“The lucky ones managed to squeeze into the packed trains...the rest, hundreds of thousands across India, embarked on the homeward journey by whatever means they could”
Nilanjana S Roy
It was the beginning, though we did not know what it meant then, the river of men and women eddying towards the Nizamuddin Railway Station in Delhi.
During the summer much of the army of workers who silently, invisibly, keep the capital’s machinery turning – construction crews, road builders, rubbish collectors and ragpickers, rickshaw drivers, domestic workers – go back home for a few weeks. These crowds were like nothing I’d ever seen; a swelling of not hundreds, but thousands.
I’d been noticing such crowds for a few days before the lockdown was declared. Men with the gaunt, wire-muscled look that marks most of Delhi’s day-labourers, a few women in ochre, red, sky-blue saris and hungry-eyed children making up a steady, silent procession that streamed into the packed station every evening. Instead of the usual small bundle of clothes, they carried large jute bags bursting at the seams, the goods of their precarious households stuffed into plastic buckets that they balanced on their heads.
At the barrier to the station, which abuts the comfortably affluent residential neighbourhood I live in, I spoke to Bimruti, who used to work at a garments factory, her long fingers stained and blistered with chemical dye. “The factories have shut, the maliks (owners) haven’t given us our pay for the month,” she said. “We will starve in the city, unless we can return home to the village.” She’d missed four trains already; the men, hardened by their own desperation, elbowed past her and her two children easily.
During a trial run of the lockdown, which lasted for 14 hours on March 22nd, at the prime minister’s urging many Indians joined in to clap, ring bells and bang on steel plates in honour of the health professionals and frontline staff working to contain the epidemic. As my neighbours blew conches and shouted, “Bhaag, Corona, bhaag!” (“Go, Corona, go!”), I thought of Bimruti. “They forgot about us when they made this lockdown,” she’d said, “They won’t think of our pain.”
Two days later, on the night of March 24th, the prime minister announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days starting at midnight. This gave millions of the most vulnerable people, the ones barely scraping by in the city, just four hours’ notice to get home. The lucky ones managed to squeeze into the packed trains that would take them back to their home states. The rest, hundreds of thousands of people across India, embarked on the homeward journey by whatever means they could. No one yet knows how many may have carried covid-19 back with them.
On roads and highways emptied by the curfew, hundreds of thousands of the newly jobless walked for miles with little money or food, for days and weeks as the summer heat builds. The distance from Delhi to Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh is 150km – 31 hours by foot; from the capital to Sasaram in Bihar is 867km. The scale of these journeys is almost unimaginable.
As states closed their borders, some were trapped in government-run shelters, losing the tenuous dignity that their lives of hard work had afforded them. Jan Sahas, a social development trust, interviewed over 3,000 workers through the trust’s helplines. “We’ll die of hunger,” said one worker named Dilip, “so we’ll walk home.” Almost half of the people they spoke to said that they had no food left for that day, let alone those to come.
For Indians of a certain generation, the sight of thousands, and then millions, of their countryfolk taking to the highways in desperation evokes the chilling memory of another exodus. When the country was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947, as many as 12 million people were permanently displaced. Many others were massacred in the violence that followed. As a child growing up in Delhi, I slowly understood that the open-handed hospitality of many Punjabi refugee families came from the hard-edged memory, passed down by their parents and grandparents, of what it was like to walk for days and weeks, seeking shelter, braving danger and hunger. A friend’s Punjabi mother told me that for her grandfather the sight of children dying from starvation was worse even than the Hindu-Muslim violence.
Estimates of the number of workers who have lost their livelihood or are on the roads, homeless and jobless, after the lockdown, already run into the hundreds of thousands – possibly millions. On the road, migrants have been met with cruelty — in one searing incident, district authorities in the city of Bareilly “sanitised” returning workers with a bleach solution sprayed on their unprotected skin and eyes — and families who had, until the lockdown, retained the tenuous dignity of feeding themselves, begged for enough “ration”, some rice or wheat, to feed their listless children. In the Indian media, their stories soon faded from the front pages. The many television channels friendly to the government of Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, returned to the twin business of whipping up a steady stream of hate against Muslims, and of praising the prime minister’s leadership; this past winter in Delhi, many of us had been out on the streets, protesting a divisive citizenship law that was widely seen to discriminate against Muslims.
