July 9, Thursday, 6.40 pm
On the playground of a Chennai Corporation middle school in Broadway in North Chennai, men in masks and dhotis lined up in front of a vat to be served dinner on flimsy paper plates.
A stout Tamil man with a blue tag that identified him as a municipal corporation official used a small plate to scoop and deposit mounds of what looked like vegetable pulao on their plates. Job done, the official started his bike and drove out.
The men, meanwhile, stood on the red earth, finishing their meal. Others lounged on the playground slide, on the steps, playing with their phones, chatting amongst themselves. Some filled water bottles, others took out their frustrations on their children.
Temporary occupants of this school turned migrant shelter, the men, a few with their families, had been living at the shelter for a few days to a few weeks. They were drivers, furniture makers, masons, painters and other skilled workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, who had moved to Chennai for work, but were now desperate to go back.
Over 100 days since India first went into lockdown on March 25, these 90 migrants were still waiting for news of a “gaadi” or a “vandi” – a Shramik train – that would take them home. So far, 100 trains have left Chennai carrying 1.35 lakh migrants, a senior official of Chennai Corporation said.
These migrants had followed batches of others to spend between a few days to several weeks at this shelter while they waited for the train. The bathrooms were filthy, there was no running water, and they were served variations of rice three times a day: at 8.30 am (Pongal), 12:30 pm (some form of rice), and 6.30 pm (pulao with pickle).
Outside the shelter, the entire neighbourhood knew them as the “Hindi kaaranga (Hindi people)” who lived in the school. They could not leave the shelter to wander off as they had been told “Covid will spread if they go out!”
6.50 pm: ‘Please do something’
The azaan from the neighbourhood mosque drowned out all the commotion of the shelter. Ram, Gurudev, Pappu all wanted to know whether there was a train that night. Everyone spoke at once: “Kal bhi ek train tha.” There was a train yesterday. But they said they had been told not to go out of the shelter.
“Even today there is a train but frankly we know nothing.”
“First we went to Central Station and then they brought us here. It has been two weeks.”
“They said a bus will come to pick us up this evening, is it true? Do you know?”
“Even if we get to Jharkhand then there is no issue,” said Gurudev, “we need to go to Bihar but I am happy to go to Jharkhand and find my way from there. Even if I get sitting space on a train that’s ok? Madam, kuch kijiye na?” Please do something, madam.
Ram from Orissa’s Raighar, who worked on construction sites in Chennai’s Thiru Vi Ka Nagar, had with his family spent one month and six days at government shelters. “I have been shuttled between three schools so far. The reason wherever we go is: “Abhi gaadi nahin hein.” There is no train now.
7 pm: ‘Be patient’
A local policeman drove in on his motorbike and asked in Tamil if anyone was scheduled to leave the shelter that night.
“In-charge yaaru? (Who is in-charge?) Anyone who can speak in Tamil?” he asked kindly. “Has anyone told you anything about trains leaving tonight?” This reporter began to translate back and forth between the two sides.
“Even if we can go up to Jharkhand, we can go from there,” Gurudev repeated himself.
“If there is a train then they would have told you by now,” the policeman said.
“There is a train tonight, sir. The sir (referring to a volunteer) who brought us here told us.”
“There is a train but the way it is done is through seniority. Those who came before you all are allowed to go first. They get priority,” said the policeman.
“Do you know how many days till the next train?”
“They will let you know. Be patient,” the policeman added.
“When I see them suffering, I do wonder how I would have felt if I was in their situation,” the policeman said to this reporter. “Say I had gone to live in another state to earn a living and have no idea how to get back home. That’s how they must feel.”
“Many of these guys don’t do any big work,” he continued. “They work small jobs in a quest to bring their families up to a certain comfort level. They must be married, have left their families behind, that makes me very sad.”
He said he understood the frustration. “Mind yaarukume free-a illa ippo (The mind is not free for anyone right now).” Over the weeks, he had sought help from the Muslim residents of the neighbourhood to communicate with the migrant workers. “I say to them ‘Please come and help me understand what they are saying.” His message has been to tell them to keep calm. “I know it is frustrating but don’t take it out on each other. Just be calm and go back home. If there ends up being a case here then for no reason, you end up in prison here.”
