Foreign workers work at a construction site, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 7, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri
When I met Appunni in front of a government hospital in a village near Kollam, Kerala, in June 2018, he looked weary.
His shirt was crumpled, and his white dhoti was yellowish, as if it had not been washed properly. He had a thin, patchy beard. His eyes looked dull.
However, Appunni was looking smarter than he did when I met him last in Oman, in 2015.
People should look healthy and happy when they are with their dear ones at home, shouldn’t they? But Appunni didn’t appear so.
I had come to Kollam on my bike on a reporting trip. I knew Appunni’s house was near Kollam.
I had not met him since 2015. But we had not lost touch. We would occasionally talk over the phone even when I was still in Oman and he had returned to Kerala.
He was always thankful to me for helping him while he was in Oman. Once in a while, he would call me and ask about my well-being.
After all the greetings, he would tell me, “Reji, would you please help me get a job visa?” I used to ignore the question, since I didn’t want him to come to Oman again. But I never wondered why he wanted to come to Oman again.
When I arrived near the hospital, I rang his number. I saw a white Maruti 800 cc car coming towards me and parking. It was Appunni.
It was the car he had bought with the money I had raised for his survival. There were some scratches on the left bumper and door. The black bumper guard looked grey. The tyres were worn out.
Appunni stepped out of the car and came towards me. He hugged me. In Kerala, people don’t usually hug each other, especially in public.
However, Appunni and me, having been in an Arab country for a long time, had picked up the etiquette of that country in the manner of our greeting each other.
Greetings come in all forms in the Arab world. Touching the shoulder, kissing the shoulder, shoulder to shoulder, handshaking, hugging, kissing, and then there are nose salutations, too.
Kisses are often exchanged by people who haven’t seen each other for a long time.
Greetings are followed by inquiries about ones’ health and family members. Getting straight to the point or getting down to business is regarded as abrupt and impolite. Interestingly, no one knows at what point in time these greetings took shape, or whether they emanated from the region or were imported from other places. But it’s lovely to watch and experience.
After we exchanged greetings, I spotted a towel and a new Hamam soap, still in its wrapper, on the dashboard, while placing my backpack on the bonnet of Appunni’s car. I was surprised.
I asked Appunni why he was keeping a towel and a bath soap in the car. He said, “I don’t live at home, Reji. I sleep in this car, here. This white metal box is my home. And it will be my coffin, too...” he said.
It was worrying for me to hear that. Being in his hometown, he was not staying in his home?
Before asking him why, the memories of Appunni talking to me when I first met him in Muscat, came to mind.
I met him for the first time on the shores of the Arabian Sea in Muscat in 2015. At that time, all he desperately wanted, was to go home.
He was wearing a white shirt with black stripes and torn, faded blue jeans. His sandals were old and didn’t have buckles. I could see that he was struggling to walk with them on the sand. But he was pretending that everything was fine.
While walking, unexpectedly, he told me, “Reji, do you know what is on the other side of this sea? It is Kollam, my home, my sweet home. Some days, I come here in the evening and sit. On the other side, there is my home. I have even thought of swimming across this sea to my home.”
He continued, “My daughter, her child, my loving wife, my boy...my small home...it’s heaven...”
Yes, he exhibited a desperate longing to go home. He had left his home when his daughter was ten years old. She got married off in 2005. He couldn’t go to his hometown even for her wedding. He had tried. He had landed in India, too. But he was taken back, forcefully.
And now, meeting him in his hometown, Appunni is telling me that he is not living in his home.
I finally asked, why. “Reji, I am an unwelcome guest in my own home. I stayed elsewhere for twenty-two years. It was not that I was absconding. I was earning whatever I could and remitting it home. They survived on my money. But when I came back with so much love and needing to be loved, they saw me as if I were an unwanted guest...so, I left...”
He paused, then said, “Reji, do you remember, I asked you for a visa after I returned...you probably thought that I just wanted to return to live in Oman? No, it was not that at all. I wanted to die in Oman so that I could prevent my family from facing an embarrassing situation...I am a shame for them, Reji...”
In Kerala, the first question anybody would ask a migrant worker who has come on leave would be...”Eppo vannu...eppolaanu thirichu pokunnathu... (When did you come...when are you going back?)”
If the answer had a date of return, then all would be happy. Even the near and dear ones. But if there was no date of return, then there would be long faces.
Even if a migrant worker said that he would go only after three months, it would raise eyebrows and prompt, supplementary questions would follow, “All well there? Your job is safe? Will you be able to stay back till then without salary...?”
However, what happened in Appunni’s case is different. Appunni himself has the answer.
“Neighbours who had migrated to the Arab Gulf had built mansions and bought big cars. I couldn’t do anything. My house is the same. Some small renovations were done. That’s it. You know who can mint money in the Arab Gulf, right?” Appunni asked me.
Yes, in the Arab Gulf, a monthly wage earner will not earn much. However, those who do business, prosper. The kafala system helps businessmen to make a surplus profit by exploiting migrant workers. Additionally, even as the common man believes that Arab countries have strict criminal laws and punishments, on the ground, laws are flouted very easily. If you are a businessman with ‘good’ connections, you can mint money.
And if you are involved in visa trading, human trafficking— yes, human trafficking of men and women workers—or the liquor business in the Arab Gulf, in a year or two, you can build a home worth crores in Kerala and drive a luxury car.
After working as an irregular worker in Oman for some twenty-two years, Appunni was unable to earn anything substantial.
Excerpted with permission from Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf, Rejimon Kuttappan, Penguin Books.