“He has blamed everything on corona,” the old boatman said. “But who is corona? Corona is the mother. Corona does not trouble anyone…”

It took me half a minute to understand the short, bald man, his thin legs sticking out under an oversized shirt, his eyes translucent with cataract, was using the Hindi word for compassion, karuna, for the coronavirus. “Maa ko aakshep laga ke sab band kiya hai,” he said. A compassionate mother has been unfairly blamed for the lockdown.

It was the prime minister who was actually responsible for people’s suffering, the old man rambled on, without naming him. “Poore desh ko per diya hai,” he said. “He has squeezed the whole country.”

There was a sudden and sharp interjection. “Aiye,” a voice growled from behind. “Come here.”

“You keep quiet,” the old man shot back. “Let me speak. It doesn’t matter if she is recording.”

The voice that had tried to intervene was the boatman’s son who was toiling over a half-constructed boat on the ghats of river Ganga in the city of Banaras, part of the Varanasi parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on a slightly rainy morning in the first week of June. He was wary of his father speaking up against the prime minister in front of a journalist. But his father, Sri Ram Manjhi, was unstoppable.

“He is killing the poor,” said the old man, “and promoting the rich.”

What happens when a new virus enters one of India’s oldest cities and poorest regions? We bring you a week of dispatches from eastern Uttar Pradesh, as Varanasi, Banaras, Kashi, finally emerge from two months of lockdown.

Everyone in Varanasi lost work during the lockdown. But not everyone pours scorn over the prime minister, or even the government, for that matter. For the boatmen, the anger is visceral. In 2018, a private company launched a luxury cruise on the Ganga “with the inspiration of the honorable prime minister”. Months later, during the 2019 elections, Modi showed it off in TV interviews.

Most boatmen in Banaras consider the double-decker, 84-seater modern liner a grave threat to their livelihoods – and a betrayal by a leader they voted for in 2014.

But the anger is also specific to their particular predicament. As the boatmen explained, the coronavirus-lockdown came at the worst time for them – just before the mandatory monsoon break from July to September when they have to moor their boats for nearly three months.

“Others have gone without an income for three months,” said Gorakhnath Sahni, who operates a motor boat on Assi Ghat. “For us, this will stretch into seven long months.”

So dire is the situation that even Virendra Nishad, a boatman who shot to fame after Modi took a ride in his solar-powered electric boat in 2016, bitterly criticised the government. “Sarkar ka aadmi hoon, majboor hoon, sarkar ke khilaf nahi bol sakta,” he said. “I work with the government, it is my compulsion, I cannot speak against it.” With this preface, he went on to speak against it for half an hour.

For starters, Nishad pointed out that the Adityanath government had announced Rs 1,000 monthly cash assistance for daily wage workers in Uttar Pradesh. “But not a single member of the navik samaj (the boatmen community) has received it,” he said. “Even though the government has all the details of over 900 boatmen who used to get annual licences for the municipality until three years ago.”

At least such licenced boatmen could be given cash transfers immediately. “What others are getting, we should get too,” he said.

The boats have been moored at the Banaras ghats since March.

Building a new boat

While all boatmen were facing losses, the misfortune of Sri Ram Manjhi’s son, Dinesh Manjhi, was compounded by the fact that he had started building a new boat in February.

“It takes two-and-a-half to three months to build a boat,” he explained, without pausing work, moving his hand rhythmically moved up and down the side of the boat, coating the wooden planks with coal tar. Inside his molten fist, he held a cloth rag that was barely visible. “I would have finished the work by April,” he said. “But then the lockdown happened.”

Neither of the two expert mistris he had hired had been able to come to the ghats for work, even though they lived within walking distance, at Shivala. “The police would chase us away,” said Ramesh Manjhi, one of the two mistris.

Simultaneously, the cost of the raw materials rose. “Wooden planks that I would have normally bought for Rs 1 lakh came at the cost of Rs 1.25-Rs 1.3 lakh,” said Dinesh.

Now, it was Sri Ram Manjhi’s turn to intervene: “Arre, everything became costly during the lockdown. Even the price of atta went up from Rs 25 to Rs 45 per kilo. Sochiye.”

With the lockdown finally easing up, the family was racing against time. Dinesh worked on the side of the boat, his hand dripping in coal tar, which even though it burnt his skin, was essential to “protect the wood from insects and termites,” he said.

