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The Migrant Worker As A Tragic Hero, From Reel To Real

The sufferings of migrant workers have become the most rivetingly tragic tale of our times

The Migrant Worker As A Tragic Hero, From Reel To Real
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Kaise hoi kalapani par re bidesiya
Kali kothariya ma bite nahi ratiya ho
Kisase batae hum pir re bidesiya

(How would I cross the black-water, O migrant/In the dark room the night was not passing/How do I express my pain, O migrant!).

When Bihari ‘Shakespeare’ Bhikhari Thakur wrote these haunting lines about the deplorable conditions of indentured mig­rant lab­ourers in overseas colonies, he would have scarcely imagined this gut-wrenching apocalyptic scene—the greatest exodus of migrant labourers in human history.  Unfortunately, this time, Moses failed to perform any miracles—neither ‘the parting of the sea of reeds’ nor the ‘greatest act of salvation’ happened.  Promptly abandoned by the mercilessly apathetic administration and the people living in the cities as soon as the nat­ional lockdown was announced in India, hundreds of thousands of impoverished and disenfranchised ‘precariat’ migrants walked back home ‘gambling with exhaustion, hunger, fatigue and even death’. Aren’t you surprised by this surreal shock of louche lunacy? Many walking mig­rants carried children on their shoulders, and a few doughty daughters took their sick fathers home on bicycles. In the maggoty shadows of early summer, they slowly filled the sky with their hungry nasal cries for food and water. Many walking migrants were plundered by pot-bellied goats of law and order. Human decencies broke down to such horror that even ferrying ‘social distance’ bec­ame profitable and special ‘shramik train’ eng­ine drivers failed to pull the brakes on sleeping migrants on desolate tracks.

In these bleak and catastrophic moments, however, a radical form of subaltern mutiny also occ­urred against the victorious viruses of apathy and injustice. Evoking unspeakable visuals from Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic road novel The Grapes of Wrath, some intrepid mig­rants launched ‘bicycle insurrection’—documented with lyric ferocity in Vinod Kapari’s novela-testimonio 1232 km: The Long Journey Home. Believe me, those who were able to make it home were handed over to brutal quarantine centres because of fears of transmission of virus. And those privileged who had been spared the great horror, barricaded themselves behind the iron-gates of new-age Gulag camps of affluence and isolation. Such is the cruelty of human nat­ure in desperate situations of self-survival! In other words, this unsettling and dystopian reality of mig­rant life in the global pandemic exposes the ‘image repertoire’ of delusional casino-capitalism, and it also questions the deeply held existential belief of ‘love thy neighbour’ especially those und­ocumented, racialised and marginalised working-class neighbours in our glitteringly unequal cities.

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Reality Bites (Left) Balraj Sahni in a scene from Do Bigha Zamin; (and) Farooq Shaikh in Gaman.

On a note of disclosure, let me confess here. Being a migrant myself, this mass exodus of mig­rants has turned out to be an excruciatingly cat­hartic moment of personal grief and redemption for me.  My father, who belonged to the imaginary wetlands of ‘Wordsworth’s daffodils’ and ‘chopped hands’  in Bodh Gaya of Bihar, used to tell me, ‘I’ll tell you my migrant life story’  ‘on the day the world ends and the voice of a violin lasts in the air’, in the words of Polish poet Anthony Milosz. Alas, it never happened in his lifetime. Thus, he never told me his true story. I am told he tried uns­uccessfully to publish his ‘motorcycle diary’ in cheap, glossy adult fantasy magazines. As a mig­rant, he never remembered his involuntary dislocations from small town to smaller towns and his wretched life in asbestos camps. To his credit, he encouraged ‘my mother, mistress of memory’, to store ‘terracotta of tall men with dry mutton keb­abs beneath the underground sky’ for the ritual of Buddhist ‘fire-sermon’ to appease unruly migratory ghosts. In short, he lived a provisional and ins­ignificant life seeking to erase all memories of his migratory life. In this process, he became a feigned and fictional lover who was not in love with himself. That’s why my  partial and partisan narrative of migrants lays bare the wounded frankness of uprooted, itinerant sweating bodies in exile at home and abroad.

