By Dr. Mansee Bal Bhargava©*
It was a routine morning walk around 8.00am nearby my apartment complex, when I met with Prabhatji (Singh). A short bearded middle-aged man, Prabhatji was cladded in a clean black security guard uniform with a handkerchief covering his mouth and a black backpack by his side. He was sitting under a Peltophorum Tree outside the compound wall when I approached him. Prabhatji was taking rest while en route his walk planned from Ahmadabad to a village in Mehsana district, which is over 75 kilometers from here and he had already walked some kilometers since the dawn. We are reading so much about migrant labours’ mass exodus these days by foot and cycle and Prabhatji is my first encounter to this reality and a memorable one (https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/assam-man-reaches-home-after-2800-km-trip-from-gujarat/article31388554.ece?fbclid=IwAR2QlHOeasLvE9oG36eaMpBXO3nPss49igfnUJwhkAP35crCNjn7SUch3hc).
The rounds of short conversation unfolded here had life learning that are unforgettable.
First round: With a concern, when asked why he is going home and that he must stay here securing his job and protecting himself from corona. He replied with a smile that, “mere paas achcha (good) knowledge hai aur mei soch samajh ke ye decision liya hoon (I’ve good knowledge and I’ve decided thoughtfully)”. When asked why he decided to leave today after the days of lockdown and if he had a cycle it would be better to cover the distance.
I told him the story of the boy who cycled from Maharashtra to Orissa (https://www.msn.com/en-in/news/newsindia/india-under-lockdown-migrant-labourer-peddles-1700-km-in-7-days-to-reach-home/ar-BB12QLi6). Prabhatji works at Shree Sharda Security Forces (logo stitched on his uniform) through which he was appointed as a security guard at an building complex.
He quickly added, “Arey Behanji, I dreamt of becoming an army personnel and see, I ended up becoming a security guard. You see, I’m wearing the dress of the security guard hoping that the police will not bother and beat me on the way. I also have a cycle from the office but did not ride it today because I don’t know when I shall return now due to the corona and the lockdown…..”
I appreciated his being a security guard saying that he too is working for the safety of the people, rather more closely than the army. He gave an unconvincing smile. After showing a bit more concern on his decision to walk, he said, “Behnaji aap jao, mereko kuch nahi hoga, mei ghar pahonch jaunga, aap chinta mat karo.” Hearing this, I walked back home uncomfortably without him knowing that I’ll return. My flat is barely 200 meters from where we met.
Second Round: Within ten minutes, I was back to his surprise showing disagreement to his decision to walk those long miles and bringing him some snacks, fruits, and cash. While accepting the offers with a smile, Prabhatji reinstated his instinct to go because of this corona and his society Saabs (addressing members with respect). He was upset of the Saabs indecisions on locking and unlocking the main gate of the building complex as they were fighting amongst each other and as he was at the receiving end of the bashings from either side.
When the country is affected with religion, interestingly, Prabhatji had regional narrative as, “I’m a Guajarati Asli Thakore (must mean a lot for him!) and serving at a building complex where people are mostly from Rajasthan. Arey, these Rajasthani Saabs do not understand much of corona and lockdown, and they do not know to obey the country’s rules…. But there is also a nice Army Wala Saab from Madhya Pradesh who consoled me a few times to stayover in the job…. I’m also upset with the rising corona tension and loneliness here and thus started missing his village and relatives…..” With a long pause, “… but you see I am a Gujarati and our Bada Pradhan (Prime Minister) is also a Gujarati, so I have to listen to what he says. He said we must stay in the houses, so I want to go to my house. And then Modi is from a village next to mine (Mehsana) that is Vadnagar, so I’ve all the more reasons to follow the rules, whether I like it or not because, Rupani, who is our Pradhan of Gujarat, is also Gujarati and he is also saying about corona and lockdown…”.
I nodded in agreement with him and asked for his mobile number which went unheard. By then it was nearly fifteen minutes we were in conversation…
So, who is there at your house where you wish to return? Immediately, “everyone is there! I lost my wife some years ago and life after that has been kind of lonely. We have a son whom I left with his maternal uncle in the village when I came to Ahmedabad. My brothers and other family members also live nearby in the village. I’m remembering them a lot being lonely and worried of corona.” Did you inform them about your walking plan? “…. yes, I had called them yesterday and people there were saying me to stay back in the city else, he may be jailed or beaten up by the police or catch corona on the way. Therefore, I did not tell them that I left today. Anyway, I don’t have a phone to inform them. So, when I get a chance to talk to them, I’ll inform them.”
Then I asked for a phone number to keep track of his safe arrival to his village. He did not have a phone as he gave it to his son. So, I took out my phone and asked for his son’s number.
I insisted again on his return to work telling him the risks of walking such a long distance because of heat, infection, food and police. He was like, “I know nothing will happen to me.”
