On March 24, 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus threat. Physical distancing was the only medicine deemed available till a viable one was developed. In pockets like Mumbai’s Dharavi, physical distancing was impossible. The residents were anxious. Out of jobs and slowly running out of money, they had to find a way to survive.

Thus, many residents from places like Dharavi – migrant labourers and daily wage earners – left for their homes in distant states on foot. We saw their harrowing journeys on television from the comfort of our homes. They had a chilling effect.

Puja Changoiwala replays these scenarios, with a high dose of sentiment, in her novel, Homebound. The story follows a family of four from Dharavi and their neighbours as they march towards Balhaar, a hamlet in Rajasthan, in the aftermath of the first lockdown.

The big move

Homebound is an epistolary novel in which the young protagonist from Dharavi, Meher, writes letters to a journalist called Farah. In these letters, the author makes generous use of allegories to describe the plight of migrants. In one instance, Changoiwala compares their journey to the beginning of Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March.

In 1903, Gandhi walked 390 kilometres from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi in Gujarat to resist the British salt monopoly. It was a statement of a non-violent protest against a facet of colonial governance.

In Homebound, the march towards Rajasthan’s Balhaar is not imbued with a political motive, but it is a commentary on how an ill-managed lockdown proved hard for the underprivileged.

The novel’s protagonists puts it this way:

“When Baba locked the door of our Mumbai home, I thought about Gandhiji and the fears that might have plagued his mind, as he left his ashram for the celebrated walk. We had a bonus adversary: the virus. Our destination was almost thrice as far as Bapu’s.”

She also says that “Mahatma wanted to attract attention”, while they wanted to avoid it as getting caught by the police would have created more problems.

Changoiwala captures in well-written scenes the consternation around Modi’s announcement about the lockdown. The residents of Dharavi huddle together in front of television to listen to the prime minister’s speeches, anticipating a life-changing moment.

The author reminds the reader of the intensity of the worry by taking them back to demonetisation in 2016. The characters of the novel worry that they will have to face a similar horror – however, this time it happens slowly.

As the characters of the novel leave Dharavi, Changoiwala deploys the tool of fiction liberally to describe the pain of the migrants – for instance, the way they cobble together money and make plans to evade the police. There is a sense of thrill and a mission as the labourers avoid police officers who have set checkpoints to prevent movement on the roads during the lockdown.

Ode to Dharavi

Even as the circumstances become graver, Changoiwala finds a place for humour, mainly in the way she names the characters. For instance, a family from Dharavi is named after subatomic particles, depending on their personalities. So, an optimistic neighbour is Proton Uncle, his apprehensive wife is Electron Aunty and their son – who is the protagonist’s mediocre classmate – is Neutron.

She also makes room for thoughtful humour. In one instance, when the protagonist’s parents are discussing packing for their exodus, her mother asks how many of the gods should she take along.

“What about the gods?” asked Ma, pointing to the five bronze figurines sitting atop a plastic stool, her makeshift shrine. “Do you want me to abandon the gods too?”

“Take any two,” said Baba. “They’re heavy.”

When the family from Dharavi embarks on its arduous journey to its native village in Rajasthan, it packs lightly, leaving a large portion of its home behind. “Our remaining world was too cheap for sale, so we abandoned it,” says the protagonist.

The author captures the sense of abandonment and the pathos of leaving behind the comfort of home – the likelihood of not spending a special occasion there anymore, or, ironically, being able to use the community toilets. And what comes through, perhaps oddly, is a sumptuous description of Dharavi.

“Of course, it’s undeniable that Dharavi has the squalid poverty and hardscrabble lives immortalised across culture. They shine as bright as the sun. However, there is so much more to our labyrinthine slum. Despite the hundreds of thousands crammed in two square kilometres, the sweat and tears do not dampen our ethos.”

Readers looking for a sensory version of an experience of which they have read or seen in the news will find Homebound interesting. Changoiwala handles the core of the novel, the migrant exodus, with sensitivity. And, as always, we are reminded that fiction and fact intersect far more often than we imagine.

Homebound, Puja Changoiwala, HarperCollins India.