of this funding comes from informal donations. In each post, he acknowledges donors contributing to this project.

It strikes him, Vishwakarma says, that in all this, he is living his dream while his subjects don’t have dreams of their own. When he asks about their dream life or dream profession, the answer is often the same: “No one has ever asked me this before”. “The idea doesn’t exist in their lives and that is a sad thing,” Vishwakarma says. “Dreams are free, and yet no one told them that they were allowed.”

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