Memories fades fast in a time of rapid change, but some stay with you. The silent groups of workers flocking to the railway station in the nights before the lockdown wore only rubber slippers and cheap sneakers. Many quietly attended to their blisters as they waited. I remembered another time, in 2018 and 2019, when Indian farmers had marched to Mumbai in their thousands to draw attention to a growing agricultural crisis. I had met some of the farmers. As we talked, I glanced at the ground. It was covered in dust and bloody footprints. The leathered, worn feet of the men and women who were patiently answering my questions had been shredded by the 160km march, their skin flayed from the flesh.
On Sunday April 6th, Modi called for Indians to light lamps and turn off their home electric lights for nine minutes at 9pm. It was one of his typically grand flourishes, a symbolic gesture of the nation’s “collective resolve and solidarity” in the fight against coronavirus. In Delhi, the affluent responded to his call enthusiastically, some claiming that the nine minutes was of astrological significance.
Firecrackers exploded in the night sky; some shouted chants of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” (“Glory to the Motherland”), candles and diyas (lamps) sprouted from the windows and doors of almost every home. Once again, people blew conches. It felt like a celebration, but there was a pause, a still moment of darkness when the sounds died away, and the houses and apartment buildings had not yet switched their lights back on.
Far away from the TV cameras capturing and applauding Modi’s never-failing theatrics, the people continued their trudge beyond Delhi’s closed borders. Carrying their children, with bundles of household goods strapped to them, they walked despite their empty stomachs, not knowing when they would be home.
Nilanjana S Roy is a writer based in Delhi
“We rejoiced in our reclusiveness, but isolation isn’t calming when enforced”
It is the middle of April and weeks into lockdown, limbo is a jittery place. In today’s newspaper, gunshots during a game of Ludo: “Jai accused Prashant of coughing with the intention of giving coronavirus to other people. He shot him in the thigh.” Rumours whine like mosquitoes. A strident voice wafts across from next door: “Is this futuristic Chinese bioterrorism or a Muslim conspiracy?” Some say our hellish sanitation and tropical fevers have given us a carapace of immunity. We breathe calmer for a moment. Then the bad news closes in again: lost jobs, suffering, starvation and no end in sight.
I chanced upon a tweet yesterday from Christina Lamb, a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times. “For the first time in my life I find myself wishing I lived in the country with a dog and a breadmaker and maybe a lemon tree.” That’s been us the past 20 years, in a corner of the Himalayas with three dogs and two lemon trees. No breadmaker though. We’ve always made bread the old-fashioned way, massaging dough like a lover’s limbs, not as a hobby but because it’s the only way we can have passable bread. Now friends at a loose end write for tips on starters and crusts and send sweetly proud images of fresh loaves. I’m a specialist agony aunt with time on her hands. In my past life I wrote fiction, my spouse ran an independent press. Now printing presses are closed and books locked in storage.
For the moment we have sky, forests, bread. And a series of unpredictable problems. Last week someone’s cow keeled over in the nearby forest. We could see it from our house: an immense, immobile mound. Since there are no municipal services for such things the owner gathered four friends who dug a pit big enough to house a lorry, then rolled the carcass into it. Social distancing remained a hopeless aspiration during this exercise.
More lockdown rules were bent as nearby hearts were broken by enforced separation. I’m sure we heard a splintering sound next door when Hema, married this January and visiting her mother up here, found herself stranded. Her enterprising ex-colleagues at the local post office came to her rescue, stowing her away in a postal van. The care of her terminally ill mother-in-law was the reason she gave at a checkpoint for her presence among the parcels. Conjugal longings would not have cut much ice with the curfew police, but nothing melts patriarchal hearts more than a daughter-in-law aspiring to be a homing nightingale.
