Posted by Sangeeta Isvaran, Chennai
I was suffocating! Stuck in the middle of the narrow staircase, I felt a wave of panic rise in my throat, cutting off my breath, robbing me of speech. There were 30-35 persons from Bihar blocking my descent and another assorted group from Assam, Jharkhand and UP crowding the stairs above me.
All shouting, clamouring, begging…
“Didi, Bihar ke train mein humko ticket de do, please!!” [Sister, please give me tickets for the Bihar train!!]
“Sir-ji, UP ke liye kab train hai?” [Sir, when will there be a train to UP?]
“My father is dying, I need to go to Madhubani…”
“My wife is pregnant…”
“We have walked for 9 days from Erode…”
“We have no money…”
“We are scared…”
“The police are beating us… ”
“Nobody speaks Hindi, we can’t get information…”
As the words, the emotions, the desperation besieged me from all sides, I tried to respond, to reassure, to reason calmly as my stomach clenched and a distant part of my mind wondered, ‘How did I get to this place? How did my city, my country get to this point?’
A few weeks ago, when thousands of people started walking home, I, like many others rushed to the main highways to try and help, distributing food, water, and later working with the Chennai corporation to help stranded workers get to Govt shelters.
When the Shramik trains started, a few of us started a volunteer group – some of us manning the highways, finding groups that were still walking, some of us running a phone helpline in Hindi to help workers get registered on Shramik trains, some of us manning the train stations to help translate and get workers on trains.
Spending mornings fundraising, afternoons distributing food and water, scrambling to find Shramik train schedules, coordinating with phone helplines across the country. In the evenings, at the train stations helping 1,000s to board trains, and nights walking the streets around the stations shepherding groups of stranded workers to shelters.
And last night at 1 am we found a group of 60 workers from UP and West Bengal. Since all the Govt shelters in that area were full, we requested the police to let us use a nearby marriage hall to house them temporarily. By the morning, 60 had become 200 and the hall was overflowing breaking all pandemic regulations. Trying to organise them into groups to spread them into other shelters was fast becoming an impossible task as tempers began to rise. I didn’t blame them, these workers were exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Money had run out, jobs had disappeared. All they wanted was to go home. And they were all filled with fear, fear of this strange, new virus flying swiftly across the globe!!
That was how I found myself on the staircase, clutching my clip-board with endless lists, mobbed on all sides, trying to get people to move. Sweat broke out all over my body, more because I was crammed in a small space with nobody respecting social distancing, not that we weren’t in the stifling heat of May.
I needed to break this mood and get people to listen and there was only one thing I could think of. I lifted my head and let out a long howl, like a wolf howling at the moon – “Aaaaoooooooooooo!!!” Everyone froze, and just stared at me.
“Aaaaoooooooooooo!!!” People with eyes popping out, started backing away from what they clearly thought was a mad woman with crazy hair (did I mention that I have extremely curly hair, sort of like James Brown or Stevie Wonder, with a dash of Sai Baba thrown in). Mentally rolling my eyes at what it took to finally get their attention, I spoke loudly in the startled silence, “There are trains to UP and Bihar today. Those who want to go there please assemble in front. Others will need to line up in the rooms above …” As I droned on and people shuffled to form lines, I reflected how much I needed humour and unorthodox methods to keep my sanity in these crazy times.
When I finally stopped talking I turned round in a circle and gazed at the sea of strained eyes, tense bodies and I did my wolf-howl one last time … And started laughing. All these young men stared at me and suddenly everyone was laughing. “Sir-ji, aap kya kar rahe hai??” [Sir, what are you doing?], one of them asked, giggling.
In spite of ample evidence that I was female, generations of patriarchy has ensured that a person who might be a figure of authority (as attested by my clip-board), cannot possibly be a woman. All female volunteers were routinely called sir-ji. And the ratio of women to men at any station or shelter was 1 to 100. But leaving that aside, I said, “We need to laugh, no? Forget our troubles for some time.” And I added, smiling, “Please remember, we are here to help you, you are not alone. Call me Didi, please (mental note – anything is better than sir-ji). Don’t worry, you’ll soon be home.” And I walked with them to Central Station to help them board the train.
