Since India’s lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus, imposed on March 25, lakhs of men, women and children have undertaken gruelling journeys from cities to their homes. Most of these are informal workers walking back to India’s poorest states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha.
The harrowing journeys have made headlines in India as well as internationally. Journalists and social activists have highlighted why the migrant workers felt compelled to undertake these dangerous treks, braving the blazing summer temperatures and police brutality, and without food, water or maps.
What has struck me is the poignancy of the images, especially those that focus on a single face or family. As the individuals emerged from the crowd, an important story of India unfolded: the story of a strong, caring, brave India with a big heart. It is different from the violent India we’re so used to seeing across news channels.
These images make visible and bestow dignity on the mostly invisible people who build India’s rapidly-growing cities and supply crucial, back-breaking labor for their functioning. They portrayed moral character and show the efforts people undertake to return home and be with their loved ones. Humanity, at last, is on display.
A thousand words
There is a moving image of a stalwart man, rather fair in complexion, probably in his 30s, who is carrying a diminutive older woman, much darker than he, wearing a blue sari. It made me wonder if this could be his mother or an older woman in his extended family or circle? The unbearable strength, courage and tenderness for him to undertake an interminably long journey by foot, carrying her in his arms, exhibits a quiet fortitude and a deep compassion.
Just as arresting and tender is the photo of another younger man carrying an elderly man on his shoulders. His gnarled hands clutch the young man’s brow, his knees locked in capable hands.
Another is the image of a man and his son taking turns to pull their family in a wooden bullock cart, along with one bull, a reminder of how men often shoulder the sole burden of the entire family. Clearly, these two are the family’s second “beast of burdens,” doing whatever it takes to navigate them to safety through the treacherous 800-km journey from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh.
Another man – with a wooden pole across his shoulders, two small children, probably a one- and a two-year-old – hanging on each end to distribute the weight is on a journey of 1,200 km from Andhra to Chhatisgarh. Only men with grit, who have toiled in the fields and in cities to send money back home, would consider such a feat of muscle power and utmost devotion.
There are also painful images of women walking with children in their arms, on their backs and by their side.
What is also heartening is that even in the bleakest of times, many have not abandoned their love for their pets. A young man, probably in his early 20s has most of his face covered by a black scarf. One can see his eyes, his red shirt and in each hand what look like cloth bags. One has a goose in it, the other a dog.
What must it take to make such fearless decisions to not only flee to the safety of one’s village, but do so by foot? How big a heart does it take to make sure you don’t abandon your loved ones, and physically carry them with you, not knowing if you could even make it alone? What kind of faith and endurance must it take to follow the railway track or the road through many unknown places where one knows they will be shunned as the fear of the virus sweeps the nation?
Is it the same kind of faith, courage and determination that enabled them to move to the cities in the first place. They migrate to these urban centres, knowing full well the hardships. But they endure it, so they can send money home, feed their families and make their lives easier.
They come to the cities, often alone or with very rudimentary support, not knowing what obstacles and challenges they will confront. They rely on precious little: their hopes, labour, and wits. As they make these impossible journeys back home, they do so with the hope of returning their homes, to people for whom they care and who care for them.