Amongst migratory fishes, the Atlantic Salmon is peculiar. After roaming thousands of miles in the ocean all its life, it travels upstream on a river - literally leaping above water to scale waterfalls - to spawn and die, often never reaching their target as they are caught and eaten by bears.
That image played in my mind as I watched thousands of migrants across India, walking hundreds of miles away from cities to go back to their villages, with tired kids on their shoulders or laps, many swearing they’d never come back, most stopped and some beaten by cops.
These migrations on the trail of the COVID-19 lockdown has exposed everyone – as politicians who claim mass following to activists and trade unionist who work with the grassroots – failing to anticipate this. The nation, as often happens these days, was divided. Some criticized migrants for putting everyone at danger during a pandemic, others defending them.
The migrant walked on, unfazed, torn bags on his back, walking a grueling 40 to 100 kilometers a day. One wept when he got a full meal after 3 days, a mobile recording his unhinged tears. Another when asked why he was leaving when the PM and CMs of states had promised their wellbeing, said two days into the lockdown their water ran out. When some of them went out in search of water and food, the police beat them. He said in the absence of vehicles, they had no option but to walk because back in their village they’d at least be fed water before death.
One died of a heart attack induced by the strain of the walk and hunger. Some were mowed down by trucks and nearly two dozen so far have died in less than a week of the lockdown even as many shocked people have swung into action to help provide food and water on the way. A filmmaker friend told me the photos reminded him of partition.
Why are they migrating thus? Are they stupid not to realise the dangers of spreading COVID-19? Can’t they see how they’ll be a danger to their own selves, their families and their villages.
My personal experience informs me – and my intention is not to either romanticise or trivialise – that the lower and lower-middle classes – having scraped and struggled through existence - are imbued with a specialised survival wisdom and instinct, more evolved than others.
To understand that and this remigration back to their villages, you need to understand the Indian migrant.
He (mostly it’s a ‘he’, hence the use), is a beggar, but not a beggar for alms. He is a beggar, a seeker of work. He either comes from a place that lacks resources and options for work or is ambitious enough to seek better for himself and his family. When he comes to a bigger town or city, he packs in his bag not just a set of ambitions or desires, but also an attitude that he will do any work, to survive, thrive.
He lives in appalling conditions in the city, mostly in slums. He dreams of the wife, children and parents back in his village and he goes to them at strategic times, when it is time to sow or harvest so that the tiny family plot can be productive. He is hence, also a farmer.
He thus is a migrant not just of place, but also profession. He is flexible, adaptive. But most of all, he is a proud human who despite the pathetic conditions of work or living, believes in dignity, his own and that of his work. He will do any work and earn a pittance and survive, rather than beg.
He maintains this dignity despite the heaps of abuses hurled at him daily, be it by his employer or customers. He carries bricks and works in construction, welds in factories, builds homes and roads while sleeping on pavements, serves you in restaurants on hungry stomach, drives a rickshaw or cab and sleeps inside them at night, sells you vegetables and fixes everything from your fan to your mobile. He can be seen cleaning your drains, or pedicuring your legs, cutting your hair.
And while you swoon over self-indulgent film stars with half-brains and politicians with double brains they use to divide society, these migrants ensure that the engine of your daily life runs with as few glitches as possible. Indeed, for every one of your glitch, there is a migrant trying to make an honest living from it.
He understands democracy better than most and he tries to play it to his advantage. He understands that democracy is a game for the urban masses, for no one takes decisions based on his existence. During every election, he goes back to his village to collect the goodies every political party gives him as bribe. Who does he vote in the end? Why, the same party he’d have voted anyway.
Thus he is happy with a toilet made under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan but also knows that the city becomes ‘swachh’ only when he is invisible. Hence he moves through the cracks as if he does not exist and even if you see him, you don’t notice him. At least not until you pull the rug under his very feet like during this sudden, uncoordinated lockdown.
Every once in a while though, a migrant will dare to dream that the city is his as well, and try to land at least a partial root into it. But urban folks don’t like it. We hate them, we push them away.
A handyman in my building in Mumbai had told me that though he had lived in the city for three decades, it never stopped trying to eject those like him as if they were sputum in its breathing tract. In the 1990s he had lived with reasonable comfort near Bandra but had been pushed further and further away so that when I met him in 2008, he used to work in Goregaon but lived in Dahisar.
The slums of cities where most migrants live, are not dens of vices as the rich folks believe, but breeding grounds of dignity, labour, resourcefulness. They are dens of resistance against the apathy of those who have enough currency in their banks, but little in their hearts.
I believe the decisions of governments should always be made keeping in mind the weakest. Because then the others are automatically taken care of. E.g. if you make your roads and pavements keeping in mind a wheelchair user, you will make them smooth enough to benefit everyone. If cities and governments took care of their migrants, it would make the city better for everyone.
People complain that the migrant might take the coronavirus to the deepest corners of the nation. But whose fault would it be? If the migrant does not even have water, what is he to do? If one does not have the foresight to close restaurants while allowing at least home deliveries, if people are not told in advance to allow them to stock up, what else can you expect but chaos despite good intentions? The devil – like coronavirus - hides in the detail.
It is not that the migrant does not know that the novel coronavirus is dangerous. But what does he do of a city that does not care if he dies, either from the virus or of hunger? He is afraid of dying, but more than that is the fear of dying alone. He will quarantine himself atop a tree in the village, but he also wants to be there in case something happens to his parents during all this.
John Steinbeck traveled with migrants to write the classic, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. The main message of the novel – a migrant’s misfortune is manmade, inflicted by those in power forcing them to turn on each other. That message was true in the 1930s America and it’s true for migrants in India today.
When thinking of migrants, what can help is to remember that we are all migrants in some way, each of us in search of a better future, a better life, all in a foreign place. We are all homeless in a way, living in houses, but often taking a lifetime to turn that into a home. Indeed, that is the search in life isn’t it, for a place to call home. And when the chips are down, that is where we head, even if we have to walk 500 miles for it.
The only ‘othering’ we do of a migrant must be the one with the prefix ‘br’. For that is what the migrant really is to us all – a ‘brother’ in life who like every one of us, is in search of a living, and a place to call… home.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)