The heat radiating through the tin roof was unbearable. Muthaiyyan sat up and looked at the fuzzy silhouettes of his wife and child lying next to him. Both of them had lost a lot of weight due to lack of nutrition and care. Selvi was pregnant again. She was in her fifth month now. Muthaiyyan felt like crying. A lump formed in his throat as he thought about his helplessness and inability to provide two square meals to his pregnant wife and three year old daughter, Jyothi.
He got up, noiselessly opened the tin door, came out and sat on the plastic chair by the door.
A line of tin-roofed shacks, arranged like a goods train, lay before him. There were a few tall buildings, still under construction, a short distance away. The Medical College, Engineering College, Arts College, with their students’ hostels, guest houses, auditorium and other buildings, looked like ghostly shadows under the dim light of the street lamps.
The private University campus being built on a hundred-acre plot was supposed to be opened in July with a grand inauguration ceremony.
The cursed coronavirus pandemic had brought all work to a standstill on 25 March.
Muthaiyyan felt restless. He went for a walk between the rows of shacks. Some people were sleeping on rope-cots outside, not being able to bear the heat indoors. The builders had given each worker a 10-by-10 foot single-roomed tin shack. There were a few bathrooms and toilets a short distance away.
Almost three hundred labourers lived on the campus, of whom only thirty were from Tamil Nadu – from cities like Salem and Trichy – and about ten from Kerala. The rest were all from Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal. There were very few workers who had come with family, like Muthaiyyan had.
Walking in the semi darkness, Muthaiyyan noticed that a lot of the shacks were vacant.
So much had changed in the past one month.
The company had disbursed salaries on 1 April. “We can’t pay you salaries anymore,” they said. “We have no idea when construction will resume.” Even after this firm announcement, nobody thought things would get worse so quickly.
The bus and other transport services were stopped, and it became difficult to even go to the town fifteen kilometers away for groceries and vegetables. Walking thirty kilometers in the April heat was killing.
When the bus services were operational, a milk vendor had delivered milk at their doorsteps. Now, they had to buy milk powder for their children and have black coffee themselves. Soon all their supplies were exhausted, and they had to survive on just one meal a day. By 15 April, the situation in the colony became really grim.
The company turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to their problems. The two security guards at the godowns had no information for them. Besides, they were in deep trouble themselves.
In the meantime, the labourers were getting all kinds of news on their mobile phones.
On the one hand, they heard encouraging reports: a lone migrant labourer from Hyderabad walked 1000 kms to reach Sivagangai in ten days. On the other hand, they were given depressing news as well: sixteen people were walking along the railway lines and fell asleep on the tracks due to exhaustion; they were run over by a goods train and lost their lives. Or, eight people were crushed to death by a speeding truck while walking on the highway.
By 20 April, hunger and starvation struck the colony, and the labourers from the North decided to leave come what may. The ones with bicycles loaded their stuff on them and rode off homewards, while others decided to walk, deciding that it was better to die at home than die here of starvation.
Only a few Tamil family-men like Muthaiyyan and some elderly people had stayed back.
Whatever money they had saved over the last two years was available in the bank accounts they had opened in town. But they would have to walk thirty kilometers to get the money. Even so there was no guarantee that the banks or the grocery shops were open.
What was the point of having money if they couldn’t use it to buy anything? How long was this misery going to last? Days? Months? How would they go home if they spent all their money here and now?
Muthaiyyan was vexed thinking about all this; he returned to his shack and sat in his chair again, feeling dejected and homesick.
Muthaiyyan belonged to a small village called Pallipalayam, near Cuddalore, just off the highway, a half-hour walk from the main road. The village had only two streets: where the potters lived, and where the Reddys and Naickars lived. At the end of the streets was the Pavadairayan temple.
His father had passed away when Muthaiyyan was just sixteen. He decided to quit his studies and learn pottery. He was hardworking and sat at the potter’s wheel for hours on end, making close to forty clay pots and containers per day.
His mother would collect the clay from Vadhikaal and Thethaangarai and soak it overnight. Muthaiyyan would wake up at the crack of dawn and stamp the wet clay with his feet and knead it. He would have some leftover rice around nine o’clock and sit at the wheel. He planned his day’s activities meticulously and would rise only after making thirty or forty pots.
HIs grandfather would comment frequently to Muthaiyyan’s mother, “The way your son is going, looks like he will be able to build his own tile-roofed house very soon.”
But all his dreams were washed away by Cyclone Gaja in 2011.
Torrential rains and heavy winds caused the sea to swell, and the high waves came crashing into his house. His mother, who was sleeping in the kitchen, was trapped in the debris and died. Muthaiyyan, who was sleeping on the other side, survived miraculously. The village, its people, their cattle, the trees…everything that had existed until the previous night had vanished in the morning.
