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‘1232 km: The Long Journey Home’ review: Seven days and nights

On March 24, 2020, millions of migrant workers across the country were reminded that it is impossible for the poor to live on their own terms. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of an unprecedented national lockdown at a four-hour notice to contain the spread of COVID-19, left people unaware and stranded in their cities of work, away from home. Soon, they were without food, shelter and jobs and no immediate arrangements from the government were in place either to take care of the enormous workforce.

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Perilous journey

The acute uncertainty made the migrants, backbone of the economy, look for a chance to survive.

The sudden shutdown of all businesses robbed them of their livelihood and turned their struggle into one against starvation. It was the fight to live and be with their families that pushed lakhs of men, women and children on the roads even as the government made it mandatory for people to stay indoors.

They undertook perilous journeys, no matter what the distance was and the risks it entailed. A shameful parade of heart wrenching stories unfolded on the country’s State and National Highways — these were stories of accidents and anguish, hunger and deaths, exhaustion and escapades. Few were told while many more remained untold.

In 1232 km: The Long Journey Home, journalist-cum-film maker Vinod Kapri, documents one such nightmarish experience of seven labourers who bicycled from Loni in Ghaziabad near Delhi to Madhepur in Bihar, covering a distance of 1200-plus kilometres in seven days and nights. Kapri set out to make a documentary film on the biggest exodus in India after Partition. But a book about the physical and psychological trauma of Ritesh, Ram Babu, Ashish, Krishna, Sonu, Mukesh and Sandeep evolved on its own because Kapri became a part of the story as a witness to one of the toughest journeys of internal migrants.

N. Ram aptly quotes from T.S.Eliot’s The Hollow Men in the foreword to reflect on the sorry state of the governments that failed to deliver on their promises of reducing the problems of the poor. Instead of providing them with life-saving necessities during the lockdown, for 10 weeks the powers that be let the highways turn into a desolate world of the deprived and the defeated; a world of the people, who have been victims of social indifference and senseless suffering for decades due to distorted development.

The new form of mass civil disobedience had to be recorded for posterity, writes Kapri. The world needed to see the sufferings unleashed on the migrants, who were unaware of their ingenuity and brilliance and strengthened by their struggles.

Staring at hardship

The book is filled with true incidents that are both distressing and inspirational. The bruises and betrayal the migrant workers faced tug at the heart with a message: that hard times don’t just break a person; they also can make a person, like the seven protagonists who stood tall in solidarity each time when the police beat them down; or they endangered their lives with a detour into forests, fields and rivers in order to circumvent sealed borders; or continued to pedal ahead on empty stomachs because turning back would have meant death.

The book’s power lies in its account of the ordinariness of a common man’s life, hit by loss of income. It asks a simple question: How do we save the phone numbers of those who make our living easy — the man who irons our clothes, the security guard of our apartment block, the vegetable vendor, the carpenter or the plumber? Do we know their names or care where and how they live? Dhobi bhaiya, akhbaarwallah, subziwali, is how we mock at their existence that is often devalued and degraded.

During the pandemic they came to us feeling stuck and lost. When a 30-second video by 22-year-old Ritesh, on empty canisters to show the plight of 30 labourers from Bihar going without food, went viral, Kapri arranged for help. But on April 27 he came to know the group had left for their village on second-hand cycles. He called to enquire how would they manage food en route or seek help if somebody fell ill or if their cycles got punctured but realised that the virus of hunger, poverty and mistrust was deadlier than the coronavirus.

With associate Manav Yadav, he followed Ritesh and six others in his car to record their journey, with rules laid for the documentary — that nothing would be created or staged for the camera, there would be no interference from his side unless an emergency, the ground reality would be filmed as a 10-minute spot recording every two hours.

Kindness on the road

Poignant instances became pages in the non-fiction: When the labourers cried to their families on phone; tried to cross the Ganga with cycles on their shoulders to avoid police check-posts; searched for leftover food in the bins; were shooed away by locals from coming near the village well fearing infection; unemployed youths tried to rob them off their cycles at gun point; and they were locked up in quarantine centres without food for 24 hours in their home-State. There were heartwarming instances too: When the workers got two full meals and air-conditioned comfort for the night on May Day, or when good samaritans repaired their cycles or truck drivers offered free lifts.

Kapri saw the migrants bear the brunt of police brutality and humiliation with resilience and re-energising themselves with unexpected help from kind strangers. The pangs of misery were defeated by outstretched hope and that is why these stories will be remembered for long.

1232 km: The Long Journey Home; Vinod Kapri, HarperCollins, ₹399.

soma.basu@thehindu.co.in


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