Posted by Lockdown Voices
With the first lockdown in summer of 2020, post- partition India witnessed the largest migration of the invisible workforce from the cities. The migrant workers had the most harrowing experience of being wage less, homeless, hungry, nostalgic, and almost driven out of their city dwellings. Subsequent lockdowns and un-lockdowns continue to leave this population insecure and uncertain. Even to this day, those in penury hover in and out of cities or even across cities in search of better opportunities and income. This week’s post focuses on two such women who are trying their luck as house-helps and have been kind enough to share their stories.
“Bhoy ke joy korey Delhi eshechi” [I have won over my fears to be in Delhi] -says Champa Mistri. She continues “We are human and live for each other. If I happen to get infected with COVID-19, what can I do? We have to continue our struggle to survive. Everyone at home realises my sacrifice. I will keep trying till October – the month of Durga Puja”
On 12th June 2021, fifty years old Champa arrived in Delhi in search of work. She traveled all the way from her Dutta Pukur home in 24 Parganas in West Bengal. She has two married daughters. Her son is pursuing his graduate studies in Arts. Her husband and son are alone in the two-storey house that was built in instalments.
In the capital city, Champa is on her second job for the last 10 days. She is all set to quit. She does not like the domestic chores given to her in the house. Her first job too was short lived. The agency had then allocated her stay and work in a Punjabi household, but language had been a barrier. Champa is a hard-core Bengali with communication (both reading and writing) skills only in Bangla. Leave alone Punjabi, she does not follow Hindi or English.
Back home, the entire family had opposed Champa’s decision to leave home to work in Delhi. Her daughters and son-in-laws have severed all their ties with her. They don’t call up to speak to her. They are very annoyed with her for stepping out of home and moving far away.
Champa did not try for a job in Kolkata as her relatives and friends live in and around the city. They hold high posts in banks, offices and institutions. Her own sister Chameli is a professor in a college. It was a question of putting their prestige at stake. Champa was too anxious that while working she might end up meeting them and add to their embarrassment. With all this in mind, she had little option but to travel afar.
For the past year, with several lockdowns, Champa has been through monetary, food and every possible crisis under the sun. Her husband has his own vegetable business. He usually buys vegetables from the local Dutta Pukur market and takes a van to sell his purchase near Dum Dum airport in Kolkata. It was then a small enterprise but adequate to support the family.
With lockdown, the regular vans stopped plying. There was no way to commute and sell the vegetables. This saga of no income and loss continued for a year. The Mistri family had no way to run the household as the business frequently came to a standstill. Some action had to be taken.
Two of Champa’s women friends in the neighbourhood asked her to join them in their plans to earn a living. Apparently, it seemed a saving grace for their families and homes. One of Champa’s friends, Sangita got in touch with an agency that had helped her secure a job in Delhi before lockdown.
The agency immediately sent three rail tickets and soon all three were Delhi bound.
Initially, Champa was scared. She put up in the agency hostel wondering where she would land up? Back at Dutta Pukur, other than taking care of her own household work, Champa had sometimes been part of government’s 100-days morning work (7am -11am). That kind of work usually included cleaning roads, drains and cutting through rivers to make channels.
Today, Champa eagerly waits for a call from the agency. She wants the agency man to arrive soon with her substitute in the current house. Now, she looks forward to a her new profile as an attendant to a sick elderly woman. She hopes it will be a better offer with a bigger pay package. She has three months in hand to try her luck.
“I have to leave immediately. I can’t stay another night in Delhi” frantically said Shikha Das as she sat up on white tiled floor of the apartment. It was 2 am and she was perspiring profusely as the old landlady of the house held her hand.
An evening phone call from her daughter had left her perturbed through the night. Every moment, she felt she was on the verge of collapsing. She had lost her peace of mind and was desperate to be home at the earliest.
Shikha had left her 16 years old daughter and six years old son in Jorhat, Assam in the same neighborhood as her widowed sister. She had rented a single small room in a house of an elderly ex-serviceman and his wife. Shikha’s husband had abandoned her few years after her second child was born.
Two years ago, she had been in Delhi to work for a few months. With concerns for her growing daughter, Shikha had returned home. She had managed two meals a day for all of them. But with lockdown, there was no opportunity and means of earning a livelihood. The hunger pangs were unbearable for the trio. She had little option but to leave Jorhat. Shikha decided to make her daughter guardian to her son and told her to shop, cook, feed and take care of him. In case of any emergency, Shikha’s sister was always around, just a shout away.
Amid the pandemic, with whatever little money Shikha had saved, she boarded a train to Delhi sans her children. In Delhi, after a COVID-19 test, she put up in the hostel of a placement agency that promised to fetch her a job.
Shikha went through COVID-19 test 18 times as every change of location demanded a test. The swab tests and constant mask wearing had harmed her nose and throat passage. There was a perpetual irritation in her throat and a persistent cough that seemed to have become an integral part of her.
Shikha landed up working in so many homes that gradually she lost count. Nowhere she lasted more than a month. Wherever she was, her children would call whether they had a fight or had run out of food. Sometimes over the phone, she would sweetly talk to them. Sometimes hurl abuses that would culminate with “Tora mor, morish keno na?” [You both die, why don’t you die?] and then disconnect.
One afternoon, while Shikha was working in the “nth” house, the daughter called to say there was no money left to buy grocery and cook food. Her brother had smartly gone off to his aunt’s house for lunch, but she had refused to go uninvited. She was starving. Shikha immediately asked her then landlady to transfer some money into her neighbour’s account. The lady generously did. Next day, the children happily called up to inform Shikha that they had a sumptuous meal of chicken curry and rice.
Wherever Shikha worked, she was always sleepless, restless and seldom could focus on her work. The children never left her mindscape.
The last evening call from her daughter had shaken her up as never before. That night she stayed awake with her petrified landlady beside her. Except her, nobody knew what had transpired in that little room in Jorhat.
At dawn she called up the agency. Before long, she had boarded the train to be homeward bound.
* Shikha’s name has been changed to protect her privacy
Cover Image: Pixabay
Story Images: Team LV
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