It’s the summer of 2020. Eleven-year-old Arun finds 17 strangers sleeping in the fields behind his family’s chai stall, on National Highway 44, outside Nagpur city. The travellers are weary and exhausted, with feet that are blistered and swollen, wearing stained and dirty clothes. In the days that follow, Arun sees hundreds of such people – pregnant women, drowsy toddlers, disabled folks and elderly people – passing through on foot. His family decides to help them; in the process, Arun learns about the impact of the lockdown on millions of migrant workers. Each person he meets has had a unique journey, yet they all have one thing in common – they are desperate to get back home.
This massive migration of India’s workers started with a shocking announcement at 8 p.m. one night.
Arun watched the brownish liquid rise to the brim of the vessel. “Where is everyone?” he asked, as his baba (father in Marathi) turned down the heat. Baba clicked his tongue and told him that there was a new scary sickness called Covid that was spreading in the air all over the world. “No one is allowed to go anywhere,” baba explained. That was why the highway travellers, who usually stopped at their stall for tea and a snack, were nowhere to be seen. Their stall on National Highway 44 was a popular stop for travellers moving from the north to the south of India. Arun wondered if Baba was worried about not having enough customers, but knew better than to ask, since baba never liked to talk about his problems.
It was a hot afternoon in the middle of April. Sitting outside his hut in Kagaznagar town of Telangana, Dilip thought about the news anchors on television announcing that the whole country was going to be locked down in four hours. That was several days ago.
That meant several days without work or money for food. The cotton mill where he worked had been shut down. His employer had provided Dilip and the other workers with some food that lasted them a few days.
He turned to look back at his hut. The roof had blown out in the storm the previous night.
Another worker from the cotton mill came and sat down next to him. “Dilip dada (term of endearment referring to an older brother or a brother-like figure in Marathi), the food supplies are running low and our huts are damaged. Hansraj and I want to go back home. If we don’t leave, we will get stuck here with no food and no home either.”
“How do you plan to go back? Those who tried were beaten by police and sent back. Trains and buses are not running because it is a total lockdown. There is no way out of here,” Dilip replied, anxiously.
“Dada, we are thinking of going back home on foot,” the worker replied.
Dilip fell silent and his heart began to race. He knew he had no choice left but to walk home.
They walked for seven days.
Dilip and 16 other workers from the mill packed a set of clothes, a few kilos of rice and began walking. They carried their belongings on their heads and backs which ached with the weight of their belongings and so they shed a few things early on. The road ahead was an arduous one – they would have to walk 700 kilometres to reach their village in Gondia district of Maharashtra.
None of them had a smartphone with maps to show them the way home, so they decided to walk along the Nagpur-Hyderabad railway line. They walked during the night and tried to get as much rest as they could during the day, so they could avoid the sun that breathed fire on their skin.
Desperate to get home and see their families, for the first few nights, the migrants talked and said encouraging things to keep each other going. But later, Dilip noticed that everyone had fallen silent; no one was talking anymore. They soon ran out of food and water, and their throats felt itchy from constant thirst. Sometimes it would take them two whole days to find a well to refill their bottles.
Though they had packed light, after a few days, even this luggage began to weigh on them like rocks. Some of the people dropped all their belongings on the sides of the railway tracks because they no longer had the strength to keep carrying it.
Days of walking had caused the soles of their chappals to become so thin that they could feel the heat of the road beneath their feet. One of the straps of Dilip’s chappals snapped after four days. At first, he tried to grip his slippers with his toes but it slowed him down, so he threw away his slippers and walked barefoot the rest of the way.
The one thing that kept Dilip going was the thought of seeing his daughter again. He had not seen her for the last five months that he had been working at the cotton mill. He knew he would have to quarantine for two weeks after arrival, and that he could then see her at last. He longed to watch her run towards him; to hold her and spin her around till she giggled and begged him to stop, saying that it made her dizzy. He fondly remembered how he used to set her down and she would hold on to his legs, trying to regain her balance. The memory gave Dilip the strength during those nights to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
After days of walking, and with their spirits sinking with each passing day, the first cry of joy came on seeing a signboard in Marathi. “Maharashtra!” he heard someone shout out joyfully, as scattered cheers erupted. Although they were still a long way from home, they were delighted to be in their home state.
