Hundreds of thousands of jobless migrant labourers walk back home with their pots, pans, blankets in tattered rucksacks. This tragic return of the repressed in India during the national lockdown is the harshest and cruelest exposure of the dark reality of migrant life in the contemporary world. Migrants are often found in the most exploitative circumstances as construction workers, brick kiln workers, auto drivers, rickshaw pullers, sex workers, private security guards, household help, cab drivers, courier workers, beauty-parlor workers, plantation workers. Migrants in their habitat of enumeration or identification by the disciplinary forces of the state are often excluded from the economic, cultural, social and political lives of cities and are often treated as second-class citizens in their place of temporary residence. The constraints faced by seasonal migrants – the so-called un-domiciled migrants – are many and range from lack of formal residency rights; lack of identity proof; lack of poxlitical representation; inadequate housing; low-paid, insecure or hazardous work; to limited or no access to welfare services and discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, class or gender in their dream locations. In short, the impossibility of not seeing migrants makes them a fashionable monument of casino-capitalism. In fact, it metamorphoses them into the skeleton of the work-in-progress signage, the only structure that continues to endure when everything else has collapsed beyond repair.
Being a migrant myself, this pandemic is also a moment of personal grief and redemption. My father used to tell me, ‘I’ll tell you my migrant life story when you’re big’. To his disappointment, I grew up quickly. But I also remained his child all my life – a dangerous and untrustworthy halfling. Thus, he never told me his true story. He often remembered things in order, but some things never came to light. He never remembered his involuntary dislocations from small town to smaller towns and his wretched life in cheap asbestos police camps – chasing river pirates, lecherous politicians, and brawling miners. He lived a provisional and insignificant life seeking to eradicate signs of otherness or differences. In this process he became a feigned, fabricated discourse of a lover who was not in love with himself. That’s why my partial and partisan narrative of migrants mirrors the uniquely personal and bodily experiences of a halfling in categorical terms.
Everyone has a home except migrants, for it is displacement and dislocation. They build a home for everyone but can’t own it. Their homelessness is not that of the metropolitan bourgeoisie be that a second home or a home away from home. Migrants, or fake imitations of traveling labourers, are not owned or remembered by anyone. After they leave home, they never return home. For them, home is an imaginary dwelling lodged in the infected lung of the memory. Unsurprisingly, Rabindranath Tagore failed to capture this doubling of loss in his classic, Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World).
Who migrates? Old, infirm, sick, convict, insane, – ‘chained, pinioned, and fettered’ don’t migrate. Social scientists inform us that mostly young men and women, with identical eyes, innocent body fats, and lewd dreams migrate. Once in the city, these strange amphibians – afflicted with somatic symptoms of permanent viral fever, start living a false life – a body that acts without joy. Facing relentless bouts of gender discrimination at home, migrant women are tossed without luggage into various forms of slavery in the domestic spaces of affluent city dwellers. Emasculated by the curse of frequent droughts, Palamuru women migrant labourers from Andhra Pradesh are often found constructing roads in the cities. Dalits and tribals are several times more likely to migrate compared to upper caste people here in India. They migrate individually but often together, packing the trains, some hanging from the railings and others climbing on to the roofs for safer journey to the dream cities. And the trains halt at every station as if revolution means pulling the emergency brake of history.’ In the traumatic humidity and rancid city air, migrants don’t inhibit a home of their own, they only stop at sleeping mats for a few hours, always at night. It is a strange homelessness for migrants for they are bereft of sweeping, mopping, washing dishes, making the beds, watering plants, dusting the bookshelves. These are fantasies of urban lifestyle. There is a catch here, though. A few of them manage to become hired assassins or celebrity poets and writers in the strange reversal of fortunes.
When seasons change, traveling migrant labourers return home – ‘leaner, darker, angrier’ with Gandhi currency wads in their bulging pockets. Crying and laughing, crowds of relatives and friends cramp the houses of migrants for enjoying the shots of toddy drinks with imported foreign liquor. And the waiting women rip apart the boneless parts of their husbands and secret lovers and quench their starving lust with vibrating tongues filling the air with cries like birds of prey. The most preferred part of the migrant body is the rusted hip bone – knotted jute ropes on which their women dry their wet fantasies and employers hang their imperial dreams in the cities.
Described as footloose workers’ in migration studies, about 100 million seasonal migrant labourers in India circulate from place to place, never with the intention to settle down, but to return to their native villages and towns once a job is completed or when a working season comes to an end. As soon as they arrive at their destination site, they are sucked into the delusional pleasure machine of nouveau riche, neo-middle classes and professionals. Staring through the cataracts of cobwebs in their derelict shanties, they start dreaming of a place of their own, and imagine selling gingerbread or litti chokha their mothers and sisters used to make at home. They know they can’t harm anyone. And yet, the city distrusts him. Once they are done with building fantasies for others, they are abandoned, and pronounced dead. They make a quick comeback like half-comic villains or drag queen bees or zombies from the graves of yesterday.
Remembering my father who died of Alzheimers, I stand at the window, waiting for monsoon drizzle from the darkening sky in Mumbai. I suddenly realize there are many things that don’t migrate – pottery lamps, coffee-table books, and wall paintings; they are domesticated birds deprived of plumage and preening. I roll a smoke, inhale deeply. Everything is sticky in this heat. I tell myself I need to shave my scraggy lockdown beard. The myth ends here. I suddenly decide to erase memories of migratory flamingos from the wetlands of Basari in Bodhgaya of Bihar, my father’s imaginary home!
Ashwani Kumar is a poet, writer, columnist, and professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. His major poetry volumes include My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter and Banaras and the Other, which was long listed for Jayadev National Poetry Award. His most recent publication, Architecture of Alphabets, is a volume of select poems in Hungarian. Ashwani is co-founder of Indian Novels Collective, which brings classic novels of Indian Literature to English readers. He is one of the chief-editors of London School of Economics’ prestigious publication Global Civil Society: Poverty and Activism, and he also writes articles and reviews for Financial Express, The Print, Business Standard, The Hindu, Indian Express and others. You can follow Ashwani on Instagram via @ashwanitiss.