We rarely leave our mud and stone cottage, clinging moss-like to a hill. Socially isolated by choice for two decades, it’s disconcerting for us to find the rest of the world following suit by fiat. Visitors and tourists are forbidden now and we cannot travel. For the first time, the gates of the local hotel are padlocked; taxis reduced to motionless humps under tarpaulin. This is a hillside of indigent peasants kept alive by tourists and remittances from relatives in distant places. Today we are at the receiving end of a countrywide exodus of people who have lost their livelihoods in the plains and are trudging home. It’s a calamity even for those used to hardship, who eat only rice and wild spinach. In the forests women scrounge for dead wood, berries, mushrooms. They are waiting this out, hoping it will pass, but their reserves are pitifully shallow.
Today another neighbour, in calmer times a supplier of poultry to the local hotel, begged us to buy his rooster. Should he bring it alive or slaughtered, he asked. Did we want the claws, offal and head included? This blue-black rooster’s raucous celebration of each sunrise is our alarm clock. However unsettling it is to think of him as diced meat, we cannot refuse. We don’t have to scrounge for dead wood and wild spinach, yet it is the illusion of equality that preserves our petal-thin social fabric. If we want to help neighbours, it cannot be done by sending across sacks of rice and oil as people do in cities with nameless, faceless poor. It has to be thought through, disguised as scholarship, pension or loan. Or the buying of roosters at double the price. We are grateful recipients of charity ourselves. Muesli and raisins arrived last week when a friend who runs a trekking company was left with sacks of unused supplies.
It is a strange irony being immured in the mountains, where freedom seems limitless. Our problems feel inconsequential compared to many, but they keep me awake through nights punctuated by the nightjar’s shrieks. How do I reach my mother in Kolkata? Will we see our friends again? We rejoiced in our reclusiveness, but isolation isn’t calming when enforced.
Nor when it is shredded by social media. Political arguments knife through my WhatsApp groups with a violence that days of flower photos and puppy videos cannot heal. I begin to wonder if decades of hate-politics in India have burned away kindness altogether. I switch off my phone and make pots. I tell myself to work – but my half-made draft feels irrelevant. One evening we see two fawns grazing by the car-free road before they fly down the slopes, our dogs in futile pursuit. For days we live off that moment of miraculous grace.
Hidden away in these mountains, it is possible to hope that we are too few, too far, too microscopic for the microbe. That it will somehow pass us by. It must: at last count there wasn’t a ventilator or intensive care unit to be seen as far as the Himalayan eagle flies. As in much of rural India, the public health system is rudimentary – one unkempt government hospital specialised enough for the odd broken bone. The military hospital treats only soldiers. When people are seriously ill they must travel to big cities. Now that they cannot, what would happen if covid-19 spread here? A retired doctor-friend consoles me with a pensive smile: “Be happy. You’ll die in a beautiful place.”
Anuradha Roy is a writer based in Ranikhet, in the Himalayas. Her latest book is “All the Lives We Never Lived”
“He had agreed to sit out here exposed to the elements rather than pack up because, after all, he has worked here all his life. Above all, he wanted nobody to go hungry”
We keep our distance. We watch from the balcony. The lilac flowers on the chinaberry canopy have come and gone with spring. The white-yellow neem flowers are in blossom, portending summer. We do as we are told, more or less, in the housing colony.
The colony was built by a government housing agency 40 years ago. The buildings are four-storeyed, painted cream and arranged in blocks around parks. In them are 380 flats, and 132 “servant’s quarters”, usually rented out as studio apartments.
There is, in this housing colony in Delhi, a ration shop. It has jute sacks stacked high against the walls. Its operator, Mr G, is a quiet, thin man with a cash register, an electronic weighing scale and a helper. His manner is brisk, his speech a little brusque: he is a no-nonsense, “doing” kind of man. His father ran it before him, here from a garage they own.
