Award winning journalist and author of Gangster on the Run and The Front Page Murder, Puja Changoiwala, recently came out with her new book Homebound, which novelizes the migrant exodus that followed the COVID-19 lockdown in India last year.
Homebound captures the hope, resilience and fortitude of the millions of migrant workers, who trudged hundreds of kilometres home, and those hundreds, whom the long walk killed.
Here's an excerpt from the book:
16 April 2020
Dear Ms Farah,
Minutes after the Prime Minister’s new national address, where he announced an extension to the lockdown, WhatsApp messages started pouring in again. Not those riveting opinions on reality that I mentioned before, but ones that conspire to alter reality, warp lives. Like those recent murders that you reported on, ma’am, only a few hundred kilometres away from Mumbai. Social media messages about prowling child-kidnappers were doing the rounds across the country, but in a small village in Maharashtra, those texts murdered five men. The victims, all wanderers, had offered a cookie to a young girl, so the villagers dragged them for a kilometre, beating them with sticks, stones, bricks and shoes.
I sat before the television, stunned at the power of digital falsities, as a police officer spoke to you and other journalists. ‘The mob had swelled to three thousand people,’ he had said. ‘The crowd was so incensed that it would not let our staff take over the corpses. They wanted to burn the bodies. The mob, as in other such murders in the country, assumed the victims were kidnappers.’
The village’s name was Rainpada, but I knew it could easily have been Balhaar, my village. Yet, I assumed that my family and I would never fall for such falsehoods. We were city folks now, I told myself, far from the eccentricities of rural illiteracy. We knew better now, I told myself, but that was soon to change. Minutes after the lockdown’s extension, Baba’s phone beeped, announcing the arrival of a WhatsApp message, one with a sharply targeted audience—migrant workers in cities, desperate to return to their villages.
Just nOw, govt announce spcl trains 4 migrants. Trains n seats limitd. Go 2 ur nearst railway statn & get ur tickets NoW.
In response, thousands of migrant workers, including Baba, gathered outside railway stations in major metropolises across the country. Their faces covered with handkerchiefs, they balanced their scanty worlds, fitted in two bags, on their heads and shoulders. They rushed to the empty ticket counters, and on to the vacant platforms. They demanded to be ferried home, their strained, raspy voices muddled into a chorus, vocalizing their fear, anguish and despair. Loud, so loud. Unheard.
Nearer home, in Mumbai, the men were beaten. Baba was one of those men. Ma, Happy and I watched the caning live on TV. Uniformed in khaki, the cops wielded the colonial lathi and charged at men with the zest of imperial vainglory. They jumped and squealed, these men, as the sanitized wooden batons landed on their chests, limbs and buttocks. They wailed and pleaded, these men, as the weapon of the Crown gloated over its longevity. They ran and never stopped, these men, as the dance of collective disorder reigned.
Certain that the shower of thumps and thwacks had also drenched our father, Happy almost leapt off the loft, looking for Baba’s face in the throng. He could not find him. Worried, he kept calling our father. No answer. The television commentary, meanwhile, ran unabated: ‘The situation has been tense for the past two hours. The Mumbai police have had to resort to a lathi-charge, and politicians are appealing to the crowd for peace. Investigators are baffled over the enormous assembly, probing how hundreds of workers managed to gather at one spot. But sources point to a habitual felon: fake news on the internet.’
As I waited for my father to return, I kept thinking about the madness in our digital world, and how it often spills over to our physical life, even overpowers it. I mean, it was a three-sentence message that drove thousands across India to railway stations, crammed together, unmoving, unheeding, blind to the virus, and deaf to their own cries. How does a lie wield that kind of power? As I sat wondering, I remembered an axiom that our computer teacher had shared with us: ‘The internet is a lot like our universe,’ he had said, ‘and like the universe, most of it brims with a dark energy.’
I recollected the teacher’s analogy, and his postulate seemed sound: The universe and the internet, both are vast, amorphous and eternally young, with pasts that do not go on forever, but futures that might. The internet functions through a worldwide network of billions of computers, and the universe, a cosmic web of billions of galaxies. The universe has the airless, black blanket of outer space, while the internet has cyberspace, also a province of all civilization, beyond sovereign claims and national appropriations. Nothing can travel faster in the universe than the speed of light, and the web, the information superhighway, has the astonishing speed of data travel. The universe and the internet, both are expanding at spectacular speeds. A dark energy is accelerating the universe’s expansion, but we do not know what constitutes that mysterious enigma. A dark energy is also accelerating the internet’s growth, and we do know what makes up this black force. It’s lies, the internet’s dark energy, and what’s the internet? A web of lies.
As I sat mulling over the bloody faculties of the internet, I remembered more instances like Rainpada, where the dark energy had evoked the animal in men, making predators out of some and prey out of others. The recollection brought a lump to my throat and I grew afraid for my father. Squeezing my eyes shut, I prayed for his return.
‘Let his bones be broken,’ I indulged in a rare bargain with God. ‘We’ll manage. Just send him back, please. I promise I’ll deposit ten rupees in your temple every week. I promise I’ll bow to every cow and never talk back to my mother again. I promise I’ll be a good girl.’
Looking at me kneeling on the floor, my palms joined in prayer, Ma sat beside me. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, running her fingers through my hair. ‘Your father always lives to tell the tale, and he tells it over and over again.’
Ma was right. Baba was a survivor, a talkative one at that. It’s just that Mumbai enjoys flirting with death, and as a resident of the city, you, too, make many casual acquaintances with Yamraj, the fire-eyed CEO of Hindu Hell. The city has pushed Baba close to his end many a time, and each time, he emerged in one piece, cheating the god of death and justice, his noose, his mace and even his water buffalo.
For instance, when Baba had just moved to Mumbai, he was staying inside a garment factory that recycled cloth. A short circuit in the meter room led to a fire. Baba and his cohabitants smelt it in time, rushed out of the factory, and escaped the flames that went on to engulf 150 shanties. The raging blaze consumed men, women and children. It ate up homes, businesses and dreams. Baba lived, and he told the tale.
Another time, an LPG cylinder exploded in the bar-and-restaurant where he works as a waiter. The impact of the blast was such that it blew a chef’s limbs to smithereens, killing him in an instant. It also led to a fire, causing critical burn injuries to three others. Baba crawled on his belly like a commando, rolling on the floor to smother the flames on his back. Upon reaching a window of the first-floor establishment, he jumped off its ledge. He landed on the ground with a few fractures and burns, and he told the tale.
Minutes turned into hours as we waited for our father, but Ma had managed to keep Happy and me from imagining the worst. She pointed out that news reports did not mention casualties. A storm of blows, a run for one’s life, a stampede, yes—but no Yamraj. I felt better. It was no light at the end of the tunnel, just a tunnel-shaped life, but it seemed workable.
After a few more 1000-minute hours, Baba returned. His face was grimy, shirt torn, body bruised, and his tale-telling will lost.
‘Why did you go there?’ Ma asked him. ‘Do you know how worried we were?’
‘Give me some water.’ Father looked away. ‘And turn that TV off.’
Publisher: HarperCollins (Hardcover)
Price: Rs 599
(Excerpt carried with permission from the publisher.)