For Sahil Kumar, 28, walking had been the only mode of locomotion for the first twenty years of his life. Growing up in Chaibisa, Jharkhand, spotting a motor vehicle was a rarity, forget getting close enough to one or actually being transported in one.
Then Kumar moved to Mumbai, eight years ago. Since then, he has been working as a daily wager at various real estate construction sites in the city. After the sudden lockdown, he found himself stuck in the city, with two of his colleagues and their families.
After spending more than 50 days in the lockdown, having spent all their hard-earned money and having gone to bed hungry for three nights, Kumar and his colleagues decided enough was enough and they would walk back to their hometown. A herculean task, given that around 1,800 kilometres stood between them and their goal. They tried booking slots on the Shramik special trains and contacting NGOs but to no avail.
"We had no idea when the lockdown would end and had lost all hope. Without enough money to get by, it had begun to feel like we were counting our last days," said Kumar.
On the night of May 25, Kumar and seven others set off towards Jharkhand. The group included Kumar, his colleagues Suraj Mahato, 27, and Dhiren Hembrom, 31, wives of Mahato and Hembrom and Hembrom's five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son.
The group covered 40-50 kilometres per day by foot and on a couple of occasions, got lifts from trucks and tempos up to a point.
"We had no idea whether or not we would reach home, we just kept walking. Sometimes, truck and tempo drivers were kind enough to give us lifts," Kumar remembers.
"Also, it was not just us, there were hundreds and thousands of migrants walking towards the highway. There were camps set up in various places, from where we often got our food," Kumar says.
Their walkathon was marked by a couple of breaks each day. On some days, they would lie down hungry alongside the highway, underneath the trees, too exhausted to worry about the fear of getting crushed by heavy vehicles. But sleep eluded them.
"I don't remember sleeping. We just rested for sometime. There was always the fear of being crushed by a vehicle racing to its destination and nobody would know," Kumar recalls nervously.
"It was so hot and dry. At times, we could barely breathe due to the hot winds and had to cover our faces while walking," he added.
After more than ten days spent trudging through dusty roads, the group of seven reached Chaibisa in Jharkhand. One look at the weary lot and villagers rushed them to the local government hospital.
"By the time we reached our village, we were practically limping. The children were too tired to cry. Some of our neighbours recognised us and thought we were unwell. They rushed us to the village hospital," says Kumar.
All of them were tested for Covid-19 initially and underwent basic treatment. None of them were found negative, but have been asked to remain in home quarantine.
In retrospect, Kumar thinks their entire journey was unreal as he cannot believe how all of them managed to reach home alive. "Unless things get better, I am not leaving my hometown, my own land, again. I may not earn more money but at least, I won't have to suffer the way I did in the last twelve days," Kumar avers.