Aditya Giri had awoken at 4 a.m. for his newspaper route, sat through three hours of math and science lectures and hoofed across the city in head-pounding humidity.
Now, the 19-year-old was standing in the cramped receiving area behind an upmarket Mumbai department store, getting an earful from a surly clerk.
“This is completely wrong,” the clerk said, jabbing a stubby finger at the invoice Giri had produced.
“Sir,” Giri replied, using the word that starts almost all of his sentences. “This is what they gave me. I just make the delivery.”
The clerk looked to the side and shook his head vigorously, playing up his exasperation.
Giri stood quietly, brushing some dirt from his rock-star skinny jeans. He had grown accustomed to such treatment during his short time as a peon, one of the lowliest yet most essential of Indian vocations.
Peons are a fixture of life in Mumbai and other major Indian cities, taking care of the mundane tasks that others don’t have time for or simply don’t want to do.
Walk into even the tiniest office and a peon will fetch a glass of water. Need someone to run an errand and a peon will schlep across this overcrowded city of 21 million. Ring the bell at a middle- or upper-class home and there’s a peon — or peons, plural — to answer the door, make tea or accept a parcel.
But Giri isn’t just any peon. He’s a 21st century breed: an e-peon.
Under the old system, a peon would be attached to a business or household for decades. The founder of Giri’s company, a Mumbai startup called Get My Peon, doesn’t think that works for young Indian urbanites who lack the time to vet and manage full-time staff — and who run their lives on their cellphones.
Using a simple website and phone service, the 2-year-old company offers peons on demand to perform just about any chore for any customer. Founder Bharat Ahirwar says he has plans to expand to five more cities within the next year and launch an app. He says the firm may eventually use Uber-like GPS tracking for its peons.
“Today, nobody is ready to spend money to hire a guy and he sits around most of the day and does nothing. That was an old thing to do,” said Ahirwar, 29. “That’s one of the biggest reasons a service like ours is growing. We have guys who are reliable, capable and available. So the customer just has to say, ‘Can you do this for me?’ and we say, ‘Yes, it can be done.’”
It’s an ethos suited to the new, fast-changing, need-it-now India. But as a day spent with Giri showed, the life of a peon is always an exercise in old-fashioned patience and stamina.
Giri started working when he was 15, delivering newspapers in his neighborhood of tenements in a north Mumbai suburb every day before dawn. Two years ago, his family ran into financial trouble: An electrical fire destroyed the clothes and fabric his father kept at home for his small tailoring business. He dropped out of school because his parents couldn’t afford the fees.
In September, he landed the peon job, which pays about $125 a month, plus bonuses, to finance remedial classes he attends each morning after his newspaper deliveries, hoping for a second chance at college or vocational school.
Although the word connotes a throwaway servility, peons keep Mumbai commerce humming despite often maddening bureaucracy and gridlock that can border on the apocalyptic. India’s seemingly endless pool of unskilled job seekers means that people with even modest incomes can almost always find someone willing to take an irritating task off their hands.
“The most common is going to the bank,” said the earnest, soft-spoken Giri, who is built like a lamppost with a shock of neatly combed black hair.
At Get My Peon, Giri joined a staff of about 20 errand boys — and they are invariably male — who fan out across Mumbai daily by train, bus, auto rickshaw and foot. (Forget taxis; they’re too expensive.)
On a recent afternoon, Giri walked to his first stop in the high-end Bandra commercial district to pay a utility bill, only to find that the company had moved. He got directions and kept moving — past the new Nike store, the Guess and Calvin Klein boutiques and a series of high-end jewelers — to find the office, hidden on a quiet side street, the utility’s signature blue awning partly obscured by a tree.
This section of Bandra, favored by Bollywood types and well-off expatriates, was one Giri had never visited before becoming a peon.
“The BMWs and Mercedes cars here, you don’t see them near our place,” he said. “This area is for the stars.”
By 3 p.m., Giri had been awake for 11 hours, and as he squeezed into the standing area of a commuter train to reach his third task, he was visibly weary. The aging car rocked side to side, its metal ceiling fans struggling against the oppressive heat, and Giri allowed his eyes to close.
Finally alighting in a busy neighborhood of electronics shops and street-food vendors, Giri jumped on a bus and a few minutes later reached the home of the Ruparels, a regular client. Madhuri Ruparel, a pleasant middle-aged woman in an orange tunic, offered Giri a Sprite, which he politely declined, and brought out two large blue plastic bags stuffed with garlands and other decorations that she sells in shops across the city.
The garlands, which Ruparel said were made by women from a Mumbai slum who earn a share of the profits, are one of countless cottage industries in the city that depend on peons to make deliveries and collect payments. When Giri climbed back onto the train, his skinny frame balancing the blue bags like the scales of justice, the cars were packed with bundles of packaged snacks, dried fruit, crafts and other homemade goods destined for shops in wealthier parts of the city.
But an hour later, when Giri brought the goods to the upscale department store, the officious clerk noticed a mistake on the Ruparels’ invoice.
Faced with the clerk’s ostentatious show of irritation, Giri called his office to have the error cleared up before heading back on the train to give Ruparel her check.
“Sometimes the store people, they talk rudely to you,” Giri said later. “They don’t know you, so they have some doubt, like, can I trust this boy?”
In a country where electronic banking remains limited, vast sums of money still move via messenger. The first time Giri went to collect the equivalent of about $180 in cash from a department store in posh south Mumbai, he recalled, the accountant assumed he was going to steal it. Only after several phone calls between his office and the client did the clerk hand over the money.
His worst experience, however, was the night he had to pick up a cake and deliver it to a far-flung part of town well after dark.
Even to people who have lived here their whole lives, street directions in Mumbai can often feel like a game of 20 Questions, with addresses pegged to obscure shops, gas stations or landmarks unfamiliar to outsiders. After much searching, and a series of meandering rickshaw rides, Giri arrived at what he thought was the right location, only to learn there was another neighborhood with the same name half an hour away.
It was after midnight when Giri found the home of the client, who was annoyed that the cake had arrived somewhat smushed.
Most nights he gets home around 11 p.m., gulps down a small meal of vegetables and chapati — an Indian flatbread — and collapses on the mattress in the room he shares with his younger brother and grandfather. Barely five hours later, he starts the routine again.
His mother, Nilima, notices his fatigue and laments that her two sons, just a year apart, now barely see each other.
“But Aditya has work and he has his education,” she said, “so I’m happy.”
On Sundays, his sole afternoon off, he meets his old school buddies, who typically grouse about college classes and teachers. Giri is almost embarrassed to discuss his grueling job, a reminder that he hasn’t finished school.
Yet unlike India’s traditional peons, who could spend their entire lives in the job, Giri doesn’t expect it will become his career. He dreams of becoming a nature photographer, even though he has never taken a picture with anything besides a phone.
After he’s paid for his classes, he has decided, he will buy his first camera.