They kept walking until they found themselves on NH 44, outside Nagpur city, before falling asleep in the surrounding fields.
Dilip opened his eyes and saw a young boy standing over him holding a glass of milk
Arun stood patiently waiting for the man to wake up. He didn’t feel like disturbing him. Aai (mother in Marathi) had sent him with a small bucket of milk with some glasses bobbing up and down in it, for the men in the field.
That morning, Baba had found 17 men sleeping in the fields adjacent to their chai stall. Arun’s parents – Aai and Baba – worked on farms in Gondia during the monsoon (kharif) season. But once the season ended and farming work dried up, they would move to Nagpur for the rest of the year and set up a chai stall on the busy national highway for the travellers passing by.
Ever since the lockdown was announced, Arun noticed that business was very slow. Every year, they would usually see passengers getting off buses or stopping their cars on the side of the roads to enjoy the sabudana vadas and upma that Aai made along with some strong chai. But now, the only vehicles passing by were police cars or trucks carrying vegetables and other food items.
This morning, however, was different. In all these years, Arun had never seen strangers sleeping in the fields behind their stall. They were beginning to wake up one by one. Arun looked around and saw that the men’s clothes were stained and muddy, their legs were swollen and their feet were coated with a thick layer of dust. Their chappals looked damaged and many of them had blisters on their feet that looked like they were rather painful.
Arun introduced himself to the man in front of him. “My name is Arun. I am 11 years old. Who are you?”
“I am Dilip,” said the man wearily.
“Dilip Kaka, Aai has sent some milk for all of you. When you are ready, you can come to the stall or just give me a shout. I am helping her make vadas and chai for all of you. We have not had many people come to our stall this year.”
Dilip nodded at the boy and smiled gently.
Arun went back to the stall and pulled at Mangesh Bhau’s shirt. He asked his older brother where all these men had come from and why they looked so worn out.
Bhau told him that just like Aai and Baba leave Gondia after farming season to come sell chai in Nagpur, there are many such people all over the country who have to leave their homes to find work. These men they saw today were workers, he said, and they were walking back home because of the lockdown. Bhau said that many more could be expected in the days to come.
“More men? How do you know that, Bhau?”
“Men, women and even little children! I saw it on the news on my phone,” replied Mangesh.
Before Arun could ask his big brother any more questions, Aai called him and he got busy making chai and putting vadas in pattals (paper bowls).
The next day, Arun watched with wide eyes as people continued arriving on foot. He saw toddlers sitting on the shoulders of mothers and fathers, aged men and women struggling and people arriving who had been standing, crushed together in the backs of trucks for many hours. Arun noticed the look of distress and exhaustion all around.
When two young men arrived on their bicycles, Aai took an instant liking to the boys perhaps because they were so similar to Mangesh Bhau. They informed Aai and Baba that they would be waiting in the neighbouring fields for a few days to see if they could find some transport home. Their names were Ishwaran and Ashish. Arun sat with them for a while and learned that like Bhau, they had also studied very hard when they were young. Ishwaran had studied engineering and Ashish had done an MBA. “We did this so we could get good jobs and take care of our parents,” said Ishwaran. “But then Covid came and we lost our jobs. Our parents told us to come home [Bhandara, Maharashtra] since they are worried about us, living so far away.”
Arun listened and then asked them if he could take a ride on their bicycles. He had never been on a big cycle before because his feet didn’t reach the ground. Ashish Bhau held onto the cycle as Arun pedalled. Then he let Arun sit on the back seat as he rode down a small slope. Arun smiled, remembering his friends from school, some of whom would ride home on cycles while the others walked and playfully tried to get on the back seat of their friends’ cycles while they were still moving.
“Ashish Bhau, I used to love walking home from school with my friends. School was far away from our home, but when you are with friends, time passes so quickly. Your trip here must have been like an adventure, like in the movies, right?” Arun asked enviously.
“I wish it was, Arun,” said Ashish Bhau softly. “But the truth is we grew very tired after hours of continuous riding. We barely had the strength to talk to each other. We didn’t know the roads well and most of them weren’t lit at night. Every night, as we pedalled in darkness, all we thought about was whether we would get home safe and see our parents again.”