The shop dates back to a time when India’s public distribution system was universal and everyone was entitled to monthly rations of subsidised grain, sugar and kerosene. The system is now focused on families that have an annual income of Rs 1 lakh ($1,312) or below, a group previously classified in the distribution system as BPL, or Below Poverty Line. Over a third of Delhi’s population qualifies for entitlements.
When the national lockdown was announced, stranded city labourers, upon the guillotine severance of transport and livelihood, set out to walk hundreds of miles to their villages and their homes which have their ration cards. Among the burning questions on the colony WhatsApp group was that of the ration shop. The state government had made the subsidised rations free, and increased the entitlements to one-and-a-half times the usual: measures that will cover the bare minimum. Given the circumstances, an unusually large number of beneficiaries arrived to collect their grain. Some residents wanted the shop closed or relocated for the duration of the lockdown. A few others considered it a humanitarian imperative for it to function – but that entrants to it needed to be staggered.
The committee that oversees colony affairs wanted the shop to operate from the main gate of the complex, rather than from deep inside. One member warned residents “about the dangers of having 50-60 unknown BPL persons, who spit, blow their noses and have been in close contact with goodness knows who, come on a daily basis…God save this colony”.
Instead, the scene at the ration shop had been reassuringly normal. Staggering the arrivals had indeed solved the problem, the ration man told me. Then, a resident photographed a delivery truck bringing fresh supplies. It showed the workers wearing neither masks nor gloves; one of them was captured apparently trying to urinate behind a vehicle. By the next morning, following what were described by the committee as extensive deliberations with the Food Department and Delhi Police, the ration shop had been shunted out to the main gate.
Another solution, a pedestrian gate near the shop, was off limits. The path from the gate leads out past a mosque. The largest reported cluster of infections in India emerged from a convention of Islamic missionaries in the heart of Delhi. Amid a rise in anti-Muslim feeling in India, many people on social media, as well as on television news, were warning about the “corona jihad”. Though there had been no congregation at the mosque since the lockdown began, the route was deemed contaminated by religious association.
The ration man is not the only one to have improvised. The colony kabadiwaala, a bustling, bidi-smoking man, who picks up recyclable junk from the flats, attempted a short-lived reinvention as a handcart fruit-seller. Those on regular pay – maids, drivers – may yet receive their salaries. Others, such as the presswallas and presswallis, who iron clothes in the walkways in every block, are paid per job, between six and 25 US cents per garment. As we return to our summer cottons, it would have been their high season.
We know our lockdown is very strict. The colony keeps out almost everyone. Those who are let in are scanned with a thermal gun, such as that is worth. On the WhatsApp group, residents photograph, film, name and shame: a man on a constitutional, a pair of girls talking, an alleged park-roamer, a girl who walks a near-blind incontinent dog. The committee observes that a few residents “slide mask on their neck and are busy merrily talking over the phone”. We are warned that “any defaulter will be positively informed to Law Enforcing Agency (DELHI POLICE)”. Masks are now compulsory in Delhi.
There are acts of generosity. One family steps in to help the colony guards with lunch, another with tea and biscuits. These are sent out to the gate, where Mr G’s ration shop carries on with a makeshift table and chair.
Early in the lockdown, newspapers reported that several rations shops, for various reasons, had closed their shutters: one in three, according to a sample survey by an NGO. Another report told of a ration shop owner arrested for diverting grain.
My chats with Mr G are necessarily brief. The first day of his transfer was a challenge, but colony staff helped transport the grains to the gate in batches by cart. On the second, they managed to rope in a municipal truck. But the supply has been okay; a tranche of grain and pulses, from a separate central government scheme, has finally arrived.
Ration distributors get their commissions from the government per outgoing kilo. Now that grains are free, he had no idea of the commission. It did not matter. He had agreed to sit out here, exposed to the elements rather than pack up, because he has worked here all his life. Nor did he wish to bear the blame if the virus did enter the colony. Above all, he wanted nobody to go hungry. For the rain, he had faith in the man upstairs. His family worry that he is out and susceptible to infection, but work he must.
Rahul Bhattacharya is a writer based in Delhi