By the time we entered Bhimnagar, it was pitch dark. Ritesh tried to show some enthusiasm, and asked a middle-aged man passing by, “Brother, is there any cycle puncture shop nearby?”
He knew the more time they wasted in this small town, the more difficult it would be to cross it and then they would have no option but to spend the night here. More than this fact, it was the lost kilometres that bothered the group. They knew the entire team would fall short of their planned daily coverage by at least 30 kilometres, and they would have to cover it the next day to stay on course.
“There is one, but it’s closed due to the lockdown,” the man replied. “I think you’ll find an open shop in Chandausi.”
“How far is Chandausi?” Ritesh was now concerned.
“Maybe 4 kilometres, but even there, people are following the lockdown rules,” the man said.
“So where does the person who owns this cycle repair shop live?”
“He lives nearby, in the masjid lane.”
The moment Ritesh heard this, his eyes lit up. “Oh, good!” he said. “Brother, you have given me great news. Now give me his name and address.”
“I don’t have the address. Carry on for 200 metres and then take a right turn, and you’ll reach the lane. Ask anyone where Ashraf puncturewala lives. They’ll direct you.”
The information gave everyone a fresh burst of energy and they literally ran, crossing the narrow by-lanes, and reached the mosque. The place seemed completely desolate. Ram Babu later shared with me that he had been wary about what the locals would do if they came to know that outsiders, that too seven of them, were in their neighbourhood. He was aware of news reports over the last few years showing how deeply mutual distrust had crept into society and how incidents of crowd-led lynchings had occurred.
“I think we should leave this place. I don’t know how the people will react.” Krishna made his fears known. He was deeply aware of the dangers a single wrong turn could cause, and constantly advised the group not to do anything brash. It was he who had made every effort to stop Ritesh from crossing the Ganga by foot. Everyone understood Krishna’s concerns and were about to leave when they saw a vegetable seller slowly pushing his cart towards them.
They asked him for Ashraf ’s address and within moments the entire team was in front of the house, wondering which of them would knock on the door. Sonu stepped forward. His cycle chain wasn’t working properly. Older than Ritesh by just five months, he was twenty-three years old and just as intrepid. Among all of them, he had the strongest reason to reach his village. He had become a father just two months ago and hadn’t had the chance to see his newborn daughter yet.
Sonu knocked on Ashraf ’s door. Within moments the door opened, and a man in his early thirties stood before them. “What do you want?” he asked.
Sonu came straight to the point. “Brother, I had some work with Ashraf.”
“Yes, I am Ashraf; tell me.”
“Ashraf bhai, this is Ashish. He has a flat tyre and even my cycle – ”
Ashraf cut Sonu off. “No, no, it’s not possible right now. Can’t you see there is no light?”
“Brother, please help us.” This time it was Ashish’s turn to beg for help.
“I told you it’s not possible. My child is unwell. Please come back tomorrow at 8 am.”
“How can we come in the morning?” asked Ritesh glumly. “We are going to Bihar.”
Ashraf was startled. “Bihar?”
“Yes, Saharsa in Bihar.”
“And where are you coming from?”
“So how far is Bihar from here?”
“Close to 1100 kilometres.”
Sonu, Ritesh and Ashish knew Ashraf was mellowing and needed just one more push. “Please help us, brother. We’ll remember you throughout our journey home.”
Ashraf stood there thinking for a moment, then quickly closed the door and went inside. Everyone was confused, wondering what to do next, when suddenly, the doors opened, and they saw Ashraf come out with a bag. “Okay, whose cycle has a puncture?”
The group started dancing with joy. Ashraf not only fixed the puncture on Ashish’s cycle, and the chain on Sonu’s, but also quietly checked and fixed minor problems in everyone else’s cycles. When the labourers tried to offer him money, he folded his hands and said, “Just pray to god that if any day I am stranded like you are, I too get help from a person of god.”
Everyone’s eyes were now moist. Ashraf’s humanity and his willingness to help had energized all of them. It was now 8 pm, and I asked them what they intended to do. How long would they cycle now? Ram Babu replied with great enthusiasm that if the cycles didn’t cause a problem they could travel through the night.
Excerpted with permission from 1232 km: The Long Journey Home, Vinod Kapri, HarperCollins India.
‘1232 KMs’ review: A timely reminder of the perilous journeys of migrants during the 2020 lockdown