Pulling out a small red diary from the front pocket of his shirt and flipping the pages to find a number he continued, “…here is a number of Harishbhai, we call him Lala.” He said the number in English. I tried calling the number thinking that it will let him talk to his family and his family too will come to know of his walking plan, but there was no response from the other side. While flipping his little red diary, he stopped at the backside of the cover of the diary showing a photo said, “…do you know him? He is Osho! I believe in Osho!..”
There was this spark in his eyes which I got tempted to capture in a photo, so when asked for it, he smiled and agreed to be shot (the photo here). The conversation was going easy by now and I continued listening to his polite cultured accent more to express my solidarity and concern and importantly hear him out “…as long as I’ve trust in him (Osho), I know nothing will happen to me and I’ll reach my destination….. I’m aware of the police and the poor people who are walking…. but you see, I’ve the security guard dress on, so the police will think I’m going for my duty….. slowly this way I’ll keep walking and may reach my village by late night, if I’m not stopped.…”
Expressing my consent on his confidence, I asked his plans of walking route, food, rest, “…I’ll go along this highway first to Adhalaj (the famous stepwells) and then head for Mehsana …”
By then, I was in two minds as what if I drive him to Adalaj, he resonated, “Can you please do something to bring me to Adalaj….can you drive me upto there…” we looked at each other with a puzzle and after a pause he said “…. No no Behanji, you leave it, since the police is stopping people everywhere. Anyway, you are thinking too much about me, which is nice, but I’ll find my way…” We discussed the possible shorter route free of police checking… after a while he got up to leave… in few minutes he had crossed the railway track nearby… I stood there waiting his silhouette to fade away from my sight just like, we see off people at the railway stations when the train slowly starts moving and after a while goes out of sight… we usually pray for the traveler’s safe journey while waiving our hands… I did the same for Prabhatji and returned to my flat.
Final Round: At home, I narrated the event with no dismay to get a reaffirmation of the social distance existing in the country especially in the minds of the many educated elites. I was told that, it is naïve to be talking to a stranger and getting carried away listening to his plight. That, I should be more cautious (agree) in this COVID time and not be trusting people like this (disagree).
I could relate this reaction with the big eyes from a society member who was dog-walking while he saw me conversing with Prabhatji. Anyway, I shut my mouth to start my virtual teaching sessions of the day but in my mind, I was already thinking of writing this article. After an hour or so, I got a call from Prabhatji’s family whom I had called earlier to connect him but could not do so.
It was Harishbhai from Mehsana on the other side who said that he had a talk with Prabhatji yesterday and that the family has insisted him to stay in Ahmedabad and not walk to Mehsana. I informed Harishbhai that Prabhatji is already walking his way to Mehsana and has left Thaltej area (my location) at around 9.00am. He shall take the Adalaj route and is expected to reach the village sometime in the midnight. I requested Harishbhai to inform me once Prabhatji has reached and allow me to speak to him.
That wasn’t all! I spent the whole day mind mapping as where Prabhatji might have reached at that time while raising the apathy of the migrant labours on the social media and at home.
I slept through his thoughts overnight, since this was my first encounter with a migrant labour who, though, was on a shorter walk than the many others and probably may have an advantage because of his security guard’s uniform as he said.
Still, Prabhatji’s distresses of the corona lockdown, his profession, his personal life; then his determination to follow the law of the land; his dedication to Osho’s faith; and his daring to decide to walk like many other migrant labours, left me with a lot of questions and learning.
I’m grateful to everything that I have and therefore it is all the more important that the least I must do is to trust the people around me including the strangers and treat them with respect.
This morning, I had already made up my mind to write this article because of being in that uncomfortable thoughts. While penning, I called Harishbhai to find out if Prabhatji has reached home in Mehsana. Harishbhai responded of being unaware of his arrival since he left the village early morning for his labour job. I requested him to update me on this so I shall call in some time.
I get a call back in ten minutes to hear from Harishbhai that, “Prabhatji has returned to his house in Vastrapur (in Ahmedabad) and shall resume work soon. And he mentioned he met you Behanji! But since he calls from other’s numbers, I cannot connect you to him.”
I was relieved and relived our conversation while completing this article. I don’t know what made Prabhatji change his plans of walking to Mehsana and instead stay back at Ahmedabad. I do know that the least I could do is lend my ears to hear him for that hour when he looked in distress.
I also know that poor people are not always looking for a charity on them, instead what they seek is more dignity in the community. I hope and wish that the local governments and the local communities across the country make the poor migrants feel at home in the cities not by only food and ration in the COVID time but ensure more employment security and better quality of life in the long run. This must emerge as a crucial COVID learning to let the society change.
Safe Return Prabhatji! Take care!
*Dr. Mansee Bal Bhargava is an entrepreneur, researcher, educator interested in learning and sharing.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, +919824092804.