“That’s my house over there near the bend in the river,” exclaimed 13-year-old Mukesh as a Google Earth image came into focus on his friend’s cellphone. Excited to recognise familiar signposts – the police station, the temple and the bridge – their fingers scrolled the map, taking turns to zoom in and out and compare this new bird’s-eye view with the remembered images from their village.

A pall of homesick melancholy hangs over the 15-metre-stretch of arcaded pavement at the beginning of Nai Sarak (New Street). For one more night, this unlit corner deep inside Chawri Bazaar, Old Delhi’s wholesale paper market, will play host to Mukesh and the all-male group of 45-odd migrant workers, a thousand kilometres from their homes in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. They are part of the scores of jhalli-wallahs, manual workers, who do the heavy-lifting of goods and move them from trucks to shops, from godowns and warehouses to bicycle-carts and box-autos that ferry them to the railway station.

Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan

On Nai Sarak, the debris of hoardings and shop signages pulled down by municipality staff in response to a Supreme Court order to clear the pavement of squatters, hawkers and hoardings have been neatly swept away. So too, the polyester sacks, bits of string and rope, packaging material for paper rolls and files. Bedrolls and personal belongings – change of clothes, food supplies, pots and pans – emerge from nooks and crannies everywhere. The comforting buzz of kerosene stoves fills the air and men and boys in smaller groups of four or five cook themselves modest meals. On offer every day except Sunday is a modest meal of lentils, rice and a vegetable, washed down with a glass of hot milk to build strength for the coming day of toil.

Other stretches of Chawri Bazaar are similarly inhabited by groups from West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Every arcade, alcove and alley of this Mughal Kasbah and erstwhile courtesans’ quarter is claimed. But speculation is rife in the group as to how long it can hold down the already precarious squatting rights over the pavement. The court order came hot on the heels of a massive sealing drive that put numerous small traders and a sizeable portion of Delhi’s unorganized labourers out of work, not to speak of the disruptive demonetisation policy of the Modi government some 19 months earlier that proved calamitous for the poor all over the country. “We are the sarvahaara: the ones who have lost everything,” said Masterji, his voice rising as he stops stirring his dal on the stove. “We are the defeated. We are at the mercy of any and every one. When all hope is lost, we look to the sky for help.”

Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan

“The floods in our parts of Bihar have prepared us to be on the move,” said the brawny and reticent Ramnath, clarifying what Masterji, the eldest and most learned man in his group meant. “When you have to live under a tarpaulin tent on the side of National Highway 57 or on one of the embankments that rise above the raging Bagmati river during monsoon, you learn to pack up your things quickly and move to safety.” Masterji’s seemingly elusive reference to the helicopters of the National Disaster Response Force that drop down food rations during the annual cycle of floods, it turned out, was common-speak and an image everyone from his part of the country carried with them.

Masterji got his title from his short tenure as a primary school teacher back in his village of Pirauchha, which is where most men on this bit of pavement hail from. Though he avoids talking about the exact circumstances that lost him his respectable job, the younger men often use his example to show the strange ways a man’s fortune can suddenly turn.

Ramnath and his aloof band of four friends from Assiya Jarang, a village 5 kilometres away from Pirauchha, work further down the market, claimed mostly by migrant men from eastern Uttar Pradesh. But they return to stay the night with the rest of the group.

In the afternoons, when work thins out, they can be seen sitting in wait under the more ornate arcades of the recently shut down Jamia Hotel, where the bazaar empties out to Jama Masjid’s hulk of red stone, looming like an oil tanker’s hull. With their closely cropped hair, crumpled light cotton shirts and tobacco-stained mouths, they could be sailors from another time. Indeed, these men are only the latest in a long line of migrant ancestors from the Gangetic plain, who crossed the seas to reach Mauritius, or as far as Trinidad and Tobago, when British colonialists in the 1830s substituted slaves with indentured labourers on sugarcane plantations.

Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan

For generations, floods in the Himalayan rivers of sorrow such as Bagmati, Gandak and Kosi have caused the outward flow of people from Bihar’s plains. Thanks to short-sighted engineering interventions and corrupt political dispensations that have pilfered funds meant for flood control, the situation has worsened over the years and the numbers of displaced people have only swelled.

