The eternal longing for the distant home

Abandoned by the very society they helped to build, migrants yearn to return

Some travel for fun, some for the experience of it. Some to find themselves. Then there are those who rally for rivers or similar noble causes. My road trip earlier this month had no such lofty aim — I just wanted to bring my family, stuck in Mumbai since mid-March, back to Chennai.

Around 2,800 km in four days — that is the distance I had to drive to get them home. The maths was simple, but as life keeps reminding us, it is anything but. Armed with two cloth masks, a bottle of hand sanitiser, a 20 litre can of water, and some bananas, I set off in an SUV with a driver just before midnight on May 8, the pass issued by the Tamil Nadu government valid between May 9 and May 12.

Editing reports for the newspaper on a daily basis and keeping track of news developments closely, I thought I knew a lot about the problems and sufferings of migrant workers trying to get back home. Once we crossed Krishnagiri on the way to the Karnataka border, I realised how wrong I was. Vehicle after vehicle, full to the brim with migrants and their families from Erode, Tiruppur, Salem and other parts of Tamil Nadu, zipped past, making their way to Rajasthan via Karnataka and Maharashtra. These were labourers and agents and small-time businessmen, who had collected money, hired buses and then organised passes to get back home. Jobs lost and sources of income drying up, with some being asked to vacate their rented accommodation, they wanted to go back to their villages where they were assured of food and shelter.

A horrifying picture

Talking with them while waiting at police checkposts en route , little did I realise that these migrants were among the luckier lot. Only when my vehicle left the Pune expressway and entered the roads leading into Mumbai did the horrors unfold. Scores and scores of people sat by the roadside — some alone, others huddled together in groups — hungry and tired after hours (or maybe days) of walking in the hot sun, waiting for food and water and maybe a miracle to enable them to go home. Policemen hung around, checking vehicle passes and ensuring that they sat around in one place.

The more people I saw by the roadside, the more I thought about the blank look in their eyes. Was it due to hunger or thirst? Was it that they were tired of walking long distances, or were they thinking about the effort needed to reach home? Was it fear about what the future held for them, or were they worried about their livelihoods once they go back to their towns and villages? Or was it sadness, brought about by the disappointment that the very society for which they had cooked and cleaned, or built roads or houses had abandoned them? Was it due to the inaction of those who had rendered them refugees in their own country? Or was it their way of expressing disgust for a society that entertained itself by watching reruns of Ramayan and Mahabharat while a humanitarian tragedy unfolded outside on the roads?

My driver Ganesh ensured I was back home in Chennai with my family by the evening of May 11, a whole day and a half earlier than the deadline. I still wonder about those I saw on the Mumbai roads — were they able to get food and water? Were they able to catch a train back home? Or were they beaten up by policemen and sent back to their unlivable tenements? Or if they just ended up as statistics on some highway accident report?

The exodus of vehicles from Tamil Nadu to Rajasthan and Bihar, meanwhile, continues unabated.

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