The policeman himself had stayed away from home in a separate room for three months. His shift had been packed from checking on migrants to signing off on dead bodies at Covid-wards. “As a policeman, I have a duty and I can’t deviate from that.”
“Vandi illiya, sir?” Isn’t there a train? – a Bihari migrant fluent in Tamil asked him.
“Vandi illa, pa (No, there isn’t one). If it comes, they will take you immediately. Please don’t worry.”
7.30 pm: ‘Isn’t there a curfew?’
As the policeman exited the gate, the migrants returned to worrying about the train home. “They told us we can get on the 4 pm train to Jodhpur today,” a migrant worker from Madhya Pradesh said.
“Even if we can go up to Jharkhand, kuch bhi problem nahin hein,” Gurudev repeated once more. “We have just been lying around here for a while. Maybe we should just show up at Chennai Central? But how do we go by auto? Isn’t there a curfew?”
Someone else offered: “I am sure they are getting local people to dress up as cops, how else do they have so many cops on patrol?”
A call from a volunteer at Chennai Central alerted migrants that the group from Orissa had secured a place on the 11.30 pm train that night. The train was bound for Howrah Junction but would stop in Orissa and Jharkhand.
“Only the 14 migrants from Orissa have to leave the shelter,” the volunteer made it clear. There was a sudden scramble at the shelter. The Oriya migrants took two steps at a time as they ran upstairs to pack their bags. Ram was part of the group and told his “ladies log” – his wife and sister – to put their things together. He then went outside the shelter to negotiate with autorickshaw drivers. For the 2-km journey, a fare of Rs 150 per auto was decided.
The rest of the migrants watched as the Oriya migrants carried their bags and stacked them up inside the autos. There was excitement but “I don’t want to talk about it till I am sitting on the train,” said one of them.
Some of the other migrants began calling volunteers and friends to enquire about trains so they too could leave this school. “I don’t know what to do after a month here,” said a migrant from UP. “Should I go back home or listen to my employer and return to Kerala for work?”
As the three autos were fired up and began moving, a group of men came to stand outside the shelter. No words of farewell are exchanged.
7.50 pm: ‘Bored since TikTok was banned’
After a speedy ride through some of North Chennai’s internal roads, the migrants were dropped off at Central Station and carried their heavy luggage over to wait for the volunteer they had been communicating with.
Ahead of them were a sea of migrants: the confirmed passengers sat in neat rows just near the barricades leading up to the inside of the station, to their left were those, some referred by NGOs, who had shown up hoping they could get on this train, and on the opposite side – under a large billboard of Bear Grylls and Rajinikanth – a group from Jharkhand who would likely be the last to be considered if there is space on the train.
Ram and his group met their volunteer contact and were led closer to the barricades to line up neatly. They seemed nervous but calm. There was a silence amongst all migrants who just waited – sitting on their haunches, on bags, on plastic buckets. Of sheer anticipation, their eyes fixated on officials near the barricades. A tea-seller handed out small white cups to rows of migrants and poured ginger tea into them for free.
A young man, Vijay, from Uttar Pradesh with a heavy backpack walked over to a volunteer to ask if he could go home soon. He said he was returning for a religious function. “Yes, likely on Saturday when the trains to Bihar and UP will run,” he was told. Vijay returned to his group of friends – five young men from the same village – who said the wait over the last week has been harder. “Since TikTok has been banned, we have been very bored,” he said.
8.45 pm: ‘Apna time aayega’
Rows of men and women were asked to rise up on their feet, gather their things and move forward. An official made an announcement over a speaker that was inaudible.
Ram rose to his feet but hung back to get in step with his wife. He was wearing a green t-shirt, a white dhoti, a black mask, and carried a backpack and an off-white carry bag packed to the brim which had printed in black letters the word ‘HOPE’.
Behind him, walking towards the crowd of migrants who were still unsure if they would make the train, were two millennials with funky haircuts and a t-shirt that read ‘Apna Time Aayega.’
Later that night, the train pulled out of the platform carrying 1,650 passengers including those who sat under the gaze of an adventurous Rajinikanth.