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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

‘Someone said why not just step out and die of corona, at least we will be counted somewhere’

22-year-old from Jharkhand narrates the loneliness of being in a basti with 800 other labourers, unfamiliar food, no money and a virus outside

Written by Smita Nair | Updated: May 1, 2020 1:26:13 pm
“I like Goa. I like the ‘mahaul’ here. No one really goes behind your name, and family details,” says the migrant worker from Jharkhand

Sudhir Kumar Rajak
Porvorim, Bardez

It’s been 40 days since the lockdown and I miss my mother.

I am from Jharkand, Godda constituency. I come from a family of four brothers, all in small jobs. One lives in Delhi, the others, like me, are spread across the country. I work in Goa as a painter… not an artist, I colour walls.

Earlier this year, I returned to Goa after giving my Inter. I have been working since the age of 16. At 22, I now want to study. Through the year, I studied an hour during lunch breaks, and two hours before midnight. I earn Rs 900 daily wages when I have a job. I am saving to do college some day.

I have worked everywhere in the last seven years, at building sites, digging sewers, lugging heavy stones. Every work the poor do, I have done too. For the past few years, I also have a dream, of getting into the Border Security Force (BSF). I have a friend wearing that uniform and he tells me stories over the phone. There is a sense of pride and his stories inspire me. I missed giving the physical test in 2018. I was working in Mapusa here on a contract job as my family needed the money.

I like Goa. I like the ‘mahaul’ here. No one really goes behind your name, and family details. They give work in the morning, wages in the evening. It’s that simple.

Things have changed since the lockdown. On March 22, I was told by our neighbours to remain at home. They told me something is moving outside, like those stories we hear during our childhood of a disease that is invisible, from which only closed doors can save us. I thought it has to be an intelligent decision. I wanted to be disease ‘mukt’ too. So I respected it. I live in a small room with three other labourers. They are also from Jharkhand. Some others in the basti are from other states. There are 800 of us.  I called my parents that evening and told them to stay indoors too.

Since that day — I have followed every instruction. Now it’s masks. A woman gave me one. I also have three handkerchiefs which I use. If the lockdown is pulled back I will carry them, and the last of the money I have, and my clothes. I saw good money last on March 18 when I deposited a huge sum at bank for my mother: Rs 5,000. She is a heart patient and has a list of medicines to be had every month. I called to check if she withdrew. She had.

On March 25 — days after everything got finished, I panicked. Some of us asked help from the local leaders in Goa; one of us knew someone in the panchayat too. They all asked us to call our respective MLAs in Jharkand. After many attempts, our Godda group managed to reach the office landline of our MLA. Someone who picked the call asked us, “Why did you go to Goa?” That night many of us slept confused. There was silence in most rooms that night. Frankly, no one would have left if we found work in Jharkhand. I love the Bhindi my mother makes and I love to sit and listen to her stories at night. Why would I leave my home?

I have voted too. I cannot tell you who I voted for. In fact, I always take leave and go to vote. My parents are very particular about this. I now have been asking myself, who do people like me approach? Home state says cannot help. The state where we work says we are not their responsibility. I feel this disease has brought me a lot closer to reality. Nothing in my books prepared me how to handle this situation. Strangely, now I do not have any anger or complaints. I just want to go home.

Earlier, I was also given a labour helpline. First they ask for some details; then they ask a new set of questions. Now they want some lists. I have decided not to waste time calling. We now just watch others making a fool of themselves calling for help on those helplines. In fact, now I am amused watching others call for help. Everyday there is a different set of questions they ask.

They start their questions on the belief that we are hoarding food. I want them to come home and inspect our rooms. You will smell the stench of men not having taken a bath. You will see gruel stains on the floor and last bits of salt. We are from north India. We do not eat rice, but we have been adjusting with what people give us. We got potatoes the other day and we relished it.

If you come to our rooms, you will see despair of being away from home, with no understanding of time. The other day, someone woke up in the middle of the day mumbling nonsense with no sense of time. No one reacted. He went back to sleep.

We have started talking about death in normal conversations now. It’s painful. Other workers in other pockets also have told us similar stories. The other day someone said why not just step out and die of corona, at least we will be counted somewhere. Someone told me in my room that this bimaari death is counted everyday. We see stories of workers walking when someone sends us a clip. I heard someone died walking home. How does one tell that to anyone? It doesn’t even make sense.

That night I checked the distance from Goa to Jharkhand. It’s 1,700 km. I saw a nightmare that night and I woke myself up.

Still, if I can somehow reach then it would be better to die together as a family. If this is how things are going to be in future, then I might as well be near my mother. In a sense, then all the problems related to us will also be over. All the concerns everyone has because of us. All governments, local and native. Everyone.

Since lockdown we have stood in queue for government ration just once, on April 12 — 2 kg of rice and some daal. They said they will return, no one did. A private group of citizens here now have been helping. The local politicians here, too, washed of their hands. We are all workers and we never beg. The last pieces of money we had was spent in the initial days when vegetables were double the price, and atta Rs 50 extra. In those difference of amount lies our daily story. Now we eat one meal. I have not even purchased a soap as I only have some of the last bits of the Rs 500 I had left.

We are actually so poor that we work from sunrise to sunset to ensure we get a good night of sleep. I earn Rs 900 on days I get wages and survive on it. We haven’t worked for more than a month now. There are 800 of us with no jobs sitting in our rooms now.

People like me have to think of our next meal everyday, even after lockdown. Now, I think of my mother suffering and cannot eat. Doctors have warned she should not be given stress. So I make up stories when she calls.
At times to keep myself busy I think of my subjects. I love biology. I always like to study life. I wish there was a teacher around to teach us about this virus. I know nothing about it. I think this will also come in biology, though it’s about death. It’s funny, right?

Frankly, I still I want to be in the BSF or the Army. Hearing stories of men in uniform is so good. There is some sense of having done something for the country. A certain respect the uniform gets, no other profession gives that. It’s certainly different from the respect a painter gets. I will study some day if things are fine.
I will do everything the government tells me if they can take me to my mother. Ek Dhadkan hain unki …bas ussi ko bachana hain.

(As told to Smita Nair)

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