In one of the short films I edited with my team this week, a woman wearing a bright orange sari sits cross-legged on the pavement of a highway with a sleeping toddler in her lap. Mother and child are surrounded by big and small bags —some are backpacks, some are just belongings tied tightly in a cloth. Three other children are sleeping among the bags. This woman has packed up her life in the city and is going back to the district she had come from.
It strikes me that she seems to be wearing one of her best saris. It has an embroidered border that covers her head. The child in her lap is wearing check canvas shoes. If they had been boarding a train or taking a flight home to attend a family function, they would have dressed similarly. She may have sat on the floor of a railway station or an airport lounge to let the children catch some sleep.
This week, though, the woman in the orange sari found herself trapped in a country under lockdown. After nearly two months of no work and no wages, she could no longer sustain her family in the city and was one of the hundreds of thousands of beleaguered workers who had decided to walk home. Walk home with babies and bags, even if home was hundreds of kilometres away.
“In the city, we would have died of hunger anyway. We will now die on the road back to our homes. We have no choice but to go back home on foot now," another migrant worker tells our film crew. He and his family have set out on foot from Delhi, for their village in Araria, Bihar.
In India, we are living through the worst humanitarian crisis most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. The coronavirus pandemic and the state’s mismanaged response to it has laid bare the precarious reality of so many people’s economic circumstances—working long hours, yet one step away from destitution.
Despite the safety and privilege of our own lives, so much seems so fragile in the weeks under lockdown. More intimate. So much simpler that it has been impossible to look away.
In my own home, it took us a while to begin to appreciate the stillness of no guests and little socializing. We began to have pending conversations and were often surprised by what came up when we had the time to keep sitting together for no reason except that we were all there.
Adil, Suraj, Emmanuel and Ramesh have become regular guests in my home in these weeks of lockdown. These young men, all of them in their 20s, are part of a team which has been delivering dry ration kits to various communities in distress all over Delhi and its suburbs. They arrive in twos, usually early in the day or very late, to offload ration kits for me to distribute in my area. They have trained themselves to be extra careful about hygiene. They must not inadvertently become infected as their work takes them close to hundreds of new people every day.
Adil is a human rights lawyer from Nuh in Mewat and Suraj is a social worker, also from Haryana. They are always in a hurry when they visit but usually agree to share a meal with us after much persuasion. After six weeks of meeting regularly, I notice that both Suraj and Adil seem to have lost a significant amount of weight. Their jeans are balanced around their waists with belts.
“It’s ironic that you are working so hard to provide food to people every day but you are not eating well yourselves," I remark. They tell me that Adil has lost nearly 10kg and Suraj almost 5 in the weeks of driving around the city under lockdown. Often, when Adil recounts an anecdote from their rounds of delivering rations, he looks away suddenly because his eyes well up even as he tries to keep his voice even-toned. None of us has seen such desperate hunger from this close before. We are overwhelmed.
Another unimaginable news breaks in our circles. Adil’s 42-year-old uncle, Habib Mev, dies of coronavirus complications in Ahmedabad. There is the tragedy of a young death and there is the accompanying horror of how badly he was treated in hospital before he succumbed to the infection. I know I must call Adil, yet I am paralysed by the fear of having no words that will be adequate to assuage his pain.
His colleagues take him home to Nuh to meet his family but all of them come back within a few hours because the food distribution work must not stop.
I will end with the story of meeting Ashraf Ansari in Noida and feeling confused about how happy I was to see him again. I had met Ashraf in Sitamarhi in Bihar last year when I had travelled with a group of human rights workers to offer support to the family of Zainul Ansari, an 82-year-old man who had been lynched by a mob during a religious procession in the town. Ashraf, the younger son of Ansari, works as a tailor in a garment factory and got in touch with us again when he found himself trapped in a red zone area under lockdown— running out of food as well as money.
When we met on a roadside in Noida last week, I stepped out of my car with a lightness inspired by the relief that for once I would hand over a food kit to someone I knew. Someone who knew me. Ashraf had said on the phone that he was nervous about being beaten by the police if he came out from his street, yet here we were, smiling like old friends, relieved to see each other in this time of great estrangement.
The world has changed too fast, too suddenly in the weeks of lockdown and most of us are struggling to process the daily horror stories that are revealed around us.
Collectively, we are grieving even as we are determined to stay productive. The absence of what we knew as normal has heightened our sense of gratitude for small mercies.
The image of the woman in the orange sari haunts me. How far did she reach? Did she get a bus or a train? Did people help take care of her children? We may not be able to stop what seems like a slow-motion tsunami roaring towards us but we can alleviate the distress of many around us. May we always have the strength and the wisdom to do that.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.
Twitter - @natashabadhwar