When Sheshnath Dubey hears me quote a government statistic that 29 per cent of all Indians are migrants, he is staggered. “And I used to think that there were only few people like me and my villagers, who live in two places at once,” he murmurs half-bemusedly. In his affections, one of those two wins hands down. Ecstasy lights up his face when he secures a confirmed seat for his journey home to the village of Barjee in Uttar Pradesh, after having spent the better part of a day in a queue at the Howrah station.
“The city is where you work; the village is where you live,” says the 33-year-old, enunciating rules he has lived by for the last 15 years. Work is driving a Calcutta businessman’s car, and home is Barjee. So here we are, off to Barjee. After a night spent “adjusting” with fellow passengers in a crammed sleeper class coach, we get off at Mirzapur, and clamber onto an autorickshaw for a 16-km ride. And as the landscape shifts from small town to decidedly rural, Sheshnath’s chest visibly expands with a sense of unbridled ownership.
Sheshnath Dubey mother (right), sister-in-law Madhu (centre) and relatives wait
Barjee turns out to be a tiny, sleepy hamlet where straying cattle seem to outnumber human beings. At the far end of this stretch is Sheshnath’s home, a five-room house that still looks as if it needs some more weeks of labour to be rendered complete. He explains the stack of bricks sitting outside his courtyard with, “It would have all been finished by now, but the money ran out.” Inside, though, euphoria takes over. His mother, Shanti Devi, is all over him, his sister-in-law Madhu whips out her cellphone perkily, calling Calcutta to announce his safe arrival to her husband. “We are a village of women. All our men work in cities. So of course we celebrate when one comes back here for a visit,” explains Shanti Devi.
In Barjee, in Uttar Pradesh’s Bhadohi district, Brahmin youths think of the Calcutta Yatra as a rite of passage.
Madhu’s bright-pink nail polish was a gift from her husband the last time he visited. But her colourful nails disappear from view when 85-year-old Ram Bihari Upadhyay suddenly appears at the door, and her saree quickly floats down over her head. Purdah is the norm in Barjee, even if you carry a cellphone and wear nail polish. Luckily for the wives of Barjee, there aren’t many men around to conceal themselves from. Eight out of ten men from their Brahmin community migrate to work in cities; not surprising in a state that, according to the 2001 census, saw a record 2.6 million people leave in the previous decade in search of a living.
In Barjee though, the Calcutta Yatra has been a rite of passage for young men, not for one or two, but many decades. Ram Bihari, settling himself on the Dubeys’ charpai, remembers that when he reached Calcutta in 1945, there were people there from Barjee. Not that he really thought about where he was from in those days: it was a time when white babu employers drove up to the Howrah Jute Mill in luxurious cars, and Gandhi and Bose stirred the imagination of young workers like him. “You could have been from UP in Calcutta or from Calcutta in UP,” he says, lost in nostalgia for the heady days of the independence struggle. Little changed with Independence, though, in his daily grind: he worked long hours weighing and logging jute bundles at the mill—right till 1989. “It was all a matter of earning, saving and sending money home,” he says. “It wasn’t just me. It was the whole village.”
Giving me a grand tour of Barjee’s 206 houses (2,600 voters) seems to reinforce for Ram Bihari how small his village is. “Perhaps it is the size of this place that is giving Navneet itchy feet,” he muses. That’s his grand-nephew Navneet Upadhyay, 18, who recently joined the BTech programme at Annamalai University. Barjee celebrated, but for Navneet, who still looks due for his first shave, Tamil Nadu is just one stop on his journey to an MBA: “I don’t just want to go to the city, I want to leave India.”
Migrant workers in big cities coalesce into support groups usually bound by a common district of origin, and caste.
Constantly shifting himself on his motorbike, his jeans and coloured hair standing out in the greenery, 26-year-old Maruti Prakash nods vigorously in agreement. Hanging his sunglasses from his shirt front, he says he’s here on a ten-day vacation. For this floorman at the Panna fields of British Gas India, home now is Mumbai, a city whose development and architecture he can’t get enough of. “There are things about that city I’ll never forget—distributing food to people on July 26, 2005, in the heavy rain and against all odds. I would have never had such experiences here,” he says. Today his dreams lie beyond Mumbai. Passport in hand, he hopes to work for an oil company in Qatar—doubling or perhaps tripling his present salary of Rs 35,000 a month.
At home Maruti (centre) in Barjee
Murlidhar Upadhyay, 54, wishes there had been a Maruti to make life easier for him when he visited Mumbai in 1965 seeking work. He says, “I went there four or five times, each time coming back empty-handed. It was only five years later that I was able to set up my paan shop in Malad that stands to this day.” Pointing to his brick house, he says, “Living away may not have changed me, but I know I’ve changed my family’s living conditions. We have a pucca house, all my children are educated. That’s good enough for me.”
Murlidhar’s one-room home in Mumbai is open house for at least six to eight of his fellow villagers at any given time, just one of a network of makeshift boarding houses Barjee’s inhabitants run for one another across the country. But not everyone from Barjee can stay in them. Outside the periphery of cosy Brahmin camaraderie is Barjee’s Dalit community, which still can’t drink from the same well as the upper castes, leave alone share their homes in the big city.
Sure enough, without those resources, they are hardly as mobile. Harish Chandra, 55, says, “About 20 per cent of the Dalit men here go to the city but four out of five come back. We don’t have the network that the Brahmins do.” But with most of the male Brahmins missing, it is Dalits who look after Barjee’s fields, sharing revenue with the upper-caste owners. Kewala Shankar, 60, says, “Since we don’t own the land, we are already burdened by debt. One bad season and it’s hell.”
Then there are those for whom seasons don’t matter: Barjee is just a setting for the winter of their lives. Rama Pati Upadhyay, 76, boasts endlessly of the patronage he received from a prominent industrialist’s family in Calcutta. His neighbour, 77-year-old Kamala Shankar, talks of hours spent at the National Library, Calcutta, and recites his English poems. Hearing them, Sheshnath chuckles, “I get electricity in the city, but look at the colourful life I leave behind.”
As he bends down to touch his mother’s feet in a farewell gesture, Sheshnath knows, though, that there’s another homecoming waiting for him—in the place he still won’t call home. At his Shampa Mirzanagar residence on the outskirts of Calcutta, a nine-year-old flings herself into his arms, and then quickly returns to playing Miki’s World on the Nokia phone her father bought before he left. Later, she shows off her picture album with photographs of all “uncles and aunties” in the neighbourhood—all from Bhadohi district, which is where Barjee is. Would this Calcutta girl ever want to live in Barjee? Yes, she says, surprisingly, and then adds with a peal of laughter: “They ask much easier questions in the village school.”