As they walked back to the chai stall, Arun thought of the days when he had P.T. in school. On those days, walking back home was extra tiring. He remembered how his legs would feel so heavy that he slept for hours after getting home. Aai would sometimes massage his legs and he wondered how lonely and scary it must have been for Ishwaran and Ashish to ride this long distance alone, pedalling continuously for days, and not having their parents to comfort them.
One evening after Aai had served everyone, she came and sat down next to Mangesh Bhau and the young men with her dinner.
“So Ishwaran, which big city are you coming back from?” Aai asked him.
Ishwaran smiled and replied, “No big city, Kaki (older woman in Marathi, a term of endearment, similar to Aunty). We are here from Bhandara. In big cities, even with a degree, you only get a job as a watchman or shopkeeper. My mother wanted me to become an engineer so that I don’t have to struggle like she and my father always have.”
Aai looked worried. “That’s why I want my Mangesh and Arun to study well so they don’t have to work in farms all their lives like we do. The most I can earn is 250-300 rupees for a whole day’s work. It’s not enough,” she said with a sigh.
Ashish Bhau replied, “Kaki, we both studied in the same college in Bhandara town and then moved to Bidar’s industrial area in Karnataka. We both had good jobs – as a project manager and as an accountant in a factory.”
Ishwaran hung his head low and continued, “Since we lost our jobs in the lockdown, we have been cleaning sand from canals and lakes to make enough money to send home.”
Aai shook her head, picked up her plate and stood up. With a nervous smile, she said, “Your parents are lucky to have sons like you. Please guide my Mangesh about academics before you leave. He will be entering his final year of school soon, and one day, I hope he too will become a graduate like the two of you. I am sure things will get better for you.”
Once she left, the three older boys began discussing something about engineering and Arun’s mind began drifting towards his own school. He wished he could go back quickly and show everyone how smart he was, just like Mangesh, Ishwaran and Ashish Bhau.
Early next morning, Arun and Mangesh Bhau began rolling huge drums of milk they had collected from Param Kaka who belonged to the milk supplying community called Gaolis. Since the markets were shut during lockdown, there were no buyers for the milk and he was forced to throw out the milk being produced by his cows every day. He decided that some of the milk could be used to help the people walking home and so had agreed to give a few drums of milk to Baba everyday to make chai for the travellers.
As Arun looked ahead, he saw around 40 animals – sheep and a few goats – being herded. He asked Bhau if they could catch up with the sheep and they started rolling the milk drums faster. Five families were traveling with the sheep and goats. As Arun came closer, he realised they also had two horses with them carrying their rations. Arun had never seen horses before.
He went up to them, introduced himself and told them to stop by the stall for refreshments. One of the men introduced himself as Parmesh.
“Are you also a migrant going home?” Arun asked. Bhau had taught him his new word which was used for people who moved away from home to look for work.
Parmesh smiled and said, “We don’t have a home to move back to.”
Arun looked puzzled and asked, “How can you not have a home?”
Parmesh then told him that he and the other families with him belonged to the Dhangar community who moved through the country selling their sheep and goats.
“We are not migrants, we are nomads,” smiled Parmesh.
Another new word, Arun thought to himself.
“We pass through Nagpur during this time every year, but this year, some of the villagers are not allowing us to enter and sell our animals, because they are afraid of the new disease.”
“But if you don’t sell your animals, how will you earn money?” Arun asked.
“We are grateful for the people we meet on our journeys, like you and your family who take care of us in our times of hardship. Hopefully, we will sell enough this year to not go hungry,” Parmesh replied.
They walked back to the stall where people had begun to line up for chai and breakfast. Arun saw that Mangesh and Ishwaran Bhau were busy tinkering with the transistor in the stall. Baba used to listen to it every morning but lately it had not been working well. Ishwaran, being an engineer, had offered to help.
As Arun balanced four plates of food in his arms, he wished that like Bhau, he would also find a friend in the crowd of people arriving. And then he did.
