R Sundari, a Tamilian ragpicker in Mumbai
R Sundari, a Tamilian ragpicker in Mumbai

As a group of waiters and baharwalas — as hotel delivery boys are known in Mumbai — embark on a journey from South Mumbai to their villages in Basti, Uttar Pradesh on a Sunday early morning. A ragpicker from within a make-shift hut on the deserted road to Gateway of India, shouts out to them.

She offers them packets of biryani left behind by a Samaritan group feeding the poor during the lockdown. “Take a few more packets. You will need them on your journey. You won’t find anything ahead,” says the woman offering the group the packaged food for the journey ahead. R Sundari has been working in Mumbai and caring for her mother and a 17-year-old daughter studying at village Viluppuram in Tamil Nadu. Distinct from her lot of 20-odd Tamilian ragpickers who left the city to move back to their villages in South India, Sundari has chosen to stay back in Mumbai — her home now for over two decades.

If one looks around, you will find very few ragpickers left in Mumbai. The city’s front-line safai kamdars, fearful of a repeat of the 2004 tsunami calamity that left hundreds of ragpickers widowed in one clean sweep with their husbands being killed on that fateful December 26 back in their villages in Tamil Nadu, have disappeared.

The virus situation across the nation, particularly in Mumbai, is ominous and lakhs moved out to reach their homes miles away, wanting to be close to their families, even risking life and limb on the way. Staying back, spelt disaster to them. But now for the few true-blooded Mumbaikars who chose to stay back in the city that was now their home.

A quiet has spread across Mumbai of late. The city of dreams, known never to sleep, has slipped into a slumber of sorts now for over two months. A lockdown imposed on India due to the COVID-19 crisis has triggered a mass exodus of migrants across states, particularly from Mumbai.

And, not all UP residents have left for their villages either. Cycle mechanic Ramavtar Sagar would travel to his village at Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh every year. Even fight with his employer and take that annual leave around this time to be with his wife and four children. “Why do I work? I can’t stay so long without seeing them. Itna to banta hai na,” he would say to his employer of 30 years, before bolting off to his village in April to return in June, every year, as a rule.

UP Migrant Ramavtar Sagar
UP Migrant Ramavtar Sagar

This time, however, Ramavtar stayed back in Mumbai. And, with him is his Bihari colleague and friend Khurshid Alam. “Mumbai has been our home for so many years. In such a state, travelling itself is fraught with risks. Now, what has to happen here can happen in my village too, right?” says a philosophical Khurshid, as he places an arm around Ramavtar, equally in agreement.

Khurshid’s brothers in Mumbai left for East Champaran in Dhaka, Bihar at the earliest opportunity they got. But, Khurshid stayed back. He has witnessed the Mumbai’s bomb blasts, the floods of 2005, the riots and strongly feels that this situation too will pass. “Ab samay bura chal raha hai…par Mumbai phir se naach uthegi…dekhna,” he says, prophetically.

Bihar migrant Khurshid Alam
Bihar migrant Khurshid Alam

And, the faith imposed in Mumbai isn’t restricted to Indians. Nepali watchman Kamlesh Kami, popularly called Thapa for obvious reasons, found himself jobless when his workplace, a restaurant, shut shop in the lockdown. He could have left for Nepal with his friends but chose to stay back.

Ten years in Mumbai have made him fall in love with the city. He knows that come what may, he will never sleep hungry here. So, instead of leaving for his house at Mangalsen in Nepal, Kamlesh took up another job at a cooperative housing society whose watchman left for home in Bihar. He stayed back in Mumbai with his wife Laxmi.

Nepali watchman Kamlesh Kami with wife Laxmi
Nepali watchman Kamlesh Kami with wife Laxmi

“The borders are sealed. Nepalis working in India have been gathering at the India-Nepal border and crowding there raising the risk of contracting the virus,” says a sensible Kamlesh who chose to stay put in Mumbai, and rightly so. If only his friends were as sensible. “Two of them have already contracted the Coronavirus. They have been quarantined in a school in Bihar,” he adds, vindicating his decision to abstain from travelling to Nepal.

Laxmi goes to work with him every day, sits next to him throughout the day at his workplace, chatting about good times and bad. “Ab saathi aisa ho toh darr kis baat ka,” says Kamlesh jokingly. Laxmi blushes as she stays close to him. “Left by himself, he’ll go and meet his friends, contract the virus and give it to me,” adds Laxmi, jokingly. The couple’s affection, visible to all in the locality, is a source of amusement in the trying times.

Uttar Pradesh’s Dharamganj resident Subedar Pandey, who works as a watchman for a Dena Bank Building in Colaba, and lives with his wife Tara and 10-year-old son Rishab on the terrace of the property, contracted a high-grade fever on 10 April. While his ‘friends’ abandoned him for fears of contracting coronavirus, the residents of the building where he worked, cared for him throughout the period.

UP Migrant family: Subedar Pandey with wife Tara and Son Rishab
UP Migrant family: Subedar Pandey with wife Tara and Son Rishab

He was diagnosed with typhoid and after treatment, recovered only to stay back in Mumbai. Nine years back, Subedar lost a daughter to a snakebite ‘in’ his village home. Today, on the virus threat, he feels, “Now, what has to happen will happen. When such a huge calamity occurred at my village, within the four walls of my home and now when my friends abandoned me when I needed them the most in illness, what can I say? I can’t blame Mumbai right? It has given me shelter and everything I could ask for,” he says.

Tamilian cleaner V Moorthy feels it makes little sense to run away from Mumbai now, when things seem tricky. “Sab kuch theek hoga phir se. Darr ke thode hi bhag jaaneka,” he says while speaking to his mother back in Pondicherry over a WhatsApp video call.

V Moorthy
V Moorthy

Mumbai is home for Moorthy since birth. No way is Moorthy going to give up on Mumbai. Not him, not Sundari, not Ramavtar, not Khurshid, not Kamlesh and certainly not Subedar Pandey. For them all, Mumbai will always remain their jaan!

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