An older idea of a dam on the Bagmati, near Sitamarhi (believed to be the birthplace of Sita, the goddess-wife of Ramayana) has now been revived. Earlier this year the residents of Pirauchha, barely 70 kilometres south of Sitamarhi received government notices informing them that their homes and farmland fell within the submergence zone of a proposed dam, and that they would have to accept compensation and move away.

Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan

Predictably, this has triggered an anti-dam movement which finds its echoes among the heavy lifters of Chawri Bazaar. “As though the yearly uncertainty of our summer crop getting washed away and having to toil so far from home in these shabby conditions aren’t bad enough,” said Madan, as his tired eyes surveyed the crowded cloth market around Jama Masjid. “We won’t agree to be thrown out of our homes in return for half the worth of our fertile farms.”

On a Sunday, the only day of leisure for the men, Madan is leading a few of his mates though a crowd of worshippers in this Ramzan season to watch a wrestling match. But on arriving at the small ground near Meena Bazaar they are told the Sunday matches have been suspended for the 30 days of ritual fasting. “We wouldn’t have come if we’d known the wrestlers are Muslim,” Madan said almost apologetically. Though the matches featuring wrestlers from mixed communities are a famed fixture in Old Delhi’s precarious show of communal harmony, the comment opened a window to the static worldview of the migrant workers, who throng cities like Delhi. It is as if in a life annually disrupted by rivers in spate, caste identities and notions of enemy provide them some semblance of stability. And in the communally vitiated climate of today’s India, many of the migrants are supporters of militant revivalist movements.

Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan

Even in the unlit squalor of the pavement in Chawri Bazaar, what is clear as day is the four feet of distance that divide the more numerous Yadavs from the lower-caste Chamars. Politically the Yadavs of Pirauchha and Assiya Jarang might talk of the incompatibility of caste-based voting in today’s democracy. But ask them why they won’t eat with their Chamar neighbours, and the intransigence of their prejudice has the immutability of laws of nature. Only two things are certainties for them: caste divides, and floods.

It’s 7.30 on Monday evening and young Mukesh and his barely-adult employer are cleaning up at the little hole-in-the-wall tea-shop, in the narrow alley past the arcades of Nayi Sarak. Their prized possession, a shiny espresso machine, is scrubbed, as are the milk vats and kettles. Mukesh vigorously does most of the cleaning while his boss counts the day’s earnings and unplugs the landline phone they use to receive orders. Mukesh’s frail little frame now disappears beneath the stacks of paper cups, vessels, tea, coffee powder jars and wooden stools he carries to the nearby godown for safekeeping.

Meanwhile, his older brother Madan does his umpteenth round of carrying 40 kg loads from godown to cycle-cart. After sitting idle all morning, waiting for work, he says he’s only too happy to slog it out as much as possible before the market winds down for the day. Madan stops for breath, wiping the sweat dripping down his eyebrow, to resolve a dispute between his little brother and an older relative. “What chances does he have here?” Madan confided, later that night as he prepared dinner for the two of them. “I don’t know. He was up to no good back in our village, always getting into trouble, bunking school. So I brought him here.”

Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan

During the general election of 2014, Narendra Modi had successfully sold to the electorate the aspirational image of a chaiwala, of himself as a boy who sold tea. His party stormed to power and in today’s India, where the elites talk of American style meritocracy and winner taking all, there’s a cold disregard for the poor and the vulnerable. The scanty social welfare measures created by the previous dispensation to keep the poor above water in India’s rural heartland are being dismantled now. What chance did Mukesh the unskilled chaiwala really have?

As the mid-May heat began to wear off a little, Mukesh began telling me about his home overlooking the river. A slightly slow teenager friend of Mukesh’s chimed in “It’s right on Ganga maiya’s banks, overlooking it.”

Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan

Closing his eyes, as though he could feel it, “the breeze that blows in on evenings is so pleasant. There’s a sluice gate further ahead that you can see from his house. It really gushes when the rains come”.

I ask Mukesh if the gate is a scary sight during the monsoon. He thinks for a while and responds, “It depends which side you’re looking from, and where you stand.”

The writer wishes to thank the National Geographic Society and the Out of Eden Walk, whose 2018 Journalism Workshop supported the creation of this project.