His maternal uncle and aunt, who had come to visit him, consoled the shaken Muthaiyyan. They stayed back till the last rites for his mother were completed and took him along with them to Senthamangalam. It was a village on the banks of the Kaveri near Thiruverumbur. His uncle had a banana plantation on a two-acre plot.
Muthaiyyan took on the responsibility for the plantation. He spoke with people who had studied agriculture and learnt ways of improving the yield. The earnings that were at twenty-five thousand rupees a year soon grew to forty-five thousand rupees. Three years later, when he was twenty-five, he married his uncle’s daughter. Selvi conceived, and gave birth to Jyothi.
His friends suggested that he should plant the red variety of bananas and double his earnings by exporting them. Muthaiyyan went to Kerala, bought the saplings, took the neighboring plot on lease and planted red banana on the three-acre plot. He took loans to buy fertilisers and pesticides. The plants grew healthy and tall and were ready to fruit within ten months.
While they waited in anticipation, Cyclone Vardah hit the Tamil Nadu coast on 9 and 10 December, 2016, and all the banana trees collapsed and perished in its aftermath.
Before he could blink, all his hard work had been blown away in a flash. Not giving him any time to recover from the calamity, the moneylender was already knocking at the door and demanding repayment. Even after mortgaging all the jewellery he had, Muthaiyyan was unable to clear his debts.
What could he do? How was he going to repay the remaining debt? He needed money to make his land arable, and he was at his wits’ end. It was then that Murugesan from the next street came over with an agent.
“Even my land is devastated, and I am struggling to make ends meet as well. This man here is from Karur, a friend of my brother-in-law. They are looking for construction labour to work in Andhra Pradesh. They will pay ten thousand rupees and provide you free accommodation and food. It will be a two-year contract and will pay a twenty-five-thousand-rupee advance. I have decided to repay my loans with that amount and go.”
Murugesan was a bachelor and could go without any hassles. But Muthaiyyan had a wife and child to think about. He thought about the offer deeply and felt that it was feasible. He decided to leave Selvi and Jyothi at his uncle’s place and go alone. But the agent argued, “Why? Let them also come! They pay Rs 8000 for female labourers. Why do you want to miss out on that money? There is a childcare centre in the colony itself. If you leave your children there in the morning, they will feed them, give them milk and take care of them till you return from work.”
Ten and eight…that would make eighteen thousand. Plus the child would be taken care of. It was a matter of only two years, it would pass in a flash…And it wasn’t as though they were going abroad, they were only going to Andhra, which was so close by…
From the twenty-five thousand rupees he received as advance, Muthaiyyan paid back his remaining debt of twenty thousand rupees and then bought two sets of new clothes for himself, Selvi and Jyothi. He gave his uncle two thousand rupees and said, “Give the land out on lease. I will send you money every month.”
Muthaiyyan, Selvi and Jyothi left for Chennai by bus with Murugesan and Ekambaram’s family. The agent bought them food and helped them board the train to Hyderabad along with the other labourers who had come from Karur and Salem.
They got off the train at Hyderabad the next morning. They had the breakfast that was given to them and travelled to the construction site by bus. The ride took two hours. They were building a hundred-acre private university campus. There were many other labourers from the North. They could see a compound wall around them, with only the foundations of a few buildings erected. Otherwise it was barren land.
The moment they reached, they were asked to take a bath and were given lunch packets. They were then taken to the nearby town, seventeen kilometers away, and asked to open bank accounts in the local bank. With the advance of two thousand rupees, they bought grocery, vegetables, kitchen utensils, pots and pans.
The contractors realised that if workers from the same state who spoke the same language, were made to live together, they would waste a lot of time chatting and criticising the company. The Tamil labourers were sent to separate shacks and made to work on different buildings to ensure that they couldn’t talk to anyone freely or make friends.
On the third day, they realised that the promise of free food and housing was eyewash. There were no houses. Only tin shacks. The contractor announced rudely, “We will give you 5 kg rice every month. Cook your meals yourselves.”
Work started on the fourth day. They had to report at 8 am and were allowed to go home for lunch at 1 pm. They wouldresume work at 3 pm and continue till 7 in the evening. The work was backbreaking and tough. Jyothi’s daycare was also a tin shack, where a middle-aged Telugu woman took care of the children. However, they gave the children a glass of milk, some rice and an egg every day, which was reasonable.
Muthiayyan was not used to mixing cement, mortar and gravel. Within a week, his hands and feet were completely bruised and covered in sores. Their flimsy rubber slippers lasted barely ten days. They tore off strips of empty cement sacks and fastened them to their feet for protection. By the time they returned from work, utterly exhausted, and then bathed, cooked and ate, it was ten o’clock at night.