Many of the migrants who had arrived first were leaving that evening. Dilip Kaka (older man in Marathi, a term of endearment, similar to Uncle)came to the stall, patted Arun on the head and thanked him and his family for taking such good care of them while they rested their feet. They had waited for a few days to see if a bus or truck was going towards their village but they didn’t have any luck. So they started walking towards home once more. Arun waved Dilip Kaka and the other workers goodbye and went back to setting up plates for the people who had recently arrived.
As Arun began serving one of the families, he noticed a girl about his age, with her nose buried in a book. Arun stood there shyly after setting the plates down, hoping that she would notice him. She finally looked up and invited him to sit with her. Perhaps she too, like him, was looking for a friend, thought Arun. They began talking and she introduced herself as Shasti.
She told him how her mother’s friend had lost her 9-year-old daughter while returning home. The girl had become so dehydrated from the heat that she fainted and never woke up. Arun fell quiet. It frightened him to hear that someone even younger than him had died and would never be able to play games again or go to school.
“My mother said that if people had been given more time to prepare for the lockdown, that girl would still be alive,” said Shasti.
Arun nodded. “Why did they not get enough time to prepare?” he asked. “Why were they told only that night?
“I don’t know,” Shasti replied. “My mother says no one really thinks about people like us, the ones who don’t live in the big cities.”
Arun watched Shasti pick up her book to colour a map she had drawn. She asked him if he wanted to colour too and he was about to join her when his mother called him back to help.
“Come back later,” Shasti said with a warm smile. “I’ll save the yellow parts for you.”
Arun reached the stall and saw his older brother talking to his teacher on the phone.
“Sir, I have to serve chai and snacks to the people here but I have my earphones on and will listen to your lecture while I work,” Bhau was saying.
Arun knew his brother was exhausted as he tried to work and study through the day, but his parents said it was important that he not lose touch with school. He missed running around with his friends and learning new things in class every day. His teachers were also conducting online classes during the lockdown, but since there was only one smartphone in the family, it was decided that Bhau, being older, needed it more.
Arun worked faster that day than he normally did. He wanted to hurry back to Shasti and help her colour her map, excited that he finally had someone his age to talk to. After he finished cleaning the stall, he rushed back into the fields to find his friend.
“Why were you colouring a map?” Arun asked.
Shasti went through her backpack and took out different books. “My teacher gave me a ‘Happy Box’ filled with different types of fun books to read when I am not able to attend school. The map drawing was an activity in one of the books.”
She told him that her teacher had asked her to draw a map of her surroundings, so she had drawn a map of the area where her parents used to work. Arun was amazed that she had worked in an area surrounded by lots of wild animals. Shasti said that her parents worked on a construction site on the outskirts of Mumbai. She told him that she had seen a leopard once and that it ran away when it saw her. Arun gasped and shared with her that he had very recently seen horses for the first time.
They both talked about how much they missed school. Because their parents often moved from place to place for work, neither was able to attend school regularly. The lockdown and worry over the virus spreading was making school seem like a distant dream.
“I erase the answers in my workbooks and try really hard to forget them and solve it after some days to test myself,” Arun told her, sharing how he tried to keep in touch.
Shasti showed Arun all her books one by one and he turned the pages carefully. The books had magical short stories with dragons and magicians and activities like finding the words, crossword puzzles, colouring and mazes.
Arun and Shasti solved a puzzle together after which Shasti read a story aloud while he sat cross-legged in front of her, listening. “What is a four letter word for someone who cooks delicious food?” asked Shasti as they moved on to a crossword puzzle.
“Baba,” replied Arun confidently.
Shasti began laughing and told Arun that the answer was ‘chef’.
Once rested, it was time for Shasti and her mother to leave and they were lucky to find a bus going back to their village. The news of the migrants walking home had finally received attention from the government which had gradually begun arranging for some buses and trains for the migrants.
Ishwaran and Ashish had already started their journey back to Bhandara on their bicycles. Parmesh Kaka’s horses swished their tails as the Dhangar families too left because the grazing for their animals was running out in the surrounding area.
The transistor crackled as Aai called for Arun to start preparing plates for the next set of migrants.
Baba turned up the volume as he poured steaming chai into cups. A young man named Dule could be heard performing a rap song. Bhau had shown Dule’s rap video to Arun on his phone. That song had recently gone viral on the internet, he told Arun. “That means he has become famous and lots of people know his song,” explained Bhau.
