“A boundless fear gripped me,” lamented Tukli Kol, a widow and mother of two children. “What played in our minds was the question of whether we should return to our village or stay back, even if there was no food”, she continued, recalling the havoc the abrupt Covid-19 lockdown of March 2020 brought to her. “The city was dead” exclaimed Dharma Singh, a painter in his late 40s from Kanpur, living in a homeless shelter in the Yamuna Pushta area. For him, no job was too small, no wage too little but there was nothing to be found.
These are two of the many stories which make A Boundless Fear Gripped Me so heartbreaking to read. Now imagine people living their realities. Written by journalist and researcher Pamela Philipose, these are stories of those who were rendered helpless during the worst humanitarian crisis India had witnessed in recent times. Their homelessness, pain and plight, fear and frustration, anxiety and anger were exacerbated by the (mis)management of State policies. It is an account of those who the State did not bother to count. As reported by The Hindu –The Ministry of Labour and Employment did not have any data of migrant workers who lost their jobs and their lives during the Covid-19 lockdown, MP Santosh Kumar Gangwar informed the Lok Sabha through written replies to several members’ questions.
It is a tale of the toil of the marginalised on whose labour this city thrives, who were left to die to save those who could afford to live in their safe houses, could work from home with their laptops, and could keep up with the State’s whims. In the first chapter, the author gives a striking image of what’s coming in the following pages,
“The punishing Delhi summer was at its height, the second wave of the pandemic – which had led 1.3 million to leave the city – had barely receded, and the trauma it had wrought was still apparent on the faces on women, men, and children I interviewed”
The pandemic certainly is not over yet.
The invisiblised residents of Delhi
Along with the disturbing stories from the margins of the city, the book presents even greater daunting data. Over 70 per cent of Delhi’s population lives in unplanned settlements, including slums and bastis adjoining the high-rise posh colonies and around 90% of the workforce thrives on informal work. With an empathetic tone, the book documents the conversations of the author with the residents of Delhi who couldn’t prove they were one during the pandemic.
As the lockdown strengthened, the Public Distribution System was the only source of relief. However, those who did not have a ration card were pushed to starvation and in the worst cases, death. Ration cards are only provided to those households who are able to furnish Aadhar cards, address proof and electricity bills of their place of residence.
How do people who don’t have a place to stay or who take shelter roadside procure these? “My children had given up the habit of eating” recollects Yashoda of Lal Gumbad Basti. As the author noted the children experienced “double deprivation” – unavailability of food at home and loss of mid-day meals and education as the schools shut down. The author forces us to think, who did this lockdown manage to save? And at what or rather whose cost?
Ruby, whose basti near Nizamuddin was set on fire in 2017, was already homeless when the harshest lockdown was announced. However, she would earn some money by working at people’s homes and even this came to an end with the lockdown. Things have been extremely difficult for her since. She developed the habit of not sleeping at night out of fear that someone would snatch away her children. With a lot of pain she told the author that she would like to have “a room of her own” some day, rather than living in a homeless shelter.
The irony of social distancing
“Nearly 16 million faced displacements, which included the two million whose claims to forest land stood rejected. Being destroyed were not just buildings, but people’s lives and sense of themselves as human beings”
The author brings out the irony that at the time when people were strictly demanded to confine themselves to homes, to follow social distancing, it was the same time when hundreds of thousands of roofs were crashed down through demolition; the lockdown was an opportunity for the state to go ahead with “clean up operations”, without any notice, without any mercy. Neelesh Kumar, who works with the Basti Surakhsha Manch, which offers aide to displaced people asked, “Can you imagine Delhi without the people who built it? Those who have money and have built palaces on forest lands illegally have escaped, unhurt, while these improvised families are being rendered invisible, jobless and homeless so that Delhi can be beautified?”
This brings us closer to one of Mahasweta Devi’s short stories; “Jamunabati’s Mother” where a poverty-ridden couple dearly loves their daughter and wishes for a better life for her. But deep down they knew that they cannot ensure this, they won’t be able to, and are forced to blame themselves for it, for being born poor. The mother bemoans in the end that without getting rid of her and others like her, this city, this country, and this life will never look beautiful, that because they exist, there are so many obstacles in the path of progress. Perhaps, as could be read from the accounts in this book, the state would also like to remove such obstacles so that there is “progress” for cities, indeed, for the country.
A journey to nowhere
“The bus people packed 200 people into a vehicle that was meant to carry 70 at most… there was no air to breathe; everyone was vomiting all over each other. This was at the height of summer too… I almost passed out. I was in such a state that I could hear my children tell people that their mother had died.”
People migrate to Delhi is to find work, in search of a better life and to get out of poverty. Most of them are daily casual wage earners. How were they supposed to survive a lockdown? Did the government think about them before enforcing the lockdown?
Once their meagre savings were exhausted, there was no hope for the situation to get better. There was no option but to go back. With the lack of public transportation, travelling back to their homes alive was an uncertainty. The author in her conversations draws out details like how a single seat on a bus was being sold for as much as Rs 4,000. With jobs snatched away, with state support subjected to endless paper work, chances of survival were grim even after reaching home. The author rightly asserts that the ways of the city were created to exclude rather than include.
Where will she go? What will she do?
“They (police) would just warn my husband to behave himself, threaten him with imprisonment if he beats me again, and would go away. In fact, every time they left, my husband would start beating me more for bringing beizzati (dishonour) upon him.”
The above testimony was from Sarika who was burdened to feed her family all by herself after her husband fell prey to alcoholism. During the pandemic she was confined with him in their house, exposing her to an “unending cycle of violence and abuse”. On the other hand, due to rapidly increasing cases of domestic violence, police regularised it as a “normal in any marriage” thing. The author argues that while the pandemic might have declined in intensity with time, the negative impact of aggregated domestic violence will remain with women like Sarika for the rest of their lives.
Another aspect that the sharp analysis and observation of the author didn’t miss was the subsequent liberalisation of liquor sales to cope with the financial down hit due to two successive lockdowns and its proportional impact on the surge of domestic violence at home. She asserted that the easy availability of alcohol at a time when families were at their most vulnerable has damaged lives beyond repair. Additionally, the eviction and demolition drive that the state undertook in the guise of the lockdown brought numerous women on the street and one can only imagine the horrendous dangers they were then exposed to.
Last but not least, Covid-19 brought with itself a crisis of care. The lockdown severely impacted the well-being of the disabled, elderly, and children. The State retreated and to fill that void, women stepped in to provide care to other members of the family as well as taking on economical burdens. Secondly, a large population was forced to rely on the mercy of various organisations, NGOs, and generous people who would occasionally distribute food. It was the women of the families who stood in long queues to collect food and other items of ration.
A Boundless Fear Gripped Me points to the lopsided notions of citizenship and progress in a country such as ours where millions of people live dangerously close to poverty, starvation, and death. At a time when history is been re-written, records are being erased and curricula are being censored, the author fearlessly brings anti-history – a history against the order of the time, a history of the marginalised, a history of pain and protest.
A Boundless Fear Gripped Me: How the Other Half Lived in the Pandemic’s Shadow, Pamela Philipose, Yoda Press.