Bhanu is walking uphill towards his room through the narrow streets of his slum colony. A handkerchief is tied around his mouth, and he holds polythene bags of half-kilos of rice and pulses, which he has received as help. Seeing some people coming from the other side, Bhanu squeezes himself against one of the houses on the side of the alley. The people walking down the hill are carrying sacks and bundles. Bhanu’s eyes follow the familiar faces for a while before he starts climbing the hill again.
He jumps over a narrow open gutter. Many of the 10x10 square feet rooms in the alley are locked. An unpleasant silence lurks behind their makeshift doors. No one is talking, fighting, laughing, shouting loudly on mobile phones, watching TV at full volume. No pungent aromas of cooking either. The stoves have gone cold.
Bhanu's room is at the very top of the hill. At home, his wife Sarita is sitting near a gas stove, staring blankly at the door. Her hands are resting on her belly, six months pregnant. Nine-year-old Rahul is driving his small toy car round and round on the cement floor, incessantly asking his mother for something to eat.
“Amma, I am hungry! I have had nothing since morning. You didn’t even give milk and crème biscuits, Ammaaa ...”
Sarita sighs, almost unknowingly. “Yes, my child,” she says, pulling herself together, “I know. I will give you something. Your father will be here anytime now. He will bring lots of things. Why don’t you go out and play?”
“I have no one to play with,” Rahul retorts. “Amma, where did Vicky and Bunty go?”
“To their village, like last year, I guess. They will come back. ”
“No, Amma, not in the middle of the school year. I don’t think they are coming back. We were to be engineers. The three of us were going to open a garage to fix cars after we finished school. But they are not even going to come to school now!”
“You and your cars! You will open your garage, a big one. You be a big man!” Sarita, on her feet by now, rummages through the three shelves behind the stove. A few empty pots, one kadhai, a ladle, spoons, four plates, and some bowls and small plates on a single shelf is all she has for her kitchen. A small row of plastic jars for salt, pulses, rice, wheat flour, dry cereals, spices, cooking oil sit on the other two shelves – the jars are all empty. She pretends to look for something to give to Rahul, opening all containers one by one. One of them has an empty wrapper of cream biscuits. Crushing the wrapper in her fist, she turns to Rahul and finds Bhanu at the door, untying the handkerchief around his mouth and collapsing on the threshold with a sigh. Rahul runs in excitement to collect the bags from his father.
“You are home?! Rahul, give Papa water, please.”
Bhanu is replaying his meeting with the contractor for the thousandth time now in his head.
“Papa, water.… Papa… have water. You did not get any biscuits, did you?” Rahul shakes him by his shoulder.
Bhanu takes the glass from Rahul's hand and drinks the water in silence.
“The contractor did not give any money and said the work will not start for one more month.” He looks at Sarita as he speaks.
She moves her palm over the bulge of her stomach again. Whether she is trying to comfort or draw comfort from that little one inside is difficult to say.
“The government has shut everything down,” Bhanu continues, “It is the disease. Only the sarkar can tell when work will start again.”
“It’s more than a month and a half without money. Pulses and rice, nothing left… How long will we live on charity?”
“I should not have brought you here,” Bhanu cannot hide the guilt in his voice. “In your condition… not being able to arrange enough food. What if this goes on for another few months?”
He wrings his hands in anguish. Bhanu’s family has been eating only one meal a day for a month and a half now – of only dal and rice, that too if it’s distributed by a local organisation. Before all this started, his family used to eat green vegetables, milk and, whenever they could afford it, a few fruits, some apples, oranges grapes.
But after the government imposed a sudden lockdown across the country due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, all industries shut down. For the first time in eight years, Bhanu hasn’t worked for such a long time. He was doing centring work at construction sites – usually for 25 days a month, earning Rs. 400 a day. He made just enough to cover the family’s household expenses and a little more to send home to his elderly parents in his village in Uttar Pradesh.While the young couple are talking, Bhanu’s friends, Surya and Abhay, are at their door. Both would stand at the nearby labour naka every morning, and usually get called to work at construction sites. That was before the lockdown. Now they have no work. Surya has brought four bananas, which he gives to Bhanu.
