Raji’s balcony looks out over the roof of the building next door. This building is a simple South Indian restaurant where I often go for breakfast or an evening meal. In the early mornings and late afternoons, I see people sleeping on this roof. I recognise them. They work in the restaurant. They’re the waiters and young boys who clear the tables. I can’t help but be fascinated by this. Why do they sleep on the roof? It is cooler to sleep outside but the sheets of corrugated iron that make up the roof can’t be a comfortable bed. Also, there is a lot of traffic noise and pollution, with a flyover running just metres away. But I am often surprised at some people’s capacity in India to sleep just anywhere. I often come across people fast asleep by the side of the road. Sometimes I pause to see if they’re breathing but I seem to be the only person who notices these destitute people.
I imagine these young boys sleep on the roof because they have no other place to sleep. Maybe they have come from other towns and villages in Tamil Nadu to Chennai to look for work. Maybe they had a friend from the same village working in the restaurant who helped them get a job there.
They start work early, once the restaurant opens at 6am. Maybe some of them work in the kitchen, helping to prepare the idli batter or coconut chutney. Some work as waiters. They serve me a stainless steel tumbler of water and bring me the menu. They switch on the ceiling fan over my table. They often don’t understand me when I order a dish because my accent is unfamiliar to them, even though I’m only saying ‘rava idli’ or ‘masala dosa’. When I’m finished eating, one of the younger boys in shorts and bare feet will come along with a plastic basin and collect the dirty metal dishes, dropping them in the basin with a clang. They observe me with as much curiosity as I observe them.
They must make very little money. Not enough to rent a room or even a bed. Maybe they send home the little money they make. They have their meals once the customers are gone. In the afternoons when the restaurant is quiet, they have some time off. They go back up to the roof and have a nap, have a smoke or just watch the world go by. Until it’s time to go back to work.