The audio file is 42 seconds long. On one end is a loud, animated voice. Screaming, beseeching. “Ask someone to give you a lift till Morena. Hello? Hello?” Silence. Then more urgently: “Call 100. Is there no ambulance? Can they not drop you? Hello?” Still silence. Then, a heavy breath crackles through. Defeated by the lockdown that made him walk over a hundred kilometres from Delhi in a desperate bid to reach home in Madhya Pradesh. And, perhaps, the knowledge that these were the last words to his family. “Lene aa sakte ho toh aa jao (Come get me if you can).”
This was the last time they heard the voice of 38-year-old Ranveer Singh, before he collapsed due to exhaustion and died of a heart attack Saturday in Agra, well over 100 km still to go.
Ranveer was one among the countless migrant workers walking home from big cities to their villages, where new rules of isolation and quarantine await. And his story is emblematic of their plight, and the trauma of waiting families.
On Sunday, Ranveer’s wife Mamta huddled with their three children in Badfara village, their voices barely above a whisper, exhausted by the tears.
The house is sparse, red brick and cement, the family still in debt because of its construction. On March 22, Mamta had spoken to Ranveer on the phone, asking him to return. “Two other boys of our village were returning from Delhi. He said he couldn’t. He worked as a delivery boy with a restaurant in Tughlakabad, and they were still open. He asked us to take care of ourselves, and that he would be fine,” she said.
Ranveer lived alone in a shanty next to the DDA colony in Kalkaji. For food, he depended on the restaurant. Between the debt for the house, and the expenses back home, there was no money. So on Friday, at 2 pm, he called his eldest daughter Deepa, a Class 12 student in a school in Ambah, 2 km from Badfara. He was coming home, he said. “How?” she asked. “Koi saadhan nahin hai. Na bus chal rahi hai, na train… paidal aa raha hoon (There is nothing here. No bus, no train… am walking home),” he replied.
At 5 pm, he was still walking, dodging police, he said on another call. At 9 pm, there were the first signs of trouble. Pinky Singh, one of his two younger siblings, remembers him saying that he had found a truck to take him a little ahead. “But he was exhausted. He said he wanted to lie down. I told him that we wanted him back alive,” she said.
On Saturday, the family woke up early, having barely slept. At 5 am, Pinky called him. “He said he had reached Sikandra Road in Agra. But he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t say anything. All he said was he had a pain in his chest,” she said.
In panic, Pinky rushed to wake up other family members, asking them to call him, pick him up, do something. At 5.30 am, Arvind Singh, his brother-in-law, spoke to him — it was that 42-second call.
Two sets of relatives swung into action. One rushed to the village doctor, convinced him to hand over his ID card, got a ride on a motorcycle and rushed to Agra.
Another set of cousins took out their jeep, used to transport threshed wheat, and went to the Ambah Police Station. “We needed a pass. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been let through. They gave it to us but it took time,” a relative said.
In Agra, they found his body in a hospital, covered in a white sheet. The doctors and police called it a heart attack. “When I spoke to him last, I could tell he was flat on the ground and close to death. We brought his body back and cremated him on Saturday,” said Arvind.
There is regret in his voice. Arvind, too, worked in Delhi at a popular Greater Kailash restaurant. “I returned on March 22. I should have insisted that he come with me,” he said.
On Sunday evening, all the talk in the village was about compensation. “Our shops are shut, and we can’t go out. We understand coronavirus and take it seriously. But the government should have let the trains run for three more days…maybe, the buses. What will happen to his children now? The family deserves a government job so they survive, and compensation,” said Mahendra Singh, a neighbour.
The family, meanwhile, remembers Ranveer as a man assaulted by circumstance, but one who never stopped fighting. “You think he wanted to be a delivery boy? He only left three years ago because he needed the money for his family. He grew up in Dewas where his father worked in a factory. He studied in Holy Child School, an English-medium school. But at 18, he began to work in an electronics store. His father died and he realised there was money trouble. He moved the family here, and went to Delhi,” Pinky said.
In those three years, Ranveer sent money back regularly, and began building a house for his wife and children. There was debt, but they did not know how much. “He never told them. There was enough worry at home,” Arvind said.
Ranveer’s youngest daughter, only three years old, has polio and has already lost the ability to stand.
Giving up was never an option. Badfara had little to offer in terms of employment. “Close to 200 boys are in the cities all over India,” Arvind said.
Some of them have now returned, walking, hitchhiking, beating the elements and their blistered feet. Others are still on their way, with little or nothing left in their pockets.
Ranveer had Rs 800. That’s all his family has now.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines