A goods train trundled past a railway track early one morning in Maharashtra killing 16 men. Many, on social media, reacted with shock and wonder: But why were they sleeping on the tracks? Why not beside the track or anywhere else? This, to my mind, encapsulates the distance between those who have homes, beds and a roof over their head and those who don’t.Over the past few weeks, lakhs of men, women and children have undertaken the long walk home in the sweltering Indian summer carrying nothing with them save the ‘idea’ of a home that they have left behind in their villages.Gulzar Pens Moving Poem on Plight of Migrant Workers Migration is Old, Apathy is NewThe exodus of migrant workers has triggered memories of other mass migrations of human populations over the years triggered by Acts of God such as drought, famine, floods or other man-made disasters such as, most notably, the Partition of 1947 or other more localised communal outrages and riots such as the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley.But the spontaneous, unplanned mass migration of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic stands out from all others. It is fuelled by a host of socio-economic factors such as loss of livelihood, inability of pay rentals or buy food or maintain social distancing and observe basic hygiene by those who are the most disenfranchised and marginalised. That they are vital in keeping the very same socio-economic machinery propped up and working that has discarded them at this time is both ironic and tragic.This blithe disregard for workers is grotesque and inhuman, and far more tragic than the casualties of the CVID-19 coronavirus. It is also new.What If Our Migrant Workers Had Safe Homes in Cities? Just ImagineWhen Poets Sang Songs for and of the ‘Mazdoor’There was a time when poets sang rousing songs about workers’ rights, films eulogised their labour and skill, writers—especially those affiliated with the influential literary grouping known as the Progressive Writers’ Association—wrote stories about mill workers and labourers. Popular culture was aware and sensitive to the ‘working class’. When and how did we change? When did the worker and labourer leach out of our creative imagination? When did we yoke the word ‘migrant’ to the ‘worker’ thus robbing them of the dignity of a home and a life in our midst in our cities? When did we de-legitimise their very existence forcing them to flee?That it wasn’t always so is borne out by the vast amount of poetry, especially in Urdu, celebrating the worker and the farmer. It is true that much of it is hagiographical and eulogistic painting the worker in impossibly glowing colours and making him a veritable hero or an angel such as this by Munawwar Rana:Farishte aa kar un ke jism par ḳhushbu lagate hainWoh bachche rail ke dibbon mein jo jhadu lagate hainThe angels come to dab fragrance on the bodiesOf those children who sweep the floor of trainsHow Poets Have Idealised the WorkersPitted in a binary with the capitalist who is wicked and clever, the worker is invariably simple and innocent, as in this verse by Muhammad Iqbal from his poem Khizr-e Rah:Makr ki chaalon se baazi le gayaa sarmaaya-daarIntihaa-e-saadgii se khaa gayaa mazdoor maatThe capitalist wins the game with his wily tricksThe labourer loses due to his extreme innocenceAnd the same Iqbal, addressing God, also wrote:Tu qadir-o aadil hai magar tere jahan meinHain talḳh bahut banda-e-mazdoor ke auqatYes, You are Powerful and Just but in Your worldThe state of the labourers and workers is bitter indeedThe idea that the workers live relatively simple lives compared to the complicated lives of others better endowed than them is also a recurring motif in a great deal of Urdu poetry that romanticises the life of the labourer, such as this by Munawwar Rana:So jaate hain footpath pe aḳhbaar bichha karMazdoor kabhi niind ki goli nahin khateThey sleep on the footpath on a newspaperThe labourers never need a sleeping pillPoets and the Promise of Working Class RevolutionA vast amount of poetry written on the 1st of May, celebrated as Workers’ Day traditionally, has the poet repeatedly identifying with the workers and making common cause with their oppression such as here in Mazdoor ki Bansuri by Jameel Mazhari:Mazdoor hain hum, mazdoor hain hum, majboor thhe hum, majboor hain humWe are labourers, we are labourers, we were oppressed, we are oppressedOf course, there have been many who dreamt of a red tide that would wash over all ills and oppressions, removing injustices and inequalities when the Red Flag would herald a new morning, such as this by Ali Sardar Jafri:Phutne wali hai mazdoor ke maathe se kiranSurḳh parcham ufuq-e-subh pe lahrate hainA beam of light is about to burst forth from the worker’s foreheadThe Red Flags are billowing in the horizon of the morningOthers such as Firaq Gorakhpuri thought Independence would bring in a new morning for the working classes:Banaaenge nai duniyaa kisan aur mazdoorYahin sajaaenge diwan-e-aam-e-aazaadiThe workers and farmers will create a new worldTogether they will decorate the free Hall of PublicHunger and Homelessness of the Migrant WorkerBut possibly no one could have captured the irony of the labourers who build homes yet have no roof over their own head such as this by an unknown poet:Shahr men mazdoor jaisa dar-ba-dar koi nahinJis ne sab ke ghar banae us ka ghar koi nahinThere is no one as homeless as a labourer in a cityHe who has made everyone’s homes, has no home of his ownToday, seeing the images of the hopeless, hungry, tired men and women carrying the old and the infirm as well as the very young, exhaustion and despair writ large on their faces, robbed of dignity and pride, one wonders if the tipping point has come for the prophecy contained in Majaz’s Mazdooron ka Geet:Jis roz baġhavat kar dengeDuniya men qayamat kar dengeKhwvabon ko haqiqat kar dengeMazdoor hain hum mazdoor hain humThe day we shall revoltWe shall bring catastrophe to the worldWe shall make dreams come trueWe are the workers, we are the workers(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.) We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated. The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.