Abhay urges Sarita to eat them. “What are you doing bhabhi? Eat some bananas first... you haven't eaten anything since yesterday.”
Surya asks Bhanu, “Did the contractor give your wages? What did he say?”
“What will he say? He was not even taking my phone calls for so many days. I stood outside his building, waiting. He appeared from somewhere outside after an hour. I saw a bottle of liquor wrapped in paper. He was hiding it from me. I asked him to pay last month's wages, I had worked for two weeks. But he said that he had no money at all. Gave this 500 rupee note and said ‘fend for yourself’.”
Surya says, “Oh, alcohol? Wah! Essential things, brother.”
Sarita offers two glasses of water to the visitors and asks, “Did you find out about any vehicle, bhaiyya?”
“No bhabhi, nothing,” says Abhay. “Wherever you go, people are standing in line, sitting on the road. We walked to four railway stations and three bus stops. No train or bus to be found anywhere.”
“But we had filled the forms, done tests. What happened to that?”
“Checked it on mobile. It shows cancelled. When we went to the station to ask, the police chased us away,” says Surya.
“Gitabhabhi and her family from the downstairs room went to their village by some private car yesterday. I hear the fellow charged some 3-4,000 per person.” Sarita tells them.
“There’s only some 10,000 in the bank and now this 500 in hand...,” says Bhanu, “I have heard, people are even going home walking ...”
Surya sits on the threshold of the locked room opposite Bhanu’s, agitated. “I don't understand anything. The landlord is calling constantly, asking for two months’ rent, but how to pay?” Abhay leans against the wall. Sarita stands behind Bhanu at the door. Abhay says, “It is same scene everywhere, everyone has the same story ... all of us labourers ... I haven’t sent a paisa home for almost two months. Not even for Bapu's medicine ...” His father has a lung ailment. His mother died of malaria two years ago. His younger sister is in the 10th standard. He is lost in their thoughts for a while and then he starts talking to the little boy. “Hey Rahul, what are you doing?”
“I'm driving my Audi, chacha.”
Surya asks the boy, half in jest, “Odi… will your Odi take us to...our Pradesh...?”
“Yes, of course. It is my car, it goes everywhere, takes everyone. ZoomSSRoomSS RoomSSRoomSSRoomSSS…” He pushes aside his father sitting on the threshold and steps out of the house with his car, making loud zooming and whirring sounds, driving the car fast in the narrow alley. Sarita, Bhanu, Surya and Abhay watch him play happily.
Surya says decisively, “Let’s all go bhabhi. Let us go home.”
They spend most of the night packing utensils and clothes. Early next morning, before dawn, they set out walking towards the road that might take them out of the city.
Pithya and his family wake up in an open ground covered with grass, some 50 kilometres from the city, beside the highway. It is four in the morning. They fold up their hand-stitched blankets spread out on the grass and start walking again. They started walking away from the brick kiln in Budruj village the previous day. Their home is 150 kilometres away, in Gardepada.. They had gone to the kiln looking for work.
Pithya is carrying a heavy sack of jowar flour and rice on his head and a bundle of utensils in his hand. His wife, Zhula walks behind him, carrying a big cloth bundle of blankets on her head. Little Nandu, eight months old, secured with a piece of cloth in front of her chest, is asleep. The tears streaming down his dusty face have left dried marks. Kalpana, 13 years old, holding a bundle of clothes on her head, and six-year-old Gita, clutching the edge of her sister’s frock, trail behind their mother.
Without turning around, Zhula tells thems, “Girls, walk carefully.”
Pithya calls out from the front, “Let them walk in between us. Not behind. That way we can keep an eye on them.”
Kalpana and Gita start walking between Pithya and Zhula. A few hours later, the sun has risen high over their heads and it is very hot. Their toes and heels, protruding from worn-out slippers, burn on the fiery ground. Zhula's heart is pounding, she is out of breath.
