How the pandemic took a migrant worker back to his village after fifteen years in the city
You can sense a mix of nostalgia and excitement when Surya* starts to talk about Bhadohi. He talks about the carpets that they are famous for and the green fields, he talks about the holy city of Varanasi which is less than fifty kilometers away. Fifteen years in Thane has made Surya love all the things that he took for granted while he was growing up. The wide-open spaces and the absence of crowds. No pushing and shoving in the buses, no wild honking on the streets. He has come to love the quietness and calmness of his village in Bhadohi.
Surya is a plumber by trade, he is about thirty-nine. He dropped out of school when he was fifteen. Initially, he helped his father manage the family’s fields of wheat and paddy. In between, he started assisting his two elder brothers, both of whom were plumbers. He would go with them on their work calls and learn on the job. His eldest brother, Kishen moved to Thane in 2001. The other brother, Shyam, decided to settle down in Varanasi. Surya married young; he was barely twenty-one. His son was born soon after. Kishen seemed to have settled down well and he was earning a lot more than Shyam. Surya too moved to Thane when he was twenty-four. His wife and son stayed back with his father in the village.
Surya shared a small flat with his brother and his family in Vasant Vihar, a colony in Thane. There was plenty of work. Surya would make on an average six hundred rupees a day. He would send around six thousand rupees every month to his wife. He contributed regularly to Kishen’s rent and household expenses. Even after that, he managed to save some money every month. When it came to working the brothers had a routine. They would open their street-side shop at nine in the morning every day. Surya would then do the rounds of the nearby apartments; he would talk to the security guards to enquire about work. For every successful lead, the security guard would be given a commission. Surya and Kishen also had a set of hotels where they would do regular maintenance work.
The two things that Surya looked forward to in 2020 were visiting Bhadohi during the harvest season and admitting his eldest son to a polytechnic college. Every year for the last fourteen years, Surya would visit Bhadohi to help his wife with the harvest. He would spend around a month with them each time. He treasured these days. It was the only time he had for his family. His son had done quite well at school. He was interested in electronics and a schoolteacher had recommended that the boy be admitted to a polytechnic college. Surya was confident about his son’s prospects; he knew that his son would do a lot better than him and his brothers.
Surya’s lockdown experience
Surya first heard of COVID-19 when he went to the neighborhood clinic in March of 2020. He had gone there to fix a faucet. He heard of the new virus in China. He heard that people returning from international trips were getting infected. When the Janata curfew was announced Surya and Kishen thought that it was a day well spent. A day well spent in killing the virus. They all banged plates in the evening. He can remember the din that it created. Soon cases started rising. The lockdown was enforced strictly in Thane. So, there was no way he and his brother could work. Soon the area where he stayed was declared a hotspot. Those days only his nephew stepped out to get essentials. He had to dip into his savings to send money back home. With the lockdown getting extended and with no income, Surya thought of heading back home. It was his son and Kishen who talked him out of it. By then visuals of people walking thousands of kilometers had started appearing on TV, his son told him about people being sprayed with disinfectants at the district border. Surya got tested twice during the lockdown. Thankfully he was not infected. Everyone wore masks. The cops would fine you, or worse, trash you if you didn’t.
Surya’s work did not pick up after the lockdown was lifted. People were scared and nobody wanted to engage a plumber unless there was an emergency. From April till August Surya could earn only about ten thousand rupees. September onwards things started to look up. He thought of going home for Dussehra and then decided against it. He was happy that his family received the assistance promised by the UP government. The farm produce was sold, and his father had received the payment. Surya decided to stay back, focus on work and make up for all those lean months. Surya and his brother started traveling long distances in search of work. They started wearing gloves. They would keep a bottle of hand sanitizer in their bag and clean their hands regularly. The hotels where they did maintenance work started holding their payments.
Surya was missing his family more than ever. He got himself a Jio smartphone. He asked his son to buy one as well. He started connecting with his wife and son regularly on video calls. It made him feel better. Surya also kept in regular touch with his brother, Shyam in Varanasi. Shyam’s work had not suffered as much as Surya’s or Kishen’s. In fact, Shyam was now earning more than them. In February, Surya’s father had a heart attack. He had an angioplasty and a couple of stents were implanted. Surya had to send home a substantial sum of money for the procedure. He had earned very little right through 2020 and now with his father’s treatment, he had almost completely exhausted his savings. He needed to work harder and earn a lot more now.
The second wave unsettled all his plans. There was no way he could step out. The whole area was completely sealed. From March till the middle of June everyone basically sat at home. They were all scared. And they were all irritated. With four people at home all the time, the apartment which was adequate till now seemed cramped. Surya was worried about his father; he was worried about his son’s education. But most of all he had had enough of this chaotic life in Thane. Back home things were better. The infections seemed lower. The controls were not as strict. And even as Kishen and Surya sat around in their cramped apartment, Shyam was working and earning.
Surya had come to Thane to make money. He had to sacrifice a lot. Live away from his wife and son. Put up with the chaos of a big city. All of this had some meaning as long as he was earning well. Now that he was not earning, his life in Thane seemed meaningless. Surya has now decided to go back home. He has spoken to Shyam, they are planning to work together. In time they hope to expand operations. Surya has done his calculations. He is not looking too far into the future. He is not looking to make large sums of money. He wants to spend time with his father, he wants to get his son admitted to a polytechnic college, he wants to make up for the fifteen years that he has spent away from his wife.
*All names have been changed to protect identity