14th June 2020
The plan for today was meet some weavers and interact with some migrant workers individually. As we reached the Smartpur Centre in Lucknow we were greeted by Utkarsh and a hot cup of chai. The walk to one of the weavers homes was full of life, there were men, women and children, but mostly youngsters loitering around the village. As they saw me shooting the village lanes with the camera, the children would run away from it, as if it would hurt them and the young men set their hair to make sure they were looking nice. We reached a weavers house and Ravi decided to do the interview and I was very happy to take a walk through the village, taking some shots of the village. As I walked out of the low door of the house with the camera, a woman about 20 meters away shouted “don’t you dare point that thing at me, I will break it if you do.” She was washing clothes outside her house.
The children’s reactions were more mixed. First they would run from it and when they realized that I am not chasing them, they would come running in front of it only to run away again. It became a game for them. Utkarsh called one of the neighbours, he was also a student at the Smartpur centre and asked him to take me around the village as I wanted to take some shots. The young boy, maybe 13 years old agreed and led the way. His pink kurta was going well with the background but I also needed some shots without it so I asked him to walk behind me. We were greeted by several people on the way. I saw four goats on the side of the lane in front of a house and took some shots of them when an old woman came out of the house and smilingly said “what are you doing?” I told her about the project and she said “yes, many have come back. They have faced many hardships. May Allah take care of all of us.”
There were prayers on everyone’s lips. When we asked some of them about their plans ahead they replied “it’s in God’s hands now. We are not sure what we will do.”
I walked back with the boy to the weavers house and saw Ravi deeply immersed in conversation. They had a shop outside their house so I went to sit there. Two young boys, aged 24 walked up to me and said “what are you guys doing?” I told them we’re documenting the lives of those who have returned from the cities and they immediately asked for the YouTube channel. Within a few seconds they had subscribed to the DEF YouTube page. They said “we will watch it when you upload it. Make it well.”
After Ravi was done with his interview we started walking through the village looking for some of the people we had met yesterday to talk to them in greater detail. Adil, one of the people we had met yesterday walked past us with a group of friends and we asked him if he would be willing to talk to us again. He was happy to. He led the way to his house, we followed and his group of friends followed us. When we reached his house I looked back to see that the group had become bigger. We asked Adil what he does now and he said “I play cricket now. Yesterday I lost the match so I lost some money but today I am going to put in some money and win the match. I will gain what I lost yesterday, I am confident of winning.” I asked him what he is doing for a living now and he said “I just came out of quarantine four days back and there is absolutely no work in the village. Those who were there in the village before can’t find work, how will I? I am an outsider for them.” He went on about being treated like an outsider “earlier when we used to come to the village we were welcomed like heroes but this time when we came we were discriminated against; people ran away from us. Sir it doesn’t feel good at all. But now that my quarantine is over, slowly people have started talking to me again, I have reconnected with my old friends and we play cricket every day.” I asked him about his intentions of going back to the city and he said “we didn’t like the way they treated us, but we will have to go back. We don’t have much to do here. Once the lockdown gets over completely we will go. There is going to be one from tomorrow.” Fake news had been circulated around the country about a strict lockdown being imposed from the 15th of June but the government had rubbished those claims, however, many people still believed it to be true.
The sun was beating down on us heavily and one of the students of the Smartpur centre who was walking with us and guiding us through the village said “it seems like the sun is slapping us every moment”, this student goes by the nickname Shehenshah (Emporer) in the village. He asked me “how many followers do you have?” I said “about 400-500” to which he replied “my video got 2 million views. If the lockdown wasn’t announced I would have become a star.” Shehanshah is an interesting character. When he saw me talking to Ravi in English he came to me and said “yes hello my name Shehenshah.”
The harsh sun had left the whole village without any shade, it was right on top of us and we couldn’t even spot our own shadow. As we walked around the village running towards the shade when we saw it, we met Saddam Hussain again and asked him if he would be willing to talk to us in greater detail. He was extremely reluctant “I told you yesterday, there are only problems, nothing else.”
Wasi Saheb, a well-wisher of DEF’s initiative in Saidanpur and an influential man in the village invited us for lunch. We had chulha cooked rotis along with four types of chutneys, the food was delicious. His hospitality was very comforting and pleasing. His friend and neighbor joined us as well and invited us to meet his mother. We went to his house and we were greeted by his 90-year-old mother. She is a little hard of hearing but her memory is very sharp, I was told by her son. She has a twinkle in her eye. She said “nowadays we all fight. Hindus and Muslims fight about everything, in our time we didn’t even know who was Hindu and who was Muslim. We were told by our parents to not use firecrackers on Eid, they would ask us to wait till Diwali to burst them. There was no division of any sort.”
Talking to wise old people is somehow refreshing and heartwarming. The conversation with her and the sumptuous lunch refreshed us for the rest of the day. As we came out of their house the heat again slapped us, just like Shehenshah had said.
We went to meet Shakeel, a tailor from Pune. He was originally a weaver but since there aren’t enough job opportunities for weavers he went to Pune and became a tailor. When we entered his house to talk to him we requested him to sit at the loom and he chuckled saying “this is the first time I’ll sit there in ten years.” Industrialism, capitalism, demand and supply drive our economy but they kill our skills. The weavers of Barabanki are skilled and yet they revert to other basic skills to earn a living and survive.
We then drove from Shakeel’s house in Saidanpur to the village of Bansa. The roads seemed familiar today and somehow wider than they had felt yesterday. I believe familiarity has that effect. We parked the car under the shade of a tree and then walked to meet Nandlal. As we entered his house compound we were greeted by two buffaloes. Nandlal greeted us with a Namaste and invited us into the house. His two-year-old daughter was playing with the dirty utensils, his wife quickly covered her head and face as she saw us and his mother smiled at us. He sat down uncomfortably on a cot as we set up the camera. We asked him to sit comfortably and started talking.
