Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi is an Indian author. His debut novel The Last Song of Dusk (2004) won the Betty Trask Award (UK), the Premio Grinzane Cavour in Italy, and was nominated for the IMPAC Prize in Ireland. Translated into 16 languages already. He has written a much thought provoking piece here on why labourers are heading home in droves.
They are not fleeing the pandemic; they’re fleeing us. They took one long, clear, searing look at us – identified us as the industrial strength ingratiates that we are – and they packed their bags and left. It wasn’t the bug, it wasn’t being denied wages, it wasn’t heat, it wasn’t the filth, it wasn’t even the slumlord’s overnight eviction. They just realized who we were – people who saw other humans as essentially a replaceable means to an end – and they decided to replace us. And none of us – a middle-class, virtue signaling, carbon foot print counting, urban constituency of mid-of-career hashtaggers – imagined that our employees would left swipe us. But yes, that’s exactly what happened.
So where do we start? By STOP calling them migrants. They live and work here, in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore. This is their home, although they might – like us – have birth homes, too. The phrase ‘migrant worker’ is consciously disempowering. Migrant is reinforced in media discourse to divest something vital: an assertion of residency in the same city as ourselves. Does it scare us to think that they might inhabit the same public space as us? By repeatedly calling them migrants we also suggest that we can simply ‘pack them back to where they came from’. A reinforcement of the word migrant diminishes their agency as tax paying citizens; it invisibles them by equating them with wandering beings, (as if a pack of sheep) and it detracts from their more powerful role as citizen, by insinuating that they are essentially homeless and therefore entirely reliant on the host state for residence. In essence, an elite existentialist’s reprehensible rap set: they not from here/they here to clean/ and cook/ and cook/ and clean/ where de go from dis pad/ well, sista, w’knows?
Every time you think – Thank God I have a home of my own in this pandemic – you acknowledge all those who had originally left their own home, traveled hundreds of miles, shacked up under plastic roof shanties for months, without a kitchen or indoor plumbing, to build that house you now call home. Those Indians walking on the streets, hungry, dispossessed, broken, betrayed by the government they voted into power, betrayed by the people whose businesses they established – they’re the folks who made the place sheltering you during this storm of storms. They are not migrant workers: they are the original founders of your home.
No one out of choice, or from lack of judgment, sleeps on train tracks. Tracks suggest a path to your village, serving as compass for those without the privilege of GPS. Most services during lockdown were said to be shut: so why would the trains be running? People sleep on train tracks also from abject desperation, when rabid sun and flaring hunger connive to suspend rational thought. And what happens when people die on tracks? From a Quora thread: ‘With a high-speed hit all you get is lots of blood spray, chunks of flesh, organ and bone with the odd recognizable chunk thrown in.’ Now imagine, for a moment, their funeral. When the rich come back from London or Rome, bringing home some of the contamination, we don’t ask – Who told you to go to Europe and fall sick? So on what account do we ask the poor: Why were you sleeping on train tracks? I am not equating the two questions but I am asserting my right to question an establishment that believes it is wrong for me to prioritise one question over the other. And, for the record, the correct answer to the question is: They’d never have been sleeping on train tracks if they were, instead, in the trains and on their way home to their villages.
There is a clear difference between Indian workers who walked to their villages from Delhi and Mumbai versus their peers in Bangalore. Workers in Bombay and Delhi were fleeing joblessness or eviction. But workers in Bangalore were being held back (restrained, forbidden free passage). Their trains were canceled after the builder lobby realized that if labor vanished, so would their projects. Much like slaves – or in keeping in with our indigenous traditions of bonded labor – Indian citizens were not allowed to travel home. The nexus between capitalists and governments is devious enough to hold you in captivity. Like an animal. This, in Bangalore, famous for vegan cafes, beer gardens, and now this, a postmodern riff on slavery.
But the recommencement of the Indian economy never factored for an unsettling absence of labour; after all, they assumed: where the hell would the migrants go? As it turns, they would go any place where people did not treat them like vermin, as disposable, as replaceable, and where they endured a need-based visibility, which is to say: when we need them, we see ‘em. But now that the labourers’ left, the majdoors have left us in a majboori: no one here to lay a brick, and without a maid, who’s cleaning the toilet? Because that’s where we are at right now, in the toilet, and it seems we might be here a while.
This piece first appeared in the Daily O