A homecoming robbed of joy: Stories from a Vande Bharat flight
We’ve seen two kinds of returning migrant workers during the pandemic: those who were flown back and those who walked till their soles bled; but for both of them, their journeys were filled with loss
It was six in the morning. Rohit Bagla was trying to push his large and heavy suitcase into the overhead rack of the Deutsche Bahn train leaving Vienna for Frankfurt.
It was cold, but he was sweating profusely, beads trickling down his unshaven face. A few minutes into his Sisyphean struggle, he gave up. He nudged his suitcase into a corner behind his seat, sat down, and looked around. As our eyes met, his face lit up. He walked over to me. “Indian?” he asked, in great anticipation. My affirmation led to a burst of follow-up questions. I answered, but he wasn’t listening. His mind was elsewhere. He asked me why I was returning. I told him my visa was expiring in a month. I was avoiding the risk of getting stranded in Europe.
What about you? I asked. “Family problems,” he responded curtly and returned to his seat as the train moved out of the station. Through the journey, whenever I looked at him, I found him staring out of the window with lifeless eyes.
We reunited in Frankfurt and travelled together to the airport, getting to know each other a little better. Bagla told me he had lost his job.
He had arrived in Vienna in February, interning at an international bank on a contract for a year, unaware that a pandemic was nipping at his heels. Office closed down in March. The pink slip arrived in April. There would be no compensation, no payment, no support. His only hope was to leave the city of dreams and music and return to his hometown, the blue city of Jodhpur.
Bagla was wrestling with the indignity of his return. His family and relatives had gathered to celebrate the day he left home. Sweets had been shared and blessings obtained at the Ganesha temple. Now he was returning empty-handed, carrying only the sour grapes of job loss and the stigma of being a possible carrier of COVID-19.
We parted at the waiting section next to the boarding counters. Bagla wanted to charge his phone. He had to talk to his wife. They had been married for just twelve months and he had been hoping to bring her to Europe next year.
Indian nationals from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, arrive by a Vande Bharat Mission flight at Kozhikode airport, Kerala. | Photo Credit: PTI
Frankfurt airport was eerily quiet except for the Vande Bharat flight desk. Embassy staff were making video recordings of hagiographies from passengers on the Vande Bharat Mission. Airport security bicycled along the long queue snaking around the airport, urging passengers to follow safe distancing rules.
They needn’t have bothered.
Most had deputised their luggage and were sitting elsewhere. The silent queue of suitcases parted from their owners was a nostalgic reminder of similar ones dotting the platform outside unreserved compartments on Indian railways.
Anupam Bordoloi was finding it hard to keep his five-year-old son from jumping over suitcases. His wife finally intervened and dragged him away. We chatted during the interlude; his sideways glance fixed on his son who frantically wrestled with his mother. Bordoloi worked for a tech firm and had lived with his wife and son in Frankfurt for three years. Last year, he got his aged parents to come over from India to stay with him. His work contract, tied to his visa, was up for renewal, when, in March, his office decided otherwise.
The family had packed their Frankfurt apartment into seven suitcases and landed at the airport. He was returning to Digboi, a small town in the northeastern tip of Assam, moving back with his parents to save rent. A homecoming wrapped in spreadsheets. “I could go to Bengaluru, but too many friends will ask why I have returned, why I couldn’t stay back. I can’t deal with the questions,” he said.
We heard a commotion. A debate was unfolding in the knot of people sitting opposite us. In anticipation of the thermometers that awaited them at the boarding desk, a family of four had popped a few paracetamols. On witnessing this, another passenger reprimanded them. The argument was beginning to gather tempo when an embassy employee came along and asked everyone to submit a copy of their indemnity forms. The whole corridor soon rustled with paper. Bordoloi rejoined his family just as his son wrenched free of his mother’s grip and hurled himself at the nearest suitcase.
In the indemnity form I signed, I absolved the government of India of any inadvertent exposure to COVID-19 during the flight. When I boarded, I found myself in the middle seat, boxed in from both sides.