Dule, a tuition teacher, construction worker and occasional migrant from Kalahandi, Odisha, sounded angry as he rapped about the pain of migrant workers walking home.
Sarkar, tui jabab de!
Government, answer this!
Oh government! Answer this!
Why is the pregnant woman returning,
Walking thousands of kilometres
Step by step, barefoot
With a baby in her womb?
As Arun listened to the song, he was reminded of the pregnant woman who had arrived in the back of a truck. She could barely stand by herself and looked so weak.
Arun spent the week serving food and chai to the people returning home. Bhau had been right – every morning, they woke up to find new faces who had arrived in Nagpur overnight. As the evening news played on the radio one day, Bhau told Arun how all the big cities were empty and silent for the first time. Night was settling in on NH 44 and the street lamps were coming on. Arun thought about how strange it all was. People in cities were staying inside their homes, and outside their little stall in Nagpur, the centre of the country, as far as his eye could see, there was an endless line of men, women and children, carrying their whole lives on their backs.
It was a lockdown, but the whole country was walking.
Note from the PARI Education team
At the end of 2019, a deadly new disease called SARS-Coronavirus was found in humans. A month later, the virus had landed in India and by March 2020, hundreds of people were infected with the virus, and the number was rising.
At 8 p.m. on March 24, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown with effect from midnight. With just four hours’ notice, all non-essential in-person work as well as all intra and inter city and state transport came to a halt.
Roughly one out of three Indians or as many as 45.36 crore of its people are migrants – people who leave their homes to find work in other places. Most Indians work on their farms, but over the last many decades, farming has become expensive – seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and water cost more than what farmers can earn from their harvest. They have been forced to leave their farms and travel to either labour on others’ farms or to cities to find work. They are the people we see around us – construction workers, building security guards, fruit and vegetable vendors, cooks and drivers.
From March 2020, many of them were stranded in the cities they had been working in – they couldn’t step out to work and with no transport available, they couldn’t get home. Those who tried to get out quickly or flee were lathi-charged or beaten at bus and train stations.
The exodus of migrant workers on foot, from urban to rural areas, is said to be one of the greatest humanitarian crises in India’s modern history. Many died en route from the heat and exhaustion of walking. Those who reached were initially shut out of their villages by their neighbours who feared they were carrying the virus. Once home, the gnawing worry about the ability to earn set in: there were no jobs available in the village – the reason they had left in the first place.
The above short story is based on the following articles published in the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI):
- ‘It was as if the entire country was walking’
- Labouring to a Degree in the fields of Bidar
- Leaving farms in search of jobs that don’t exist
- ‘We don’t have a home to stay at home’
- Online classes, offline class divisions
- The ‘Happy Box’: learning delivered
- With rhyme and reason – rap song for migrants
- Homeward bound through the centre of India
- Vidarbha’s pastoralists paying a pandemic price
With the exception of the reference to rapper Duleshwar Tandi and his work (reproduced in the text), all other names, places, dialogues and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination.
Aai – mother in Marathi
Baba – father in Marathi
Dada – a term of endearment referring to an older brother or a brother-like figure in Marathi
Bhau – male sibling or term of endearment for sibling-like figure in Marathi
Kaka – older man in Marathi, a term of endearment, similar to Uncle
Kaki – older woman in Marathi, a term of endearment, similar to Aunty
Pattals – bowls and plates made from dried leaves
Ayushi Sharma is studying for her master's degree in English at SNDT University, Mumbai. She was an intern at PARI Education when she wrote this short story based on PARI’s extensive coverage of Covid-19 and the migrant exodus of March-April 2020. She says: “Lockdown may have seemed like a collective experience- the entire country going through the same difficulties as one country, but the reality is that some lived through inconceivable anguish as they were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres across the nation.
I wanted to weave together the accounts of migrants seen from the perspective of a child who witnesses their distress and goes on to question what is happening - drawing attention to the neglect and abandonment faced by them during the pandemic.
I hope that like me, the children reading this story can become more conscious of and sensitised to the lived experiences of people in rural India.”
Pairing factual accounts with fiction, reinforces real life stories, turning them into compelling children’s tales. PARI Education would like to thank Sriya Narayanan for her help with directing and editing this piece.