The next shock that awaited them was over the first month’s salary. The contractors claimed that the advance, house rent, childcare and such other amenities provided by the company had to be paid for as well, and gave Muthaiyyan only twelve thousand rupees instead of the promised eighteen thousand. He was shocked beyond belief.
“We are ruined Mutthu. They promised a lot, and this is what they have delivered. We are stuck here…We have signed the two-year contract as well. We can do nothing but work quietly for two years…” lamented Murugesan. Muthaiyyan didn’t know what to say.
He sent two thousand rupees to his uncle and kept five thousand for his expenses, depositing the remaining five thousand in the bank.
Muthaiyyan’s plans of saving one lakh twenty thousand rupees in two years, at the rate of five thousand rupees a month, didn’t materialise. This was because of the twenty-five thousand rupees he had to send for his uncle’s intestinal surgery, and the ten thousand he spent for Jyothi’s hospitalisation when she had typhoid. Unexpected expenses sprung up from all directions, and he was left with only forty thousand rupees in his bank account.
He decided that he would go back home with whatever was left once his contract expired in June, but that too seemed like a pipe dream with the Coronavirus pandemic. Their lives had been devastated in the last two months.
“Mama, why are you sitting outside so early?” Selvi came out of the shack, rubbing her sleepy eyes, and sat next to him.
“Have you thought about what Murugesan anna had suggested?”
“Mm…Yes…We should leave…”
Murugesan had come to meet them four days ago. His eyes were blazing red and his expression, sullen.
“Anna, where have you disappeared? Haven’t seen you for four days! You are keeping well, aren’t you?” Muthaiyyan asked with concern.
“I have a bad cold… My Bengali neighbour’s son had a fever for the past week. I took him to the town on my bicycle and admitted him to the hospital there. Since there was no one to buy him milk, food and medicines, I stayed back with him. He was feeling a little better; so I left my cycle with him and walked back today. I am dead tired and there is nothing at home. Selvi, can I have some hot water?”
Selvi made some black tea and gave him a tablet for fever.
Murugesan came to meet them again the previous day and said, “When I was in town I met the lorry driver Reddy who transports cement for us. He said that the company’s owner is a kind-hearted man and feels very bad for all of us stuck here. If we all agree, he can take us by truck and help us reach Chennai via Ongole and Nellore. The other Tamil and Malayali labourers are ready to go. It will cost four thousand rupees per person, and there will be no charge for children. Let us take this as a path shown by our Lord Pavadairayan and leave. Shall I tell them that you are willing to leave too?”
The plan was to leave the coming Tuesday and reach Chennai by eight o’clock on Wednesday morning.
The menfolk shook off their exhaustion, walked together to the town and withdrew the required money from their bank accounts. Muthaiyyan withdrew twelve thousand. He enquired if the rest could be transferred to the bank in his village. He bought a kg of rice, half a litre of milk, biscuit packets and bananas. Then he paid Reddy eight thousand rupees as fare for himself and Selvi.
By the time they came back to the camp, Murugesan could hardly walk another step. His fever had shot up, and he coughed incessantly. He dragged himself back to the camp somehow. The next morning, Muthiyyan went over to Murugesan’s shack to give him some hot porridge. When he returned, he told Selvi worriedly, “Anna looks sickly…I hope we reach home safely.”
They bathed, took their food and groceries, water bottles, packed their good clothes in a trunk and got ready to leave. They boarded the truck with their belongings. There were twenty-six people in all, including seven women and children. The women were made to sit on one side, while the men stood towards the front of the truck. Muthaiyyan helped Murugesan into the truck and made him lie down on one side.
Since they would have to pay a hefty toll tax if they took the highway, and there would be a lot of checking by the police as well, the truck driver decided to drive through narrow, bumpy, inner roads.
“We have to travel 640 km. It will take us fifteen hours to reach Chennai via Nallakonda, Athangi, Ongole and Nellore. All of you just lie down wherever you can. It is getting dark,” Veluswamy announced loudly and firmly.
Murugesan’s persistent cough sounded jarring in the silence of the night, and everyone was getting annoyed. He tried to stuff the end of his towel into his mouth to stop his coughing but it was no use. After travelling for four hours, Reddy stopped the truck in a small village on the side of the road. All of them got off, urinated under the trees and behind the shrubs, ate a little, stretched themselves for some time and then resumed their journey.
The truck would not make any more stops now. Reddy wanted to reach Ongole in five hours.
They curled up within the truck and tried to sleep. Murugesan couldn’t even lie down. His body was raging with fever and his cough was getting worse. He was crying out in pain.
“Shall I give you some water, Anna?” Muthiayyan asked. Murugesan answered with difficulty, “I am not able to breathe…I can’t take it anymore…”
When Muthaiyyan switched on the flashlight on his cell phone and looked at Murugesan’s face, he saw his lips were dry, his face twisted in agony, and he was panting for breath. Veluswamy and a few others also woke up and were shocked to see Murugesan’s state.
