Even Viruses Like the Taste of a Poor Man’s Food

“Where are they walking back to?”

Image via Flickr.

When the coronavirus lockdown was announced in India, my father was driving a transport truck to Jamshedpur, a city named after an industrialist whose family now owns the biggest conglomerate company in the country. Like everyone else, my father had ignored the first signs of alarm and had hit the highway to make another “trip” so that he could send some more money to my mother back home, more than three hundred kilometers away from his immediate destination. In the beginning, during the first half of March—frightened by the sensational news videos she watches on my younger brother’s smartphone all the time—my mother had protested vehemently; but, when reminded of the burden of expenses they would have to bear in the future, not only had she conceded to his making the journey, but had also actively encouraged it. She reasoned that the virus would never reach a solitary trucker on road. As a consequence, my father left on his journey across rapidly closing state borders, eating cheap meals at greasy dhabas, and buying fuel from remote, deserted petrol stations. Perhaps things would have remained the same for some days, had not the honorable Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, borrowed the European lockdown model and imposed a hasty and stringent curfew, with the only additional instruction of imitating Italian balcony singing to cheer up health-care workers. So that, by the time my father had reached the unloading point, the movement of everything and everyone “non-essential” had stopped, and he was stranded outside a closed factory with little idea of what to do next, and even less money to spend than he’d set out with.

Four years ago, a study by two Mumbai University economists had claimed a massive increase in the number of so-called “lower income” households in the country. For India, this was received as good news. The economists attributed the phenomenon to increasing numbers of drivers, carpenters, and street vendors—people who had risen above the lowest level of absolute poverty and graduated to low-income status by exploiting opportunities in these unorganized sectors. My father, who, at some point in his life, had tried a hand at almost all of these professions, could be cited as a perfect representative of this “new middle class.” Born in a village by a river with no schools and bleak prospects for the future, he swam away his childhood, but once he reached puberty was expected to “stand on his own feet.” In this quest, he’d migrated to the city, where he’d indeed earned a living, sometimes working as a welder, sometimes a mechanic. But when, a few years later, his parents married him to a girl as young and penniless as himself, he found these temporary jobs inadequate to provide for the newly acquired responsibility of a family. To make ends meet, he’d procured a driving license for himself in the late ’90s with the help of a “well-placed” relative. By the time I was born, he was already on the road, earning bread, as he says, “with the beads of sweat on his brow.”

When Modi’s “janata curfew” was implemented on March 22, my father, together with twenty other truckers, had luckily made it to the “plant” of the company whose goods they delivered. The company—which churns an average global revenue of a hundred billion euros—proved its generosity by installing a huge bottle of hand sanitizer outside its closed and vacant factory building. Thanking heavens for not sharing the fate of those truckers who were still struck on highways and at state borders without food or water, my father and his co-workers unloaded their vehicles and filled their stoves with kerosene oil, and then, like men for whom all other doors have closed, began their long wait. It was not an easy trial: summer had started to set in, heating up the interiors of the trucks and forcing them to sleep outside under the sky, where, bitten by mosquitoes, they feared malaria and dengue more than the coronavirus. At one point, driven to desperation by sleeplessness and quickly vanishing money, my father decided to walk back home, which meant covering a distance of more than three hundred kilometers on foot. On that very day, policemen in West Bengal flogged a man to death for venturing out amidst the lockdown to buy milk. My mother begged my father to have patience. But during times like these, even patience is a virtue that comes with crisp currency notes.

Lack of money was why, a few days into the lockdown, the big cities in India witnessed a mass exodus of the poorest of the poor—children, women, and men who had until that moment lived inside these dizzying fortresses of the rich, hidden behind the chandeliers of their malls and the fine draperies of their society buildings. Suddenly, even those who had perhaps never acknowledged the existence of others outside their air-conditioned vaults, began riddling themselves with questions like “Who are these people rendered invisible by crowds outside multiplexes and American fast food joints?” and “Where do they come from?” and “Where are they walking back to?” These were also the questions which had occurred to me when I had first come to Delhi—a nervous, confused small-town girl—and had met on the streets a young teenage boy who had discreetly asked me for money or food. Three years later, I would become habituated to such encounters: a young person would draw me to a corner and ask for help, explaining that his family had lost a day’s work, which also meant losing a day’s food. Upon being pressed further, he would reveal that he was a native of some obscure village in the northern part of India and had come to the city with his father or mother looking for a job. Pointing his fingers in any direction, he would tell me that his guardian had labored at a construction site nearby, while he himself had washed dishes in small restaurants which hired him on a daily basis. Sometimes, he would break into tears confessing that he had been hungry for two, three, four days . . .

When a lockdown designed mainly for the upper and middle class population was enforced throughout the country, and when people were encouraged to work from home, these neglected migrant workers, who had mostly been employed as daily-wage laborers, found it hard to be merely alive in cities where India’s free-market economy had invited them to slave away for entities which did not know how to count below millions and billions. Deserted by their employers and the government alike, they began walking back hundreds of kilometers to their villages in an exodus which had no prophet, no promised land, and in which, if they were the “chosen people,” it was in the sense that they were chosen to suffer and die.

