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'Homebound' written by Puja Changoiwala explores the hope & resilience of migrant workers who trudged hundreds of kilometres during Covid lockdown in India, and those hundreds whom the long walk killed. An excerpt.
Coal and Crystal
19 April 2020
Dear Ms Farah,
How do you feel about bread? If you ask me, I do not think much of it, ma’am. I’m one of those who grumble if it isn’t baked right, if its crust isn’t crispy and crackly enough. I know it tops the list of five basic human needs, and I understand that its absence could steal lives. I, however, am the rich kind of poor, one who has never had to face chronic hunger, not yet. Of course, I’ve had my stomach growl, my head fill with a fog, and my abdomen turn into a jar of vacuum. Of course, there have been moments when I found myself standing at the edge of my consciousness, hunger trying to push me off it. But even in the direst of those sinking seconds, I’ve had a rescue crew of bananas available, or spoonsful of sugar. Even in the vilest of those pangs, I’ve never thought of eating from a dead dog—like that man on the highway, squatting next to the carcass in the middle of the thoroughfare, scavenging.
His mouth was covered in the roadkill’s blood, his red fingers were busy separating bones from the meat, and his eyes, like his stomach, appeared empty. His hunger had diminished him to a carrion thief, and the way he chewed, he made me look at bread as I never had before. Bread was god to him, Ms Farah; bread was gold. Bread was his greatest foe, and bread, the one true friend. Bread was his master and bread, his freedom. Bread was his journey, and bread, the destination.
“Don’t look.” Ma covered Happy’s eyes, and asked us to walk faster. “Must be a madman.”
“No, he’s just hungry,” said Baba. Father then crossed the road, handed the man a bottle of water and a few berries we had picked up from the forest. The scavenger did not speak, only a tear rolled down his cheek, salting his palate.
As my eyes stayed glued to the human vulture, Saleha, my new friend, tried to calm my disconcerted bones. “He’s part of the social lattice, which in our country is essentially a grid of diamond and coal,” she said. “More black, though.”
“What?” I did not understand her.
“Diamond and coal, they’re both made of carbon,” she explained. “It’s the chemical bonds of society that turn humans like these, even us, into coal, and others into uncut, sparkling stones.”
“We’re all destined for ashes then, being coal,” I replied.
Two hours had passed since we left the woods. I believed Baba’s math was sound when we spotted a billboard inscribed in Gujarati: ‘After whisky, driving risky.’ Saleha, a native of Gujarat, had translated the hand-painted sign for us, and although it was only a traffic warning, a warm relief had washed over our bodies. The language of the inscription meant that we had crossed the interstate border into Gujarat without an encounter with the Mad Bull. The threat of leopards, sloth bears, wolves and snakes, yes, but thanks be to the wild, not the deadlier, khaki-clad predator.
We walked by the villages of Gujarat, their narrow roads and monochromatic settlements. I wondered about the people who called them home, and how the novel pathogen might have affected their lives. According to news reports before we left Mumbai, the virus was yet to reach the countryside, and once it did, everyone knew that chaos would reign. Rural India, including Balhaar, does not have enough medical amenities for a regular rainy day, and this seemed dead set on being a thunderous year. Of course, sadhu babas in the villages would prosper, as sales of their jiggery-pokery medicines would rocket. Hooch sellers would profit and so would shrines, and the greatest casualties, as in any manmade or natural disaster in the Indian hinterland, would be women and girls. Drunk men will first beat their wives in frustration over their lost livelihoods, and then sell their young girls into matrimony.
“Gandhiji once said that India’s soul resides in its villages,” I told Saleha as we walked past a hamlet. “If so, it’s a wretched soul, a malnourished soul, a soul desperate to break free.”
“It’s still beautiful though,” she replied. “Like a black rose.”
Rubbish, I did not say. Although Saleha appears worldly and aware, she’s ignorant to the fact that her own beauty corrupts her perspective. Beautiful people find everything beautiful, as if these genetic lottery-winners are also born with a high-definition filter on their eyes, seeing the splendour of details that remain hidden to others.
After walking for about three hours on the highway, we spotted a long queue along the side of the road—men, women and children; young, old and rapidly ageing. The chain of human rust culminated into a distant truck, about a kilometre away. Curious, we approached the man closest to us, who informed that the wayfarers had lined up for food. A local charity, he said, was offering hot meals to sad stomachs. We decided to join the chain. Our middles were gloomy too, as our last two meals were forest fruits. I was expecting Baba to protest: ‘I’m too proud for handouts; I won’t pose for pictures with the free food; I won’t become the poster boy of Hungry India, Poor India’. To my surprise, however, he listened to his fragile belly and asked his dear dignity to visit another day.
“Do you want to go see how long the queue is?” Saleha asked me.
I checked with Baba and he agreed. “Take my phone with you,” he said. “And do not use it to call your friends. It’s low on battery and only has twenty rupees worth of talk-time left.”
As we walked by the travellers, I wondered if the novel coronavirus had vacated the world. The migrants stood close to each other and most of their mouths showed, their masks missing along with their fear of the contagion. They were faces hardened to stone, I noticed, and their feet spoke more than their eyes—naked feet, muddy feet, plastered feet, blistered feet, bruised feet and bleeding feet. They had thrown their luggage and their children to the ground, and every time the line moved, they’d nudge them ahead with their limbs.
