20 January 2008

We spent more time talking about how to deal with the local mafia in Kuruchikuppam and Vaitikuppam over the last few days than in actually moving the furniture and household goods this morning. Lata Iyer’s parents were moving into a half-finished house in Kuruchikuppam, a neighborhood just to the north of French town in Pondicherry, inhabited by a fishing community on the coast. Recently, the fishermen had begun organizing to form an informal “coolie” union – they would load and unload anything that needed to be moved in their area – for an exorbitant price – quick and easy drinking money. Lata had experienced one such incident when she tried to have a truckload of granite and marble unloaded. Men appeared out of nowhere, demanding that they do the work. Their fee was so high that the truck was taken out of the neighborhood and brought back in the middle of the night and unloaded very quietly.

How do we get around this? Bhupi suggested that Lata use his crew, who are from the same community, but with whom he has negotiated preferential, frequent customer rates. But we really didn’t need a full crew, since most of the truck would be filled with household items and could be done by two or three people. Besides, the trucker comes with two if his men – that would be enough. What if we told them that we were unloading all the items ourselves and were not employing any hired labor? Should we do it at night or early in the morning? …

Finally, we decided to try our luck in the morning, while the fishermen we out at sea. We set off a little bit later than planned (the truck went to the wrong meeting point); stopped at the rented house in Bharti Nagar to pick up a few things, then to Lata and Prashant’s in Auroville to pick up the rest of the items. We left Auroville, fully loaded, by 10:15am. A little late… “Maybe they’ll be sleeping in after drinking last night” said Puru, hopefully…

We stopped the truck at the entrance to Kuruchikuppam to tell the two helpers to make themselves scarce, but it was too late. Two men were already at each door of the truck, asking where it was going. Another got on his cell phone to alert the gang. As we approached the compound, which had a gate, I asked Puru why we couldn’t just close the gate and not let the fishermen in. “They’ll just climb over the gate and come in anyway – no one can stop them.”

The truck had just turned off its engine when seven men (different from the sentries posted at the entrance to Kuruchikuppam) marched up and started demanding the work. Puru explained to them that this was our stuff, and we weren’t employing anyone else to unload it – we were doing it ourselves. In fact, it was going to be Puru and three other women. “Where are you from?” They demanded. “Maharashtra” replied Puru. “How would you like it if we came to your place and took work away from you?” Puru explained that we wouldn’t mind hiring them if they charged reasonable rates, but since they were trying to extort us, we were doing the work ourselves.

To illustrate that point, I jumped in the truck and started unloading the smaller items. By then, Lata’s parents had arrived by auto rickshaw, and they got involved in the argument. One of the men appealed to Lata’s mother: “This man [pointing at Puru] shows up at all these occasions and tries to disrupt our livelihood.” I started handing things to Lata’s parents, and they gamely took them to the house as Puru continued to negotiate. One of the guys kept gesturing at me to stop, but he didn’t dare come too close to me since I was a foreigner. They kept telling Puru to tell me to stop. Then Lata arrived on her motorcycle and joined the frey. She made the mistake of calling them goondas. “Goonda?” they asked – they didn’t understand the Hindi term. “Rowdie” explained Lata (who is Tamilian). Well, that set them off. Insulted, they started arguing more vehemently than before. Then Maya arrived on her scooter, and she and Lata started carrying things to the house as I handed the items off the truck.

In the end, the “rowdie” group split into two camps: one that agreed that there was nothing they could do to stop people from unloading their own things, and another that didn’t want to allow it. The first group won out, but not without one of the other group picking up a rock just outside the gate and threatening to throw it at Puru, who just stood there looking at him.

They were finally defeated by 1) our number – including Lata’s parents, there were 6 of us, 2) the fact that most of us were women, 3) a foreigner among the group, and 4) the knowledge (somehow) that Puru had connections with the local police.

After the rowdies left, the driver of the truck snuck back in and helped with two of the heavy items – a metal cabinet and a stone and metal grinder.  The total cost of the truck, including the two guys who helped us load was Rs. 1,100 (US$ 28.21) for the three hour, multiple stop move.  The rowdies would have charged at least Rs. 2,000 (US$51.28) for just 15 minutes of work.


3 Responses to “Rowdies”

  1. 1 Ahmed Azhad March 27, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    Good to hear that they didn’t get their way. 🙂

  2. 2 yoomilee March 30, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    Thanks Ahmed! We have since moved a few more things into that house with no problems.

  3. 3 Salt Lake City countertops August 4, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Nice article. I like and I can relate to it. 🙂

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