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In a hyper-globalised world of capital and labour mobility, migration—internal or international—has become a rivetingly tragic tale of not only those who are migrating but also of those living in sites of departure, transit and (non) arrival with or without citizenship rights. Today, more people worldwide live outside their countries of birth than ever before. Migration scholars estimate the number of international migrants to be around 272 million, almost 3.5 per cent of the global population in 2019-20. Women constitute almost one-half (48 per cent) of this growing stock of transnational migrants. With limited or no public welfare benefits, the bulk of these migrant workers are mostly precariat–proletariats, beleaguered ethnic minorities, and refugees in the underbelly of global migrant industries and the gig economy. No wonder, Mexican braceros, Filipino domestic workers, and Middle-eastern asylum-seekers have become global symbols of forced migration and homelessness.

Everyone has a home except the ‘migrant’—a strange pair of metaphor and metonymy for destitution, dispossession and displacement. Once they leave home, they never return. Admittedly, migration is often a survival or acc­umulation strategy in migration studies, but for the maj­ority of migrant workers ‘home’ is an imaginary dwelling lodged in the infected lung of their memories. I don’t think you will ever forget one of the most poignant celluloid representations of the life of a migrant in Bimal Roy’s iconic film Do Bigha Zamin. Shambu Mahto, a poor farmer, is forced to mig­rate to Calcutta to pay off his debts. In his exq­uisite portrayal of the role, Balraj Sahni ran barefoot on the street operating a hand-pulled rickshaw, stunning the audience with sub-hum­an visuals of the life of migrants. There is a surreal politics to this tale.  If ‘cinema is a slum-eye view of politics’, as Ashis Nandy avers, migrants are ind­eed reminders of the festering wounds of this politics.

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Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari

Let me pose a cliché—who migrates? The old, infirm, sick, convict and the insane who are ‘chained, pinioned and fettered’ don’t migrate. Using the definition of place of last residence, Census 2011 says that there are about 450 million internal migrants accounting for 37 per cent of India’s population. The next census, due in 2021, has not happened due to the pandemic but the number of internal migrants will likely inc­rease to 580 million, as per our rough estimation. Using anthropocentric data of migrants, social scientists, especially demographers and anthropologists, inform us that mostly young men and women with identical eyes, innocent body fats, and lewd dreams migrate. Once in the city, these strange amphibians start living a false bio-political life—a performative body that acts without Dionysian joys and ecstasies.  In India, Dalits, tribals, and lower castes are several times more likely to migrate than upper castes. They migrate individually as well as in herds, packing the trains, some hanging from the railings, and others climbing onto the roofs, for safer journeys to their dream cities.  And the trains halt at every station as if ‘revolution means pulling the emergency brake on the runaway train of history’. When seasons change, traveling migrant labourers return home ‘leaner, darker, angrier’.  Crying and laughing, crowds of relatives and friends cram the houses of the migrants to enjoy shots of toddy drinks with imported foreign liquor. And their waiting women, hiding behind the door, pounce on them ‘like wildcats on a slab of flesh’, in the chilling words of Arvind Adiga in White Tiger. Let me tell you if you don’t know this—the most preferred part of the migrant labourer’s body is the rusted hip bone, ‘knotted jute ropes’ on which their women dry their wet fantasies. In this new nuptial order, queer is the queen, and paranormal the new normal!