When I heard these stories of employers shunning migrant workers during a health-care disaster of unprecedented scale, the first thing that came to my mind was an appalled thought: never once in life had I asked my father who was his boss or how he was paid. Before, whenever I had read a book about the struggles of the working class—like Zola’s Germinal, which seemed personal to me since my grandfather was also a coal miner—I had pictured my father as a Maheu or a Morel, sweating away his life for a salary which was barely enough to keep him and his family afloat. But it had never seemed important to me to go further than this and ask him questions about the conditions in which he worked. So, the next time I called him, on the small Nokia 1600 set he’d had with him for what seems like forever, he was elated that he could tell something to his English-speaking, “university-educated” daughter.

“I am first-class,” he’d said, dismissing my worries about his health and diet with the phrase he’d learned God-knows-where, “Food is first-class and we have our own local Bisleri water to drink.” When I asked him what he meant by “local Bisleri water,” he laughed and told me that a temporary tiffin-service brought him and his colleagues food and hand-drawn water filled in reusable plastic bottles. I had assumed that the mysterious owners of the closed factory outside which he and other drivers were lodged must be paying for these meals and had enquired about the same with him. “Of course,” he had answered in his loud, sarcastic voice, “Not one paisa. We pay for our own food.” “And your employers?” I had asked. “We don’t have employers,” he’d said before explaining to me the nature of his work, “we have contractors.”

It was during the thirty-minute conversation which followed that I learnt how he had never interacted with the “COMPANY” and how his dealings happened through a contractor who hired truckers, paid them their small salaries after keeping a portion for himself, and dismissed them as per his wish. He also told me how these companies, by hook or by crook, never allowed the formation of any worker’s union, but dissolved all developments in this direction by filtering in a lot of money and “connections.” The “laborer-men” who worked inside “plants” and factories were also hired by contractors who went to far-off villages and brought back a cheap workforce of destitute peasants and landless laborers. Many came on their own in search of a livelihood, whereupon, they lost themselves in these cities of big buildings and small hearts.

As I was speaking to my father that day, I was suddenly reminded of the story of an electrician who was working at one of the several detention centers Modi is building across the country. The names of his relatives were missing from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which, in combination with the new citizenship laws crafted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), can render millions of Muslims stateless. He feared that one day his brother-in-law would be locked up inside the same jail he had helped build. Busy with the struggle of earning a living, he, like millions other Indians who live in poverty, had never learned the meanings of big words like “nationalism,” “internal security,” or “five trillion economy,” but those in power had learned them very well. How unconcerned these powerful men were with the lives of those who toiled to afford one meal a day as others feasted on their expense, was evident when, in February this year, the government spent money building a huge wall to hide slum areas from Donald Trump’s privileged, first-world gaze during his visit to Modi’s home state of Gujarat. This attitude also reverberated in the prime minister’s lockdown addresses, when he asked people to come out on their balconies and bang pots and pans, when many did not have balconies, or houses, or even pots and pans. And when the starving migrants started dying of hunger and exhaustion, his government announced a package—with much pomp and show—in which five kilograms of grain was given to each person from the state-held food stock of 80 million tons. To give final touches to this murderous stance towards the working class, labor laws were relaxed unconstitutionally in several states across India to make up for the “Covid-induced labor shortages.”

In April, as the lockdown entered its second month, migrant workers started dying of starvation on roads and railway platforms. A father wept in misery watching his children scramble for food. A man tried to douse his hunger by eating from the carcass of a dog. Video of a toddler trying to wake up his dead mother went viral on social media. A laborer’s corpse was found inside the washroom of one of Modi’s much flaunted “laborer trains.” Ivanka Trump romanticized the suffering of a little girl helplessly carrying her father on a bicycle. India’s Solicitor General told the country’s Supreme Court that journalists were “vultures feeding on the migrant crisis.” Fifteen houses were reduced to rubble by the military in Kashmir. Tens of students and activists were labelled “terrorists” and stuffed inside jails. People hoarded food in their fridges and made excited comparisons of the pandemic with Camus’s The Plague. And Modi—who calls himself a “beggarly man”—reminded his voters of the new citizenship laws and the abrogation of article 370 in Kashmir, while also, as a side note, sought “forgiveness” from India’s poor over the Covid-19 lockdown.

My father finally reached home just a day after Eid. On April 13, the Indian home ministry had finally “clarified” that there was no ban on the interstate movement of heavy transport vehicles. Following this, my father had made another one of his “trips” after being stranded outside the deserted warehouse for more than twenty days in order to ensure that there was enough money to compensate for his long inactivity. Perhaps he would have continued driving if the difficult and uncertain period of waiting had not unnerved him to the point of homesickness. So early one morning, he had handed to his contractor in Jamshedpur the key of the vehicle he was assigned, and had left behind the industrial city, hitchhiking in a fruit-seller’s truck as far as the outskirts of our hometown, from where he had covered the remaining distance on foot. At home, he was greeted by my mother and my siblings, besides the cow they had bought on loan, convinced that dairy farming was the solution to all their financial problems. He named her Ramzu, because it had been picked from the cattle-market during the holy month of Ramadan. She stays tied outside our house, under a shed my brother had built overnight. Every alternate week, my mother bathes her with a fragrant soap, expressing hope that my father would be home to celebrate Eid with the family next year.

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