John Donbok Pakma
was working in a BPO in Ahmedabad when the lockdown was announced on March 24. More than 50 days later, he was on a Shramik Special bound for his home in the Jaintia Hills, sans job , sans money. He spoke to our correspondent
Here in first person account is the story of Pakma’s journey)
It started as a trickle, soon it turned into a torrent . People started fleeing the city they had considered their second home – scared, hungry and restless. On foot, on cycles, on bikes. I wasn’t among them. I could afford to wait for a while.
But even then, when the time to move came, it seemed abrupt. Long journeys come with a bit of preparation. Not for me. Nor for hundreds of thousands of others like me. When the janata curfew kept us inside our homes for a day on March 23 we scarcely anticipated what was to follow. Then our big country came to a sudden halt. We were to shelter in place. Though our shelters were no longer to be places where we were safe.
Our stock of groceries and other essentials started dwindling. Our salaries were slashed. Many I know lost their jobs. There was nowhere those on daily wages could turn to. Then the harassment from the landlords started. When we appealed to their humanity, they told us they needed the rent to make their own ends meet. The fact was , clearly, they didn’t have much hope in us pulling out of the mess.
I felt it did not help me much that I am from the Northeast. And very much look the part. As uncertainty at the workplace and fear of infection grew, I too quit my job at the BPO where I was employed. When dreams of success melted away, I realised I was just another migrant fighting alone for survival in a big city. And as it happens with people anywhere in the world, at the time of a crisis your thoughts turn to the place you call home. I thought more of my mother, my sisters.
The less fortunate ones among the city’s nameless thousands had tried, with varying degrees of success, to foot it out to their native villages in the east. The first phase of lockdown got over on April 14 . Then the second lasted another two weeks. All this time the number of Covid-19 cases in Ahmedabad kept on going up alarmingly. There was the growing threat of infection on one side. There was joblessness and threat of hunger on the other.
Then, just like that, the Shramik Special trains started. I learnt there would be one taking workers back to Meghalaya and other northeastern states. Then started the mad rush to get my name on the list. My friend Raymond Kharbani started organising things for our journey. Fellow Meghalayan Kyntiewmon War pitched in. Kyntiewmon, or Kyn as we call her, has a steady job there; but her bleeding heart didn’t let her stay back in the comfort of her apartment when thousands who had lost everything were scrambling for home.“I am not going home. But none of you who want to go back will stay, we’ll make sure of that,” she assured ud. She also pulled in Purabi Bhattacharya, a Gujarat-based writer from Meghalaya.
After a bit of push and pull we were on the same track as the government officials coordinating the trip, and finally early in the morning of May 15, we found ourselves on a bus to Vadodara. Our train to Guwahati was to start from there.
We were tired, there was no food or water. We had barely managed a bite or two in the morning in our panic to be on that bus. We were worried what would happen if they did not provide us any food or water. Then our thoughts turned to our brothers who tried to cover hundreds of miles walking along scorching highways or sweltering rail lines leaving a lot to fate. “We are still better off. At least we are on a train home,” Raymond retorted. That shut us up.
At Vadodara, we were quickly handed over our tickets, and some food. And a bottle of water. Both of us couldn’t recall when we were happier to see a bottle of water. As the train pulled out we were sweating in the summer heat, but our senses were on full alert for the next food packet that comes along. There was nothing to worry. There was food for us at night.
But then trouble started the next morning. We got a packet of potato chips, biscuits and water for breakfast. And for lunch, a few bananas and a small packet of sliced cake. When heat and hunger started getting to us, we started making frantic calls to Gujarat and Shillong. As day turned to night we realised we were not going to get any more food and water.
Meanwhile, an image of a dying girl started going around in the Whatsapp group for the travellers. It was claimed that she died of fatigue. Knowing the impact it would have on morale, many of us quickly debunked it. But we were still scared that the summer heat of central India would be very harsh on the less robust ones in the train. Nothing like that happened. Days later, it is still out on social media, that a girl on that train died from dehydration and dengue. It was never confirmed though.
By May 17 afternoon, we reached Guwahati and were given some food before being put on buses to Meghalaya. At Byrnihat we had the first freshly cooked meal in three days. All of us were very silent as we gulped down the rice.
We completed the mandatory Covid-19 tests , were found negative, and were sent to home quarantine( in our respective areas; for me in Namdong in West Jaiantia Hills district) . And here we are now, safely in quarantine. Some of us are lucky to get quarantine facilities in our own localities. Others , we find out, have not been so lucky. Some are even hounded by villagers as possible COVID carriers.
When this gets over, a new battle begins for me. Will I go back to Ahmedabad, or any other big city to pursue my dreams of success – which here only means decent living. No man ever steps in the same river twice, said Heraclitus. The river has changed. So has the man.
‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’
For the latest news and updates, follow us on Google News. Also, if you like our efforts, consider sharing this story with your friends, this will encourage us to bring more exciting updates for you.