At a ramshackle garage near Deshapriya Park in south Kolkata, we meet Kishore Paswan and Parameshwar Naskar. Paswan estimates he should be in his late 20s, Naskar is 19. Both work in the garage for four-wheelers. Paswan’s 13 years of work experience make him the senior-most mechanic at the garage, which has been around for 20 years; Naskar’s four years make him the junior-most, one who completes the odd job when not doing small-time repair work. Both started out as interns in the garage in their mid-teens.
Having helped Paswan haul up an engine of a taxi, Naskar’s hands are greasy. The engine is left hanging to a heavy iron beam; burnt black oil drips from it into the front cavity of the yellow taxi. Naskar carelessly wipes his oily fingers with a greasy piece of cloth and goes back to the blazing kerosene stove he was manning a few minutes ago: There’ll be rice, dal and potato curry for lunch. The hint of diesel, he jokes when asked, might add to the taste of the food. “The first thing one has to learn when working in a motor garage," Naskar says from his own multitasking experience, “is to cook."
When Paswan joined the motor-repairing business, two square meals a day is what he remembers receiving in lieu of a salary. It was a good beginning in the big city for the teenager. His father was finding it difficult to make ends meet as a landless cultivator in their village in Bihar. Today Paswan earns ₹ 4,000 per month, and gets his meals at the garage.
For Naskar, his job description also includes cooking for the three other workers at the garage. In his village in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district, he had studied till class IX before dropping out. His father didn’t have the means to buy him textbooks and Naskar tired of school. Four years ago, he started working in the garage at a monthly stipend of ₹ 50, with meals. Today, Naskar says with a satisfied grin that he earns ₹ 1,000 a month and knows the complex work of dismantling and reassembling a car engine.
The two are part of the bustling unorganized roadside business of car repairing in Kolkata: grungy garages that offer quick-fix, low-cost solutions for all kinds of four-wheeler problems. The garages have held on though business has taken a hit from the proliferation of authorized service centres of car manufactures, bribe-sniffing police and escalating costs.
Many a time, the meagre infrastructure of the polythene- and thatch-roofed shanties that double up as garages is also inadequate against the city’s heavy monsoon. The leaking ceilings often force the garage workers—many of them children—to take shelter in the Sumos and Civics that come for repair. It is a relationship between man and machine that is functional, dynamic and mutually valuable: The cars drive the workers’ families.
We get an idea of this association when Naskar draws out a palm-sized fan from the interiors of the garage. The fan is the kind one often finds whirling inside the Ambassador cars of government officials. Naskar and Paswan use it to keep themselves cool at night during the hot summer, a car battery being used to keep the fan running. The two sleep in the garage: a rickety ladder leading to the small bamboo-supported loft where their beds and mosquito nets are rolled up. The loft overlooks the soot-stained heart of the garage, its grimy floor and the innards of cars strewn all over the place.
As a child, Naskar loved sketching landscapes, even unseen images of snow-capped mountains and streams. As a teen, for three years, he even taught younger children in his village drawing without charging.
In the garage, he finds no inspiration to take up watercolours again. But he is a happy man: With the ₹ 1,000 he gets as salary, Naskar has been able to keep his younger sister in school. She is in class IX now, the same class from which Naskar had dropped out. In the ramshackle garage that services the shiniest of sedans, an Indian paradox endures.
(Soham Gupta is a documentary photographer living in Kolkata. The featured photographs are from Car Mechanics, a series shot in garages across Kolkata. It is part of a long-term project on workers in West Bengal.)