Repatriated Indians arrive at Kochi harbour from Maldives, on INS Magar, under the Vande Bharat Mission. | Photo Credit: PTI
A buzz of discontent throbbed in the air. One gentleman from Coimbatore had received his flight ticket only when he was already on the train from Stuttgart to Frankfurt. “I would have had to return if I hadn’t got the ticket; I arrived here on blind faith,” he whispered through his mask.
A young person from Aizawl, Mizoram, who had just completed his Master’s in hospitality management in Glion, Switzerland, grumbled that this was the most expensive one-way ticket he had ever bought. An old Bengali couple, who had travelled all the way from Zurich to Frankfurt, were figuring out a face-shield for the first time. They dangled it from their chin until another passenger decided to help them out.
When Sunil Mishra plonked himself on the seat next to me, the metal frame that joined the seats uttered a soft groan. Mishra claimed he was an angel investor, one of those rare ones who travel economy. He was excited about a new venture for which he was raising investment in Oslo — fully automated pathological laboratories in India.
“Why automated?” I asked.
“When it is handled manually, there’s too much inconsistency, each person does things differently. With automation, we can churn out many more accurate tests a day.”
My doubts about job losses were drowned in the outpouring of his neoliberal dreams.
The flight took off. A few people clapped. One person shouted, “Vande Bharat”.
An elderly Bengali lady muttered something under her breath. The odd familiarity of the word penetrated her mask, face-shield and the noise of the engines to reach my ears: jottosob (ridiculous!).
It was an ominous homecoming. The usual rush to eject ourselves from our seats the moment the wheels touch the ground was missing. So was the urge to elbow each other while opening the overhead stowage bins. A strange disquiet had set in. As if no one wanted to step out.
As we slowly started to queue up, I heard someone holler in Hindi behind me.
“Put on the hoodie, Mishra, they won’t be able to identify us otherwise!” A group of passengers, all wearing hoodies emblazoned with the logo of an Indian software company, were shouting out to my seat-mate. Mishra, it turned out, was part of their group. His elaborate story had come undone. Mishra was no angel investor out to automate laboratories in India. Just like the laboratory workers he thought were expendable, he too had perhaps been laid off in another country. He had tried to spin his return into a success story.
Passengers from London arrive in a Vande Bharat Mission flight at Gaya airport, Bihar. | Photo Credit: PTI
There have been two sides to India’s migrant labour crisis during COVID-19: those who have flown back home and those who have walked till the skin peeled off the soles of their feet.
No less than 4,87,303 Indians have asked to be repatriated during the pandemic. Of those who have managed to return, 20,000 have signed a government register for future employment. The scheme — SWADES — piggybacks on the title of a popular Bollywood film on homecoming in which the protagonist, a NASA scientist, returns to his village and builds a mini-hydropower project to electrify it. SWADES, however, in the government’s acronym-speak, is Skilled Workers Arrival Database for Employment Support.
Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyaan — the scheme to provide jobs to migrant labourers returning to their villages — does not have the word ‘skill’ in it. But it has the word ‘poor’. There is a common thread, though, that ties migrants across class lines. Homecoming has always been episodic, synchronised with festivities, clement weather, and family events. A sojourn filled with nostalgia and an assured date of departure. This time, the pandemic robbed migrants of all classes of their sense of certainty. And distorted homecoming into failure.
It perhaps explained the lifelessness in Bagla’s eyes when I met him on the train that morning. I saw him one last time when he got off the ramshackle and dust-filled Delhi Transport Corporation bus in which we were ferried to our quarantine sites. As he prepared to enter the hotel, he was stopped at the main gate. A hotel staff arrived with a large spray and Bagla watched as his suitcase was doused with sodium hypochlorite.
As the vapours of hypochlorous acid wafted briefly through Delhi’s scorched air, it dawned on me that for countless migrant workers, from now on, this would be the smell of homecoming.
(Names changed to protect privacy.)
The writer is a Leverhulme Trust Ph.D scholar in human geography at the University of Edinburg, U.K.