There are five of them—Lakhinarayan Das, Rajesh Das, Biswajit Khetrapal, Arup Singh and Bumba Dutta. Young men in their twenties, they are from Jamalpur village in Bardhaman district in West Bengal. Fast friends all, about five years ago they decided to leave their village for want of gainful work and go all the way to Andhra Pradesh, where they heard new factories were opening and jobs were in plenty.
They fetched up in Visakhapatnam and were hired as welders in a factory in Malkapuram Coromandel Gate. The work was hard but the money was good. They had their own rooms, food was decent and they saved enough money every month. But, inevitably, the lockdown lay its deadening fingers here too: the factory shut down and salaries were stopped. Bit by bit, their savings were being eaten into—the five realised the untenability of their survival. The only option, they decided, was to return home to Bardhaman. Yet, the mode of travel, without any buses or trains, presented a logistical impasse. Decisive action was called for, and a bold, audacious plan was seized upon: they would cycle it home, some 1,100 kilometres up the coast towards the east. Brand new Hero and Hercules cycles—costing between Rs 5,500-Rs 6,500 each—were bought with the last of their dwindling savings. Then they set off.
The first night they got a lift in a truck, which saved them many kilometres. “We did not face any problems in Andhra Pradesh or when we were crossing Odisha. In fact, Andhra Pradesh police and local people were very helpful, they gave us food to eat,” says Bumba Dutta.
As they approached the Odisha-West Bengal border, it started to rain heavily, what with the build-up of cyclone Amphan. “We found an abandoned tea stall where we kept the cycles and our bags. We spent a whole night in the rain,” says Bumba. In Odisha, people advised them to sell their new cycles; they might be stolen on the way, they were cautioned. But the five friends were not letting anything hamper their last chances of getting home. A good samaritan also showed them a shorter and safer way to cross the Odisha border.
The five friends reached their village on May 21, after pedalling furiously for eight days. The police have tested them and they are currently quarantined for 14 days in Jamalpur’s Kashra Kalna High School.
However, Lakhinarayan, Rajesh, Biswajit, Arup and Bumba are not sure what the future holds for them. “There is not much work here in the village. If we get something to do under the NREGA scheme, we will take it up for the time being,” says Rajesh. “We will wait for the pandemic to get over. If the factory opens, we will return to Visakhapatnam,” adds Biswajit. The factory still owes them Rs 10,000 in wages and dues, which they plan to go back to claim. All of them would like to start some small business in Bardhaman, but all rue the paucity of capital. Right now, there is nothing for it but to wait, but youth is on their side, and the experience of five years’ work in a distant land under their belts. They are confident something good will turn up.
By Sandipan Chatterjee in Bardhaman, W. Bengal