blessed the tanner who dyed the skin. – Amarjit Chandan
My ancestral village is Mehatpur, near Nakodar. I am over 50 years. I have studied till the fourth standard. I could have studied further, but my brothers had me leave school to go to Calcutta; my father had been working there for 20 years. I worked there for 10 years. When our father died, we moved to Malerkotla. We used to have our own business but we had to shut it down because of the losses. Although this profession is lucrative, there are risks too. If our stock is full and the market falls, it becomes hard. One can even earn 20-25 thousand a month, but the losses incurred could go up to 50 thousand.
There used to be 50 tanneries in Malerkotla, but only 7 are left now. One cannot establish this work under 4-5 lakhs. We work for someone else for 300 Rupees a day. It is less, but we are not under any pressure. It is almost like being your own boss, you can finish according to your convenience.
We buy the leather, coat it with salt and let it stay. We use a scraper to clean the hair. Then we put the leather in the lime slurry tank, it whitens the leather, we have to put sodium in the lime slurry too. It takes 6 days to wash. You have to take the leather out of the lime slurry every day, wash it and put it back in. When the leather whitens, we stitch together different pieces and put into the coloring tank. The process to prepare the color is different. It is made from mixing water with the powdered bark of acacia tree. The leather is taken out of the coloring tank and hung on a line, then we keep putting the colored water on it. It takes 12 to 15 days to color it. Finished leather takes 21 days.
The water is filtered from the pores of buffalo leather and gets collected under the line. If you drink this water, it is a remedy for whooping cough. People come and pack it for themselves. Around five to eight people come daily for this purpose. Yet, the pollution control board is after us without any reason. We ask them to prove anything wrong with the water and they are unable to do so.
We have been asked to pay taxes too. The tax rate is the same for big factories and small tanneries like ours. We do not work on machines, we work with our hands. We started at five in the morning, and we have not been able to rest. We have to put 8 pieces a day and we are done. It takes longer to process the leather in the winters since the water is cold, and it does not dry easily either. The body gets numb with cold. We cannot wear clothes. We have to clean the hands and feet with mild sulphuric acid to get rid of the stench. We put little acid in a liter of water to clean. It does not clean completely but the rubbish is cleaned off, and the stench goes away. The nails are blackened. It requires a 15 day-break to become normal. But we have not been able to take such a long leave.
We worship all gods, but Saint Ravidas is our patron. This scraper was used by Saint Ravidas as well. He is the one who started this profession. We have been working in this profession for three to four generations, but we are the last. Our children won’t do this work.
Interview: Satdeep Gill
Photographs: Gurdeep Dhaliwal
Writing: Jasdeep Singh
Edits: Sangeet Toor