When train, bus and air links snapped and an entire country went into lockdown, they were the men and women who became stars of their own epic odysseys, traversing many hundreds of kilometres to reach their sons, daughters or siblings.
Covering yawning distances in cars, a scooter and even a bicycle, the reports of family members, often alone, traversing highways snaking through an eerily quiet, shuttered India stood out like little beacons of cheer and courage in pandemic times.
There’s the mother who rode her scooty 1,400 km from Nizamabad to Nellore to pick up her son, the father who drove from Bokaro to Kota to fetch his stranded daughter, the Amritsar-based elderly couple who travelled to Bangalore to attend their son’s funeral, the woman who went from Lucknow to Delhi and back in a day to reach her sister reportedly slipping into depression.
Driven by love and powered by grit, their travels and travails gave a sense of the vastness that is India and also defined the extraordinariness of everyday people.
Riding her nifty, not-very-sturdy red scooty in her black burqa — a blue scarf trailing over shoulder adding a splash of colour almost as if making a point — with her teen son at the back, Razia Begum became the oft-discussed story of online ‘drawing room conversations’. The headmistress of a government school in Nizamabad, about 200 km from Hyderabad, rode nearly 1,400 km on a scooter over three days during the lockdown to bring her stranded 19-year-old son home from Nellore in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.
The 48-year-old, whose pictures were circulated widely on social media and national newspapers, set out on her arduous journey on a Monday morning armed with local police permission and rode alone to Nellore. She returned with her son on Wednesday evening, demonstrating an endurance level even seasoned rallyists would find hard to match.
“It was a difficult journey on a small two-wheeler for a woman. But the determination to bring my son back overtook all my fears. I packed rotis and they kept me going. It was fearsome in the nights with no traffic movement and no people on roads,” Razia Begum told PTI.
She lost her husband 15 years ago and lives with her two sons, an engineering graduate, and 19-year old aspiring doctor Nizamuddin.
Nizamuddin, who was in Nellore when the lockdown was announced on March 24, was desperate to return home. And the doughty mother did not hesitate to do what was necessary to get him back.
Sheelamma Vasan drove in a car through six states from her village in Kottayam, Kerala, to Rajasthan despite strict lockdown restrictions.
Accompanied by two relatives, she covered the distance of 2,700 kilometres in just three days to meet her 29-year-old son Arun, who was suffering from myostitis, inflammation of the muscles. And he was thankfully okay.
“Due to god’s grace, we reached without any problems anywhere,” Vasan said, recounting her journey from Kerala through Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat to reach Rajasthan. Getting the necessary passes was not easy. It took the intervention of Union Minister V Muraleedharan, the office of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Congress leader Oommen Chandy.
For the parents of Col Navjot Singh Bal, the journey from Amritsar in Punjab to Bangalore in southern Karnataka was not to say hello but a final adieu. Their son, who earned a Shaurya Chakra and ran marathons despite battling cancer, died in a hospital in Bengaluru and they had to undertake an over 2,000-km-long road journey by road to attend his funeral.
The late officer’s brother, Navtez Singh Bal, wrote about the journey undertaken by the family. Some Army veterans expressed sadness after the couple was forced to travel such a long distance by road to perform the last rites of their son.
In a tweet, former Army chief Gen (retd) V P Malik, replying to a post by Col. Bal’s brother, wrote, “Deepest condolences! Have a safe journey. Sad GOI did not help. Rules are never written on stone. They are modified or changed in special circumstances.”
And two days ahead of the lockdown, when India observed a Janta curfew on March 22, a father reportedly undertook a 50-hour journey in his car, from Bokaro in Jharkhand to Kota in Rajasthan to fetch his teen daughter studying in one of the coaching institutes in the town.
Equally determined was a Lucknow woman who drove to New Delhi and back in one day to get her sister. With the lockdown extended till May 3, she was reportedly getting depressed and was without essentials such as food and the woman did not want to wait. The two sisters returned the same day, taking only a few breaks in between.
And one migrant worker decided to cycle down to his home from a centre in Odisha all the way to Maharashtra, desperate to return home and taking only seven days to make the journey, according to reports.
These are just a few stories that made it to the outside world. There are countless more who had no vehicles, so they simply walked, in groups or alone. They are the migrant workers, made homeless in the cities where they worked, with nowhere to go but their home, and no transport other than their feet.
Their tales of doggedness and determination are yet to be documented. But they too are superheroes of sorts in a pandemic that may take months to abate.
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