“Hm..hmm..listen. Let's stop for a while. Can't walk more. Feeling thirsty too.”
“There is a village ahead. Let's stop there,” says Pithya
They see a peepal tree ahead. To its left a kuchha road leads to Adarswadi village – declares a board hanging from a tree trunk. Pithya puts his load on the platform encircling the tree. Zhula and Kalpana sigh as they place their belongings on the platform. The dense shade of the branches of the sacred fig is soothing. Zhula unties the cloth holding Nandu, and puts him on her lap to breast-feed the baby, covering him with a corner of her saree.
When Pithya’s heated body cools down a little, he takes out three plastic bottles from one of their bundles. Stay here. I will bring water.”
A little further along the mud path, he sees a barricade of thorny bushes. A board placed on it announces in big letters: Outsiders are barred from entering the village for safety from the coronavirus.
“Closed? Karona...” Pithya reads out slowly and then starts calling out to whoever might hear him.
“Is anyone here? Sister…brother…anyone there? I need some water. Anyone there?”
He calls out for a long time, but when no one responds, he leaves in despair. Zhula smiles when she sees him approaching.
“Where’s the water?”
“The road is blocked. I tried calling out the villagers. No one came. The illness is here too. Let's see ahead. Will find something.”
Zhula is hopeful. “If we see any open ground, will set up chullah there.”
Gita pleads, “Baba, I am very hungry.”
The father cheers her up, “Gite, come, sit on my shoulder. And tell us what all you see from top.”
Gita sits on his shoulders, holding on to his head. Pithya holds the sack of rice and flour in one hand and the bundle of utensils in the other. After walking for 2-3 kilometres, they reach a tin hut on the side of the road. Zhula spots someone.
“Listen! Someone has fallen on the ground there.”
Pithya looks carefully: “Must be sleeping.”
“Who sleeps on the ground like that? Just have a look. I think she is unconscious.”
Pithya goes closer to the hut, drops his bundles to the ground and sets Gita down. An elderly woman has indeed collapsed there.
“Come here, Zhule.”
Zhula rushes to the hut, Kalpana runs behind her. They try to wake up the woman. Zhula sends Kalpana to fetch water from inside the hut.
“Hey, old woman,” says Pithya, as he sprinkles water on her face
He lifts her and puts her on a string cot. Then sits on the grass with Nandu in his arms.
Without wasting any time, Zhula puts together a few stones and twigs for a cooking fire outside the hut and starts preparing jowar bhakris. Just then, the old woman stirs awake.
Pithya says, “You got up, old lady? A lot of noise coming from your stomach. Didn't you eat or drink anything?”
“Not an old lady! I’m Lakshmibai. And how can you break into anyone's house like this? Don’t you have any shame?”
Kalpana places a bhakri with til chutney in her hand and smiles, “Take this grandma, eat.”
As soon as she sees the hot bhakri, she forgets her anger. Zhula puts another bhakri in her hand as she finishes the first one. Lakshmibai smiles at her.
“Which way are you going now?”
“We went to the brick kiln. But had to return halfway.”
“Hmm… Some disease is there, I hear. The villagers do not allow me inside. I survive on begging. After four days my teeth finally bite on a bhakri.” They all eat as they talk. Zhula wraps five extra bhakris in a cloth and says goodbye to Lakshmibai. Pithya fills his water bottles as they prepare to leave.
Lakshmibai waves from the cot, “Go carefully, children,” and watches them for a long time. Then she gets up with a sigh, goes inside her tin hut and drinks water from a mud pot. Next to the pot, she sees jowar flour and til chutney wrapped in a plastic bag. She tries to run out quickly but they are gone!
They walk for around ten kilometres when they step on crushed brinjals and tomatoes scattered on the road. A farmer has thrown the vegetables on the highway. “They are anyway getting spoilt. How will I transport these to the city? How much will we will eat? Throw it,” Pithya hears the farmers talk. Watching them, he remembers the damaged paddy fields washed away by untimely rains during last year's harvest season.
