The neighbourhood I live in has become a ghost town with no one stepping out of their gate or rather opening their main door to make it to the picket fence. The maids, that with strident steps would be marching to clean floors, wash dishes, do the laundry and give a good wiping down to the dust piled-up overnight, now unseen; over two months ago they even would be standing in clusters, chatting away before heading homewards. Self-sufficiency, the war-cry, definitely creating a new-found family bond, with the work-load being shared by each member. The husband doing the ironing, some sort of a mopping machine ordered via Amazon that buffs the floor to a gleam, breakfast simple and basic. Eggs, toast, oatmeal, Kellogs, fruit — this information relayed over the friendly-neighbourhood WhatsApp Broadcast Group, which, with a cumulative desire, shares what’s cooking, down-to-easy and wholesome recipes. And others with icy chic, displaying their high-end (no sweat involved!) culinary skills by sending pictures of home-made tray-laden gol gappas with an invitingly nudging punch bowl full of khatta meetha paani and creamy rasmalai charmingly floating in a filigreed silver bowl. These made-by-lockdown-chefs! Then courtesy cozying up with distant aunts or a great granny, whose only recollection is, when she had come a visiting, donkey years ago, was too close for comfort, and that flashing toothless smile of hers, adding to the chagrin of it all, now instantaneously a close-knit family that would not dare think of going to sleep without posting Instagram visuals of oneself in Jammies sending, ‘sleep tight, without a fright’ goodnights. So those shoved into some creaky closet recipes, now taken out as prized trophies, polished to the nines; this besides other home remedies of how to grow those scrimpy threads of hair with a specific concoction of a mashed banana, curd, honey, so once this clamp-down is lifted, one shall step out with a crowning glory, perhaps even putting Rapunzel in the shade. However, I do not intend to fill up this space with how, without any tangible feeling, a newly-anointed family, has as, an offshoot of Covid-19 been brought-into-being. It is the latest ‘discovery’, if that’s what it can be called; migrants, for years been disclaimed as, ‘Nobody’s People from Nowhere Land’ and now, in a trice, are held dear. It would not be going too far in saying that they are worth one’s weight in gold. Over the past so many years whenever there is a plumbing problem, as basic as tapping out the rubble from the mesh of a tap to something so hair-raising as making one jump out of one’s skin — like fishing out snake’s eggs from the overhead water tank, which have been, since God knows when, swimming languorously, near-ready to hatch — it is Amar the Plumber who saves the day! (No, have not rechristened Amar to rhyme with Plumber!) On his maiden visit, had in-reflex, while asking him his name, had also asked him where his homeland was. Orissa or Odisha as now goes the name. I doubt if my mind paused to register the name of his village or the proud proclamation (he was garrulous, and so continues talking ten to the dozens!) that most plumbers hail from Odisha. Then there is my regular electrician: Khushi Ram, who very often makes a Dukhi Ram of yours truly since he appears on the scene sans an assistant, and I naturally become the one to hand him over his tools when he is way up on his ladder. To get to the point without further jaywalking: the migrants, who have left their home and hearth, to work their hides off in big bad wolf cities, promising a steady income, whether they be skilled or unskilled labour, are the edifice on which we stand.
The foundations of the cities we are born in. Houses, buildings, roads, all their handiwork. They lug atop their heads, in the blistering heat, the brick and mortar to build those walls, they lay down the glossy floor tiles of a Mall or a house — they can never catch a glimpse of — once the inauguration takes place with first a Havan, followed by a ritzy extravagant party. Now with this pandemic, there is no work, which in plain speak means no wages. No wages, translating into no food, and for the ‘better-off’ no earnings to pay rent to the Landlord for their one-room house. Their only desire is to somehow return to their village, to their parents, to possibly ‘till’ that parched patch of land that might bear some produce to fill half of the family’s accustomed-to-hunger belly or if not, they would want to die under a sky not eclipsed by skyscrapers but on the ground beneath their feet, claiming unchallenged ownership over. With them gone with the wind, once this shut-down is partially eased out, another kind of captivity is on the cards — where those, who, in many a number have with teeth-grinding repetitiousness wanted them out of Delhi or Millennium City since they have gobbled up the place, copywriting the space in the metros, taken up room not allocated to them, drank water out of reservoirs meant for exclusively the true inhabitants of the land, based on patented-by-birth citizenship. Wonder where went the family of five, which impossibly plodded their way from Amritsar to Gurgaon, only to learn that the open-to-migrant railways to make it ‘home’, required them to cough up a whopping sum of 6000 rupees?! Of people being crushed to pulp on railway tracks while stretching their famined, fatigued bodies, believing in on-the-surface passing information, that trains would not be blading by… Hundreds and hundreds drawing one’s last breath, holding on to the dream of going home. And then there is a 15-year old Jyoti, who bought a second-hand cycle, earned with the sweat of her brow money, tightly stashed away in a Raggedy Anne pouch, managing to, with half-worn pedals, pilot her ailing father, 1200 kilometres from Haryana to their hometown Darbhanga in Bihar. It took her eight-long back-breaking days to return to their lawful turf.
As for us, it takes Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka to step aboard her social motorcade saluting this, ‘beautiful feat of endurance’ for us to semi-wake up and smell the roses, to dose off yet again…
Dr Renée Ranchan writes on socio-psychological issues,
quasi-political matters and concerns that touch us all.