Cyclone Amphan came as a blessing in disguise for Ansar Khan and 25 others, as this was the first time since the lockdown that they got three proper meals in a day and proper beds to sleep on at night. They had been subsisting on one meal a day from March 25, when the lockdown had been announced.
Starvation was the 'gift' the lockdown brought them. After enduring more than two months of this regular fasting regimen, they decided it would be better to return to home to West Bengal.
Accordingly, Khan, 40, along with his colleagues - plumbers, masons etc - set off from Bandra and walked for around 15 days, passing through Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, covering nearly 2,000 km on foot.
"I had come to Mumbai only two days before the lockdown was announced and was stuck here without money to even buy a packet of biscuits, since my savings had been exhausted in dropping off my family in West Bengal and returning to the metropolis. In such a scenario, my colleagues and I were left with no other option but to eat only once a day and that too was not enough to survive," said Khan, who has lived in the slums of Behrampada, Bandra, for the last 20 years.
According to Khan, he and his team survived on the measly Rs 6,000 given to them by their employer, that too after a series of calls and requests. "I have been in this city for years but have never seen such a scenario. Mumbai is famous for its large-hearted citizens, who leave no stone unturned to help others but in these two months, we have experienced the worst," Khan recalls.
"No one came out to help us. We were thrashed twice by police for stepping out. But our intention was not to loiter but look for rations. The thrashing was a pain in more than one way, another problem we had to solve. Since no doctor was available, I had to buy painkillers from the chemist to handle the pain of the beating," he says.
Left with no money and food, Khan decided to return to his hometown in Bengal but there was no mode of transport available. "I was exhausted and just could not take this any more. So, I decided to walk back home. I began my walkathon on May 10 and it took one full day to reach Bhiwandi from Bandra. But gradually, we picked up pace," narrates Khan.
"We hitchhiked sometimes, thumbing down trucks and tempos on our journey. If there was no truck available, we would continue walking. We spent our nights mostly in jungles or the nearby bushes as we were terrified of sleeping on the sides of the highways," Khan adds.
There was hardly anything to eat on this long journey. "I remember having one meal each in MP and Jharkhand and twice in Bihar, in these 15 days," Khan notes.
"We were delighted to reach Odisha, as it meant our destination was near. Then we heard of Cyclone Amphan and we were made to stay in a school, where, much to our delight, we got proper meals, thrice and tea and snacks in between. In fact, it was here that we actually slept on proper mattresses in these 15 days," he says, struggling to hold back his tears.
Finally, Khan and his friends reached West Bengal, specifically their village Gobardhanpur. But it was far from a joyous welcome that awaited them there. Villagers were afraid the returnees had brought back the dreaded virus with them. "Given the vast distance we had covered, we were unsettled and restless. Some of us developed slight fever while others had tremendous bodyache. We were screened by a local doctor, who has quarantined all of us for 14 days," Khan said.