The migrant is returning home. Some on foot, others using various means of transport, some of which never seen or heard before. Some are hungry, some surviving on biscuits. Their stories are disturbing, their sight disconcerting. The long march has weakened their bodies, but not their will. Whatever it takes, the migrant wishes to return home.

But what is home? Does it have a different meaning for them? Why would the migrants want to return to a destination that did not offer all that which made them leave it in the first place – job, food, and little money to make ends meet?

The home is not simply a place with a kitchen, as the census commissioner defines it. Nor it is an address, as the post office identifies it. The concept of home marries both a physical place and a spiritual state: a tiny blip of a location as well as an invisible mental construct. The home walls out the external world and reins in a family – a small, shared collective that provides the basis for group identity, safety and a source for expressing distinct forms of cultural affinity.

How migrants have chosen to communicate their dreams of a safe place reveals much about the values of our society.  As industrialisation hastened in the country, slums and shanties spread over the urban landscape and sheltered the migrants – a motley crowd of rag pickers, rickshaw pullers, auto drivers, construction workers, dhaba workers, house maids and myriad others. They put up makeshift structures and occupied these dwellings. More importantly, they devised their unique but twisted logic of living here. Calling them undercitizens in her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo describes an instance of this twisted logic. She writes, “If the bulldozers came to flatten the slum, a decent hut was seen as a kind of insurance… a difficult-to-raze house increased the odds that a family’s tenure [on airport land] would be acknowledged by the relocation authorities. And so they put their money into what would be destroyed.”

The lockdown emptied their dreams and dwellings. The house owner demanded rent, the employer refused to pay wages, and the governments took time to become organized. Its most visible organ on the empty streets, the police, appeared callous. Without support and not much to look forward to, he was left with few options. Walking meant survival for him. It was also an act of defiance.

The state governments tried their best to cope with the developing crisis. Several NGOs and philanthropic organisations chipped in to provide food and succour. These efforts, however well intentioned, missed one crucial element. The migrant was not a bowl-to-mouth person. He was unaccustomed to waiting in line to collect food. He had lived with dignity. He toiled so that he could feed his family. He could not wait any longer.

 

Hope is a strategy of those who can ride over a crisis. Not of the poor migrant. Uncertain about how long the lockdown would last, the migrant found nowhere to go. Unable to bear hunger, he bundled his belonging, packed up whatever food and water he had, pulled his family together, and started walking. Out under the harsh summer sun, some of them dragged their betrayal of a body on long stretches of road. The slog bared the underbelly of India’s economic success. It also exposed the values that our society proudly proclaims, but poorly practices.

Migrants’ stories indicate that home is where journeys begin and end. It is to this semiotic space that they return. It remains to be seen how long the mythical peace that it promises holds them to it. Or will the daily grind of living drive them back to the anonymity of India’s bustling cities.

Pradeep Krishnatray is former director, Research and Strategic Planning, Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, New Delhi


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