Why India’s 2020 migrant-worker exodus needs to be recorded along with other historical mass migrations

Puja Changoiwala's new book aptly captures the stark reality of millions of migrant labourers who had to trudge hundreds of miles to reach their homes after India's 2020 Covid-19 lockdown.

By Neha Kirpal

“Hundreds like us have died on their way home. Hundreds. Women turned widows, children turned orphans, fathers turned pallbearers, and mothers turned to stone. Why did they have to die? They were only trying to get home. We’re only trying to get home. That’s what the whole world said, right, when this virus emerged? Stay home; do not leave home. Then why is it so difficult for us to get home? Did we do something to deserve this?”

In her new novel Homebound (HarperCollins India, Rs 599), Mumbai-based award-winning journalist and author Puja Changoiwala takes up the theme of the migrant exodus that followed the Covid-19 lockdown in India in 2020. A heartbreaking true story about the year gone by, the book aptly captures the stark reality of millions of migrant labourers who trudged hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes. Hundreds did not survive the journey.

The protagonist of the tale is 15-year-old Meher Gopal Balhaari, a resident of Mumbai’s Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums. One of the top rankers in her class and an aspiring journalist, she finds her life suddenly shattered when her family, like many others, is forced to walk 900 kilometres back to their native village in Rajasthan in the blistering May heat when the government announces the national coronavirus lockdown.

Narrated in the form of a series of letters from Meher to Farah, a journalist, the story stands somewhat between fact and fiction, as it goes on to capture the angst of so many migrant workers who were desperate to reach their homes, while struggling with multiple threats – unemployment, homelessness, hunger, starvation, disease and death – apart from the inhuman atrocities and assault they received at the hands of armed police officers, often involving tear gas shelling, lathi charges and chemical attacks.

Changoiwala wrote Homebound to document the migrant crisis of 2020. “I had begun to believe that their exodus belonged to history, with the great journeys triggered by wars, conflicts and natural calamities,” she tells eShe.

As a journalist who has reported on India’s informal economy and the workers who pillar it, she knew that their plight was to be blamed on the systemic, structural decay that has spanned decades.

“Exploited and abused since time immemorial, their mass departure had lent them sudden visibility in the national discourse, and now that their obscurity was beginning to dissolve, I wanted to seal their cold realities in ink, ensure that we never drown them into oblivion again,” explains Changoiwala, who is a recipient of the International Centre for Journalists’ Covid-19 Reporting Award, the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity, Red Ink Award for Excellence in Indian Journalism, Iceland Writers Award, and others.

The entire process of writing this latest book took Changoiwala a little more than a year. Needless to say, the novel borrows heavily from her journalistic fixation on research. For instance, to understand the characters of this book, she visited dozens of villages in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, walking along the road that the migrant workers trudged, and interviewed scores of them.

Further, she spoke to NGOs along the way, the families of the migrants, and villagers who saw them as a threat. She also spoke with lawyers, police officers, migration specialists and anyone who could educate her about their Homeric journeys, the nuances of their lives and their homes, and the structural issues that mar India’s informal workforce.

The book brings the reader face to face with the plight that faced thousands of migrant labourers across the country in a most unprecedented year – an episode still relatively fresh in each of our collective memories. By sharing the stories of various migrant labour families, the book also highlights other parallel themes, such as myths and beliefs around coronavirus, the hierarchy of poverty, ostracizing of girls, politics and communal hatred during the pandemic, the increase in animal poaching during the lockdown and fake news on the internet.

Puja Changoiwala

Changoiwala has previously written two non-fiction books, Gangster on the Run (HarperCollins India, 2020) and The Front Page Murders (Hachette India, 2016). While the former is a biography of Rahul Jadhav, an underworld hitman, extortionist and alcoholic, who turned his life around to become an ultra-marathoner and a de-addiction counsellor; the latter is a true crime book about Vijay Palade, who is alleged to have murdered Bollywood aspirants for wealth in Mumbai.

As an independent journalist, Changoiwala writes about the intersections of gender, crime, social justice, human rights and technology in India. Her reports and features have covered a wide range of issues like internet shutdowns to control dissent around the world, the limitations of AI-based solutions for the disinformation crisis in India, political and armed conflict in Kashmir, robot rescue for India’s caste-based sewer cleaners, human sacrifices perpetrated through religious faith, among others.

Previously a senior correspondent with Hindustan Times, she has also written op-eds on a host of subjects, including India’s period-shaming culture, how policies mandated by multilateral institutions have exacerbated the Covid-19 crisis in low-income countries, and internet restrictions during the pandemic, among other issues.

After having wrapped up her third book, Changoiwala is focused on news stories and features at the moment. She recently finished working on an investigative feature about two women, both Covid-19 patients, who were found dead inside their home in an Indian village.

“Their corpses expose the apathy and negligence at the hands of government entities, the shambling state of healthcare infrastructure in the country’s hinterlands, misinformation that finds gullible victims in poorly educated rural residents, and age-old patriarchy that still runs the day,” she says.

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