His father, Sri Ram Manjhi, now stripped down to his langot, worked at the back, covering the joints of the planks with putty.

The workers took the front, beating holes into metal sheets that would be fixed on top of the wooden planks, before being covered with another coat of coal tar.

Dinesh needed to ensure the boat was rainproof before the monsoon tide came in. “Otherwise whatever money we have invested will drown,” he said. “Na ghar ke rahenge na ghat ke.” We will be left nowhere.

The boat was a big investment for the family: it would cost Rs 11 lakh, said Dinesh. He had raised a loan of Rs 2.5 lakh from a bank and another Rs 2 lakh from friends. The rest of the money had come from the family’s savings, he said. Not that they had much savings, he quickly added. All he earned from his four boats, two motorised and two hand-driven, was Rs 8,000 to Rs 15,000 a month, depending on the season and his ability to attract tourists, he said.

“People don’t mind paying Rs 950 plus GST for the river cruise but haggle with us when we ask for Rs 50 for a ride to see the Ganga aarti,” he said. Like his father, Dinesh was bitterly resentful of the cruise boat and saw Modi’s promotion of it as a sign that he was anti-poor. “Raeeson ko kaam de raha hai, humara pushtaini kaam khatam kar raha hai,” he said. He is giving work to the rich by killing our traditional livelihood. “He talks of India’s glorious history but is destroying our historical city.”

A tottering economy

Dinesh’s older brother had escaped the life of the river. He lived in Ludhiana, Punjab, working in a company that installed intercoms and CCTV cameras in homes and offices for a salary of Rs 12,000. He had dropped his caste surname, Manjhi, and had come to call himself Manoj Kumar. “I didn’t study till Class 12 to do this work,” he said, watching his brother slog over the boat. “I chose to be in a technical line.”

Yet when his brother decided to build a boat, he came down to Banaras to help. He had planned to return to his wife and children in Ludhiana by early April, but the lockdown came in the way. He had spent the last two months, without a salary, worrying about them.

“Don’t ask me about the government,” he said. “Gaali dene ka mann karta hai… Look at what it has done to the economy, where was it, and where is it now.” The economic decline had started well before the coronavirus-induced lockdown, he pointed out. But the lockdown was the final straw. “The poor cannot even afford a roti.”

Then, invoking the metaphor of different caste groups of the Indian society constituting one body, with the lower castes being the legs, Manoj said: “The heaviest burden always falls on the legs. But if the legs are cut, how will the body walk? How will the economy run if the poor don’t survive?”

“Where do the small people go? To Bangladesh or Pakistan?” he asked, vehemently.

Manoj Kumar's family is stranded in Ludhiana.

‘Now you want us to live with corona?’

Even as the rest of Varanasi opens up for business, the boatmen are still to hear from the administration. Can they at least take their boats out for fishing before the monsoon starts? They still don’t know.

With no income on the horizon for the next few months, Gorakhnath Sahni and Bharat Sahni said they were filled with dread. They will have to mortgage their boats, their houses, whatever they had, to raise loans from the sahukars or money lenders, they said standing on the sandy shore at Assi ghat.

Overhearing the conversation were a group of Phd students from the Banaras Hindu University who had come out for a stroll. One of them broke into a debate with the boatmen.

“Who do you think is responsible for this crisis?” he asked. “The Indian government did not create this virus.”

Gorakhnath said in a sharp voice: “Hum sarkar ko jimmedar bahut vishesh taur se maan rahe hai. We consider the government particularly responsible. It could have at least made arrangements for our basic needs...”

“That’s a secondary question,” the student interjected. “The first question is… how many people are there in your family?”

“Eighty five people.”

“For a moment, think that a tourist came, a foreigner came, who was infected [with the coronavirus] and he ended up infecting you,” said the student. “The infection would have spread and laid waste about 50 people in your family…”

The student was defending the need for a lockdown, but the boatmen were firm: in their view, the move was ill-conceived. The government had no business imposing such stringent restrictions on the poor, they said, if it could not feed them.

Gorakhnath shot back, “Besides, how is it that the government is now saying everyone needs to learn to live with corona?”

Gorakhnath Sahni (right) and Bharat Sahni had come to Assi ghat to check on their boats.