They panicked and asked Reddy to stop the truck. On seeing Murugesan, Reddysaid worriedly, “We will reach Ongole in another half hour. We can admit him to the government hospital there. He seemed to be all right a few hours ago! What happened? Is he having chest pains?”
They reached Ongole as planned, went to the government hospital and helped Murugesan out of the truck and helped him sit on a bench. The nurse from the emergency ward came out sleepily, rubbing her eyes. She had one look at Murugesan and said in Telugu, “Looks like a Corona case. He is in such a serious condition…Move away…Don’t touch him.”
All the men standing around jumped back as if they had stepped on a snake. They had travelled together with Murugesan for so long! God knows how many of them were infected by him.
There was utter chaos and turmoil for the next half hour. The duty doctor had a look at Murugesan and called someone on his cell phone.
“We can’t admit him and give him a bed till the senior doctor comes and checks him. We may have to call an ambulance and take him to another hospital.”
“Sir, there are women and children in my truck, and it is my responsibility to ensure they reach Chennai safely. You kindly take charge of this person sir, please,” Reddy said pleadingly and handed some money to the attendant. The man accepted the money with a nod.
Muthaiyyan felt sad and guilty about leaving Murugesan alone like an orphan.
“Anna, shall I stay back with you?”
“No, you have a pregnant wife and child with you…You leave. I have money…Don’t worry, I will manage.” Murugesan said breathlessly.
Reddy sprayed the inside of the truck with disinfectant generously, and by the time they left, the sun had come up and it was becoming hotter by the minute.
Selvi said, sniffling, “Mama, what is this? We are going away, leaving Murugesan anna all alone!”
Nellore was 140 km from Ongole, and they could get there in two hours. When they were 10 km away, the truck jerked violently and came to an abrupt stop with a thud. The axle was broken.
“Major repair…We have to get another truck and tow this one away. I spoke to the owner. He asked me to give you back a thousand rupees each. If you walk swifly you can reach Nellore in an hour.” The disappointment of not being able to keep his promise of taking them home safely was evident in Reddy’s voice.
All the passengers got off with their luggage, took the money and got ready to walk. Jyothi’s slippers snapped as she jumped off the truck, while Selvi felt a shooting pain in her lower back.
It was noon, and the sun was blazing above them.
“There is no point waiting…Come on, all of you get going…” Veluswamy shouted.
Selvi said softly, “My back is hurting badly, Mama.”
“I am hungry,” cried Jyothi.
When Kadiresan’s children also said they were hungry, they decided to stay back while the others made their way to Nellore. Kadiresan and Muthaiyan’s family sat under a tree and opened their food packets. The fifty-year-old Manickam, who was struggling to walk because of painful bunions on his feet, also stayed back. They had a few fistfuls of rice, then drank the water they had left. Manickam ripped the towel he was carrying into two pieces and tied them around the soles of his feet.
“It is getting late. Let us leave,” said Kadiresan, standing up.
“You go ahead…” said Muthaiyan, taking out a towel from his trunk. He tore it in two halves the way Manickam had and tied them tightly around Jyothi’s feet. They could see Kadiresan’s family and Manickam walking far ahead of them already.
“Get up, Selvi…If they get too far we will not have anyone to keep us company…”
Selvi got up with a moan and walked slowly, holding her husband’s shoulder for support. Her lower back was throbbing with pain. She bit down on her lip hard as she laboured on. The food bag she was carrying felt heavy, and she was breathless within ten steps.
“Appa, my feet are hurting…” wept Jyothi.
Muthaiyan set down the trunk and lifted Jyothi up on his shoulders. He resumed walking, carrying the trunk in his left hand. He kept looking towards the road in the hope of spotting a car or truck driving by. But the road was empty except for the occasional car that whizzed past, ignoring his extended hand.
“Appa, I want water. I am thirsty,” Jyothi said repeatedly.
“Hold on for some time. Just swallow your saliva.”
The bright sunwas hitting his eyes, and he could hardly keep his eyes open.
Kadiresan, his family and Manickam looked like small dots in the distance, and then soon disappeared from his sight.
Every step that Selvi took felt like she was walking on a bed of nails. She breathed deeply, and when she took the next step a sharp, stabbing pain shot up her lower abdomen.
“Ma….ma…” It was agonising call.
The food bag slipped from her hands, and she droppedtothe ground with a thud. ’Aaah...aiyyo…Ma…maa,” she groaned.
Muthaiyyan, who was walking a few steps ahead of her, put Jyothi down hurriedly and, throwing the trunk aside, ran back to his wife. Selvi was crouched on the road. His eyes fell on the red puddle spreading beneath her folded legs.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.