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In the words of the legendary Bengali poet Tarapada Roy, these migrants “panting in sweltering summers, shivering in winter nights, drenched in monsoon rains” build fancy homes, malls, and metros for everyone. But tragically migrants don’t inhibit a home of their own, they only stop at sleeping mats for a few hours, alw­ays at night. It is a strange homelessness for mig­rants for they are bereft of fantasies of urban lifestyle. There is a catch here, though. Don’t forget Ram Gopal Verma’s Satya (1998)—unmistakably the greatest-ever Hindi gangster film; he is also a migrant. Thus, a few mig­rants manage to become infamously popular hired assassins or celebrity poets and writers in the strange reversal of fortunes. Yes, you have gotten it right. I am ref­erring to Manoranjan Bypari’s turbulent journey from being a former Naxalite and rickshaw-puller in Calcutta to a cult literary figure. Doesn’t it sound like cinematic metafiction on the agency of mig­rants to survive and rise against all odds?  Most migrants are not so fortunate, though. The mig­rant ‘Kaale-Peeli’ cab driver Ghulam (Farooq Shaikh) in Muzaffar Ali’s hauntingly melancholic film Gaman (1978) could never take the train back home after being dislocated from his village in Badaun in Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, it was a horrific tragedy beyond imagination but at least some mig­rants managed to return home during the cor­ona pandemic!

Described as “footloose workers” in migration studies, about 100 to 120 million seasonal migrant labourers in India circulate from place to place, never with the intention to settle down, but to ret­urn to their native villages and towns once a job is completed or when a working season comes to an end.  In between migration and settlement for employment, these footloose army of migrants are often denied voting rights in their destination place. The findings of a TISS study authored by the writer with his colleagues suggest that bet­ween 60 to 83 per cent of domestic migrants failed to cast a ballot in at least one national, state, or local election, after migrating from their native places. Studies also point out that new forms of bonded or partial labour-bonded migrant labourers have emerged in the recent past. The case of contract labour from areas around Mahbo­obnagar district in Andhra Pradesh (often called Palamuru labour) has drawn the attention of a number of scholars and writers. It is estimated that nearly 150,000 labourers seasonally migrate from this district, of whom nearly 50,000 are bonded (Olsen and Ramanamurthy, 2000). Emasculated by the curse of drought and robbed of their regular livelihoods, doe-eyed Palamuru women are often found constructing roads and runways for the rich and powerful in our cities.

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Undeniably, women and children suffer the most in these conditions, as they are tossed into various forms of slavery in the domestic spaces of affluent city dwellers. And their body and labour are owned and sold to the highest bidders by the lab­our contractors. Unfortunately, mig­ration literature has so far foc­ussed more on the subjectivities of masculine labour leading to suppression of gender exploitation during, before, and after migration. In case you have forgotten the case of Kunti, daughter of Dalit Charan Chamar from Gorakhpur, who was sexually assaulted in April 1931 by the white overseer and the girmitiya labour broker in Fiji, you just recall Alia Bhatt’s mesmerising performance in Udta Punjab (2016) as a spunky Bihari labourer going through hell before she took revenge against her own murky fate. It indeed represents a touch-stone for future gender-based studies in migration literature. In the end, remembering my father who died of Alzheimer’s disease, I stand at the window of my home, frightened of human bet­rayal and airborne sickness in the Maximum City—the dream city of migrants in India. The sun hesitatingly dips in the sea of traffic noises. I realise there are many things that don’t migrate—pottery lamps, coffee-table books, and wall paintings; they are domesticated birds deprived of plumage, preening and even pooping at our doorsteps. Sensing this was not traumatic enough, I roll a smoke from the pack of my favourite Panama cigarettes, and inhale it deeply. A stench of sweating bodies fills my lungs. I lick my lips, again and I suddenly decide to erase all my memories of mig­ration—perhaps “exile is the only way of going home”—a post-apocalyptic fantasy with some nameless infection!  

(This appeared in the print edition as "Road to Perdition")

(Views expressed are personal)

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Ashwani Kumar is a poet, policy researcher and professor at TISS. He recently co-edited Migrants, Mobility & Citizenship in India

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