As the queue progressed, so did the maladies. Some migrants had fashioned plastic bottles and bags into footwear, some had strips of towels and torn cement sacks fastened around their feet, some had used leaves to fill the holes in their tattered slippers, while one had ‘mended’ his torn shoes with safety pins, the pins giving away, tearing into his skin. A few, shoeless children stood on their toes to keep off the searing earth, while a few others lay on the road, their little, fatigued bodies rolling to keep up with the queue. They belonged to all castes, creeds and sects, those children. The traditional divisions, the great fault lines of our country, seemed to have disappeared. All that remained was misery.
“Please give me food,” cried a middle-aged man, the whites of his eyes yellow, the tears on his cheeks, brown. The blisters on his swollen feet had burst, and a piece of plastic foam, which he probably found by the roadside, soaked the seeping pus. “I cannot stand in this heat anymore. My feet are scabbed. My urine has turned red. Please, give me some food.”
Another man blew air on his son’s face, trying to soothe the sun’s scars. The boy looked younger than Happy, but his parched lips appeared older. “We’ll get water soon, beta,” the man told his thirsty child. “Just swallow your saliva until then.”
The boy’s cooked face was still tormenting my mind when Saleha pointed to a man a little ahead in the line—a human ox yoked to a bullock cart. He balanced the wooden yoke on his shoulder with a white ox on the other end, while his family—a woman and an infant—sat on the wagon with their meagre belongings. I reckoned that the migrant might have morphed into a draft animal because he did not want his wife, a new mother, to walk in that heat with their child.
“Where is the other ox?” Saleha asked the man.
“I’m the other ox,” he barked. “Are you blind?”
“No, sorry, I mean, why are you pulling the cart? Where’s the second animal?”
“Sold it to buy food,” said the migrant. “For five thousand rupees. Could have fetched me fifteen.”
“How long have you been walking like this?”
“How far do you have to go?”
The man’s answer brought relief. The distance wasn’t too daunting and there was a thick chance that the beast of burden would make it home alive. We did not want to eat into his energy, so we left him alone. As we walked further, portraits of our migrant exodus kept emerging, some distressed, some determined, some desolate, and some dying. A child, too tired to walk, lay asleep on a trolley suitcase pulled by his mother, his cheek resting on its handle, his hands dangling on the rectangular case, and his feet dragging along the road. One migrant had fashioned wooden logs and sticks into a makeshift handcart for his pregnant wife and little daughter. He said he had been wheeling the cart for 500 kilometres over seventeen days. As I looked at those people and their tribulations, the highway appeared like an open book to me, with black pages that only seemed to get darker.
“You, how much for a night?” a pervert in a passing car slowed down near Saleha and me.
“Nah, mangoes too raw,” said the man in the passenger seat before the car sped away.
I wanted to hurl my shoe at those men’s faces and I would have, had I not just learnt how invaluable footwear was. Like bread, like diamonds.
When we neared the food truck, I could feel its appetizing flavours flirt with my senses, and my mouth was the first to respond to the raunchy display, filling itself with saliva. The volunteers, I noticed, were handing out two packets to every migrant—one for the journey, which included a bottle of water, an energy bar, biscuits and peanut crackers, and another, a freshly-cooked meal of dal, rice, chapatti, curry and onions. Every migrant thanked the donors with words, tears, or a talkative silence, while some insisted on physical contact. ‘I know I must keep distance,’ an old woman touched a volunteer’s forehead. ‘But I must bless you.’
“Why are the volunteers charging these people for the food?” I asked Saleha. “One rupee per person.”
“Because the most important thing you can give someone is dignity,” she answered. “If the beneficiaries pay a rupee, they feel they’ve earned the meal. Plus, it helps with bookkeeping.”
Although the charity seemed generous, I could tell that the truck did not contain enough food for every hopeful in that queue of about 800 migrants. I was certain they’d run out of packets before our turn, and Saleha and I decided to inform our families about the futile wait. As we began to return, some migrants, as if hearing us, charged at the truck, and started looting the food packets. The hungry travellers pushed, kicked and punched each other, as the volunteers tried to calm them. The decorum of the queue evaporated and people from the far end of the line started rushing towards the truck. A few parents crouched on the floor, covering their children with their bodies, as the starved humans raced against civility for food.
“I haven’t eaten in days,” pleaded an old man, too frail for a fight as well as flight. “Spare some for me, please.”
Hunger, however, begged louder. The migrants overturned the food cartons and ransacked the truck. They snatched the leftovers from each other, as if a pack of food-aggressive dogs, fighting over meat, on the offence and the defence, growling, lunging and biting. I turned to look at the volunteers, most of whom were now standing by the roadside, watching helplessly. One, however, appeared to be talking to the police, pleading with them to arrive and restore order. That was our prompt. Saleha and I started running, and we phoned our families, asking them to run too. We could not afford another confrontation with the police.
“I told you,” said Saleha as we rushed towards home. “We’re all coal.”
Published with permission from the publishers HarperCollins
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