His journey started from Trippur in Tamilnadu, his employer gave him 1,000 rupees to go back home. He took a bus to Chennai and hitched a truck ride from there till Vijayawada. In Vijayawada he found a truck that was charging 3,000 rupees to take them to Lucknow and he spent most of what he had on that. He had to sell his mobile phone to pay the truck driver and he did so, he was now on an unsure journey without any communication with his family. For the next four days of the journey he had almost nothing to eat, even water seemed like a luxury. As he said this his mother intervened and came into the frame. “My son didn’t eat for five days; what kind of a world is this?” she said with watery eyes. We asked her what she knows about Covid-19 to which she said “I don’t know anything about this Corona of yours, all I knew was that my son was in danger and I wanted him to come back home.”
We asked Nandlal about the steps he took to be safe. He said “I was going to quarantine myself at home. I informed the Pradhan that I am back and he asked me to self-quarantine. A bed was set up away from everyone in the house and I went to a separate bathroom as well. The villagers were extremely rude towards me so I didn’t even want to go out. But after 21 days I went out and everything seemed to go back to normal.” When asked about the livelihood opportunities for him now he told us that his employer has asked him to come back once the crisis is over so he is planning to go back to Tamilnadu.
In the middle of the conversation his daughter would often come to him or and he would politely send her back. She hasn’t started speaking yet but her grandmother has conversations with her. She shouts something that doesn’t mean anything to me and her grandmother responds “yes beta, yes beta, ok.” Even though this family was frustrated with their current situation they didn’t let that affect the conversation, they were all polite, soft spoken and they even spoke about the issues they faced with dignity and an extent of elegance.
After thanking Nandlal, his wife and his mother we left and walked to Amit Kumar’s house about 30 meters away. As I entered his house his mother saw me from afar and greeted me. I went to her and asked her if she was scared of the virus, she said “scared? Why would I be scared? I will just be careful. Not scared. When my son came back I told him to stay in a separate room for two weeks, now we are all safe.”
Amit spoke about his journey and his issues very openly. He was extremely dissatisfied with his employers. He said “just like they weren’t there for us when we needed them, we will not be there for them when they will need us.” Unfortunately for Amit, he will not be able to follow through with that statement. He said later that in spite of how he was treated in the city, he will still have to go back to make sure his family is well-fed. Amit was working as a tailor in Noida. When asked about where he gets his news from he clearly said that he doesn’t believe what he sees on social media, he only believes what he watches on news channels like ABP News, India TV and Aaj Tak.
We walked through the village lanes to go back to the car and then drove towards Saidanpur. We parked the car and walked through the narrow lanes to Junaid’s house.
We then went to the center and sat down for a cup of chai and chat with Utkarsh. The ruins of the Haveli overlook the sunset; it is a beautiful setting for an evening chai. Utkarsh advised us to continue our journey carefully. He said “you have a long journey ahead, go slowly, go carefully and please maintain distance with people, you have to be very careful.”
With Utkarsh’s kind words, I risked a handshake, it deserved a hug but in today’s world even the handshake was too much. I believe it conveyed my emotion of gratitude and gratefulness.
14th June 2020
While interviewing one of the migrant labourer, I overheard somebody in the background saying, “Why did Sushant Singh Rajput commit suicide? Wasn’t he very rich?”
In the last two days in Saidanpur, I’ve realized that this region straddles two worlds (comfortably or uncomfortably). On one hand there are stories about local feudal lords and their riches—buying and selling of mango orchards worth lakhs. And on the other hand there are migrant labourers who are struggling socially and financially due to Covid-19 crisis.
A man could not get married to the woman he loved despite both being Muslims (and him being richer), because the woman comes from the family, which has traditionally enjoyed social superiority. Forgetting one’s place in the social hierarchy is criminal, which guarantees social acceptance.
“They wouldn’t even let us touch ‘bumba’”, moaned a migrant labourer. Bumba is the hand pump, a source of water and community acceptance in the village. Some of the migrant labourers who were agitated that they haven’t got benefits declared by the government, had in fact ran away from the quarantine centre. Hence, they couldn’t be registered to receive benefits.
Saidanpur village that is Muslim dominated—weaker and stronger sections of the community are exposed to two different India. The poor and weak lament about being subjected to discrimination in the name of religion—whereas the dominant members of the community are active participants in the exploitation process. It’s doesn’t seem to be a struggle between Hindu and Muslim, but haves and have nots. And lockdown has widened this gap. The two worlds co-exist, but never meet or not allowed to meet to maintain archaic social hierarchy. The rich and powerful control the resources through corruption, middleman culture and political clout. Very little trickles down to the weaker section of the society.
“I wish I was more educated’, shared a migrant labourer. According to them, they could not study because of financial difficulty. “I had to start working early to contribute to family’s earnings”, lamented a migrant labourer. They confess—if they were more educated, they could’ve created more opportunities for themselves. They would want their children to be better positioned than them by becoming educated, but cannot do much to change their fate.
Lack of education also impacts access to information. “Social media sometime gives out fake news, but news channels tell the truth,” states an interviewee. They mostly watch India TV, Zee News and ABP News for their daily dose of current affairs. I warned them that these channels produce news with an agenda and on many occasions misrepresent reality. “But what else can we do and where else can we get our information from”, rues a migrant labourer.
We observed that Gutka addiction is a major problem in the village—especially amongst younger fellows. It is taxing on their health and wealth. They often drop out of school. In fact the principal of the school goes from house to house insisting the families to send their children, with little success.
It seems education has to constantly compete with ‘bumba’, and often the former is ill- matched to the latter.