“Zhule, it seems that the farmer has to pay for his loss with the days of his life,” says Pithya, “be it the rain or the disease.”
They keep walking, almost aimlessly, hoping to reach home soon when they spot a crowd ahead. Cops in khaki are standing alongside yellow plastic barricades, pushing people back with wooden batons. Some are pleading with the police, many are sitting on the street, women, children, men, everyone. Pithya, Zhula with the kids go closer.
“Oh sahab, let us go. Have been walking since morning. Haven’t even eaten anything,” says Surya to a policeman
“So? Did I ask you to walk? There are orders from above. Can't cross the border. Step back. Please go back, brother.”
“Where will we go sahab? See this, your people have hit my leg. Give me a spray or something. It’s paining badly.”
“Our people? Just go from here. Run.” The policeman lifts the stick in the air. Surya guards his head and steps back. Bhanu, Sarita and little Rahul are sitting under the tree, and Abhay stands leaning against its trunk.
“Didn't I tell you not to go there,” Abhay scolds Surya. “You just don't listen to me! Do you want to get beaten again?”
“We have been sitting here from an hour and a half, brother. Let me get beaten up, get thrashed, whatever, but I want to go home.”
“Home! All these years how many big homes did we build for rich people and how many buildings? Did we not see them all as we walked past them this morning?”
“Nobody looked out of the window and said thanks to you, brother,” Surya laughs, bitterly.
“They must have seen the long lines of people on the road from their windows. They must have.” Bhanu is stopped midway in his tirade when Pithya approached. “Brother. Why is the police blocking the road here?” he is asking.
Surya asks him in Hindi, “Do you speak Marathi?”
Pithya continues in his language, “Brother, we want to go to our village. The work at the brick kiln stopped. There is no transport, so we are walking.”
Surya and the others stare blankly at Pithya. Abhay steps forward to explain, “. I didn’t understand anything you said except the word ‘road’. That road is closed.”
“Let me tell you what my father is saying,” Kalpana jumps in, speaking in Hindi that she has picked up at school. “We have to go to our village and my father wants to know why these policemen are here.”
Surya smiles, “Wah! We don't understand your father’s Marathi. It sounds different from the city Marathi.”
Kalpana goes on, “Marathi is spoken differently in every district-village-city, in the entire state.”
Bhanu, who understands some words in Marathi, gesticulates at Pithya to sit down and turns to Surya “Are you going to take a language class now or what?” He smiles at Kalpana. “You are a smart child.”
They all chat with each other across languages for a long time, until they hear restless voices in the crowd.
“How long we will sit here?” says a man. “Let’s walk through kuchha road towards the rail tracks. Now that they have set us all walking, they will not run any train anyway. Let’s go, all. Let us go!”
Everyone starts to walk in the direction of that dusty road. The two families decide to follow. They walk until it is dark. Pithya and others cover around 40 more kilometres. They are now walking on a railway track. Surya lags far behind with his injured leg. Kalpana and Gita walk with him.
Bhanu suggests to Pithya that they wait for Surya and the girls. “Let us stop and wait. Let’s sit here until they arrive.”
Sarita suggests to Bhanu that they rest for a while. “It’s night too and Rahul is hungry and sleepy.”
Zhula opens the bundle of bhakris as they all lean on the rail track and stretch their legs and says, “We will eat a little.”
Abhay says, “Let us wait for the children and Surya. We will eat together.”
While they wait, they become drowsy. Pithya shakes his head and tries to stay awake for a while and then falls asleep on the tracks. Everyone else resting there is sleeping too by now.
The loud sound of the train horn barely reaches their exhausted ears. The glare of the light of the speeding train’s engine fails to wake them up from dreaming of home.
Illustrator: Antara Raman is a recent graduate of Visual Communication from Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru. Conceptual art and storytelling in all its forms are the biggest influences on her illustration and design practice.