by Professor Shirin M. Rai

The time, the effort, organization, risk and anxiety that accompanies travel is often overlooked in analyses of work. So, how do we study the small in the big? How do I, as a political economist bring the tools of my trade to bear on the question of travel, time, and labour? Addressing this issue, I have begun a small project on the everyday routines of women in New Delhi. Based on a project on working lives – at home and in the labour market, unpaid and paid – the idea is to develop a narrative data set of working lives and the challenges they face. This matters because it will allow us to analyze human stories of labour and depletion, of rewards and alienation, of what works and what doesn’t and cannot work in terms of personal strategies of survival as well as of thriving for those engaged in social reproductive work in the city.

Her typical day entails waking up at 6am, making tea and breakfast for the whole family, and getting her daughter ready for school. The daughter leaves at 7:15am and she leaves for work soon after. She works at one house and another one as a temporary replacement. She is usually back by 12 noon to pick up her children and do housework.

Depending upon the route she takes, it can take her either 27 minutes, 26 minutes or 22 minutes to reach work. Given the household responsibilities, she chooses the shortest route. Google map cautions that the route ‘may involve errors or sections not suited for walking’ – the reason for this is that the shortest route involves both sectioned off areas and areas that are a health hazard.

She doesn’t carry an umbrella. On asking she says that her brother-in-law keeps losing them so she’s stopped buying new ones. She gets drenched in the rain, and hot under the sun before she reaches work, or on her way back. She then scales the fence and comes into the colony. This is apparently the route all domestic workers in that area take to come to their place of work; it saves them 5 minutes walking, which is important to reach the place of work on time.

She cleans the house and waters the plants. Then she washes the clothes in the machine and puts them to dry. She reaches the next house. She spends a little more than two hours at that house. She washes utensils first. Then she cleans the house (sweeping, mopping, dusting etc). She puts the washed utensils into their respective places and she’s done. After work she starts back home – taking the same route as before.

Because she is working only two houses, and because she works close to home, she has primary responsibility for the housework – cooking, cleaning, and encouraging her children to study. In these pictures, she looks tired and anxious; she hardly smiles.

This story is an everyday tale of drudgery of work, which also includes the walk to work through inhospitable landscapes, arriving at work already distressed (given her soaking in the rain) and going back home exhausted to work some more – work that is not counted by either the family or the state as work. Work that subsidises capital, and depletes those who stretch their day to accommodate both paid and unpaid work. Travel adds to this depletion – it also not counted.

What Meera’s day shows us is how social relations get inscribed in the sweat and exhaustion, in anxiety and sometimes terror of everyday travel – all that does not really count. It is neither ‘work’ nor is it not work; travelling to work is the in between space and time of neoliberal exploitation.