In the weeks that followed, our small group of volunteers was drowned in a deluge of appeals, making endless lists, helping 100s onto trains and pacifying the 100s left behind waiting for the next train. (Let’s not forget that between April and June it is estimated that more than 8 million Indians were desperately trying to make it their way home.)
More than providing food, water, shelter, trains I realised we needed to show that we cared, that we SAW them, we acknowledged their shameful neglect. Clearly the administrative and political systems saw workers alternately as liabilities or vote banks, and the lockdown ensured that there were very few witnesses to their suffering.
As a volunteer, I think what I love doing the most is not just providing services but reaching out with positivity, providing affection along with Aadhar card details, smiling till my cheeks ache, creating small spaces of human exchange. Losing my dignity for a couple of wolf howls was well worth the laughter that followed.
A friend of mine, a dedicated phone volunteer would spend time not just noting down names, Aadhaar numbers, destinations etc but ask about their families and if they needed rations and more, assuaging their fear and busting myths about COVID-19. Another co-volunteer doing ground work distributing food and rations would get to know all the children’s names. Another would yell her head off at the station trying to stop people from crowding, but that yelling was infused with her concern for their health.
Some of my friends have been diagnosed with COVID-19, not surprising given the nature of our work; the fear is never far away. But neither is the love. I asked my dad to go to my sister’s house till I finished my on-the-ground relief work – motivated both by fear and love. This time of the pandemic reflects terrifying fear and resonates with tremendous love.
When one of the last trains left, I was standing with my clip-board and endless lists. I looked up into the eerie white lights on the roof of Chennai Central Station. The first monsoon rains had started and at 11pm, under the dismal drizzle, exhausted by the mad chaos of thousands of people clamouring to get on the train, my brain had the consistency of over cooked, gooey, glue-y sabudhana khichdi.
“Sir-ji,” said a soft voice. ‘Aaaargh,’ I said mentally but turned with a bright smile and said “Namasteji,” and looked into gentle brown eyes. It was a man, wiry, short – like so many in our country that grew up with malnutrition – muscled with construction work it looked like, carrying a paint bucket. And nothing else.
I asked him the usual questions:
Name please, Aadhaar number?
Where did he want to go? – West Bengal.
Phone number? – No phone.
That triggered a mental ‘whoa!’
Where had he come from? – Thiruppur.
How? – Walking.
I paused. He must have walked for many days. Thiruppur was 450 km from Chennai.
Alone?, I asked. Yes was the answer.
Had he eaten? Pause. – Not in a couple of days, came the gentle response.
Throat constricted, I found him food packets and water. I informed him there was no train to West Bengal today but one was there the next day.
Did he need shelter for the night? – Yes, please, was the quiet answer.
As I looked at his peaceful face, heard his calm answers, I felt tears rising. I showed him the bus that would take him to the Govt shelter. I glanced at his paint bucket as he picked it up; it presumably had all his possessions since he carried nothing else – some clothes, water… That’s it.
In the face of anger, fear, frustration I knew how to bring laughter, ease the tension, show love. But seeing such equanimity, in the presence of such stillness, my heart finally released its pent up sorrow and a question formed in my mind – what would I put in my paint bucket? What do I really need in life?
Sangeeta, founder of the Wind Dancers Trust, is a dancer-performer who developed the Katradi method, working in marginalized, underprivileged communities using the arts in education, empowerment and conflict resolution across 30 countries. For her scholarship in the arts, she has been honored with the highest national award for young dancers – the Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar. She is a Fellow of the International Institute of Conciliation, USA. At NCF, Sangeeta works across programmes on issues of gender sensitivity, sexual harassment, conflict resolution and mental health. Read more about her work at http://www.katradi.org/
Cover Image: Team LV
Story Images: Author
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