Lockdown JourneySecond Place: Spring 2020 Writing Contest
Khalid decided he wasn’t going to wait any longer and started making preparations. It had been 25 days since he received any wages, and his savings were almost depleted. He hadn’t eaten a proper meal in two weeks, just half of his regular diet.
Coronavirus emerged as a worldwide pandemic, and India was hit hard by its catastrophic wave. Besides a large number of deaths, every nation suffered an economic collapse, and a large number of people died of starvation. The upper and middle societal strata weren’t much affected, but the lower levels suffered the worst of the consequences.
Khalid and Asad were two migrant workers, and this is their story.
Khalid is 17 years old, and Asad is one year younger. They came to Indore, a city in the state of Madhya Pradesh, from a distant village called Bagli in Rajasthan, about 500 km away, searching for work. They obtained jobs in a factory, making incense sticks, and were paid daily. Once the nationwide lockdown went into effect, though, they were stuck, with their savings coming to an end, their landlord pressuring them to pay rent, and their hopes diminishing. They were eager to return home.
“Asad, we will leave tomorrow before dawn,” Khalid said. “Gather your stuff, make sure your phone is completely charged, and pack. Meanwhile, I will manage the food we will need for our journey.” Asad nodded.
Khalid loved to read in his free time. He had some old political magazines, the novel “Rangbhoomi” from Premchand, and some spare notebooks. Further searching their room, he found a radio, which they used to listen to the news during the evenings, and classic songs at night.
Khalid gathered everything together and took it to a local scrap dealer to sell or barter for anything useful. He made a deal for Rs 200, along with an air pump in exchange. It will be handy for our journey, he thought.
With the remaining money, he purchased Sev Parmal, an Indian snack that’s very famous in Indore, along with three packets of Parle-G biscuits, five oranges, and two loaves of bread.
Asad was instructed to pack only useful stuff, and he did so effectively in a side bag. At night, Khalid performed the final inspections on their bicycle, oiled the bearings, filled its tires with air, and waited until dawn.
At daybreak, they embarked on their journey. Khalid started by pedaling with Asad on the back seat, who held a side bag for support. After reaching the square, they followed the main road leading to the highway. The morning air was crisp, with the usual nearby scent of smoke and scrubs; only this time, it seemed much clearer and more pleasing. Khalid pedaled fast because he knew that the sun would be high in the sky in a few hours, which would make it much more difficult to move at a fast pace.
The boys’ bicycle was a Hero Street Racer, 2012 model. It didn’t have gears, so their speed was mainly determined by the amount of muscle power in Khalid’s legs. It is better to have an air pump with us. With properly inflated tires, we will move at a reasonable speed with minimum effort, he thought.
Khalid and Asad eventually reached the Indore Ujjain toll post, where they saw that the toll booth was barricaded, with only a narrow space on the side where they could move. The road hadn’t been maintained, so the asphalt had worn off and left behind a rugged surface that almost caused them to stumble as they passed. Luckily, they managed their balance, and Khalid kept cycling for the next few hours.
In the afternoon, they stopped, ate one Chapati, and half of an apple, each, under a Peepal tree, and decided to sleep for four hours while the afternoon passed overhead. They had already covered 90 km, so pushing the pace during those early hours had paid off.
They knew very well that a lot of migrants lost their lives along their journey home, some due to accidents, some due to heat strokes, and many more due to starvation.
When they began their journey again at 4 pm, it was Asad to who took to the pedals. They were moving at a good pace, but they knew they’d need to cover many more kilometers during the cooler evening hours when sufficient light was also available.
As they moved, they could see many other people walking on foot along the highway—adults, children, older people, women with children in their arms.
Some had been walking without food for days, many of which had more than 1000 km to go before reaching their home. All they wanted was to get back, and they didn’t care whether they died trying.
As dusk began to shadow them, the two boys decided they would ride a few more kilometers before finding a suitable spot to set up their camp for the night. Because of the many reports of highway accidents at night, they wisely decide not to risk it.
So far, they strictly followed the highway. But now, because they were on the edge of a forest, it wasn’t safe to sleep on the road. So, they found a safe area near a Banyan tree where they used nearby sticks to light a fire and ate another two Chapati in the Sev, along with some oranges.
At dawn, after refilling the air in their bike’s tires, Asad and Khalid resumed their journey. They had already made it halfway and soon crossed the Rajasthan border into their home state, with its sandy soil and dry foliage. They picked up the pace.
Once the scorching sun was high, they stopped at nothing less than an oasis, where they refilled their water bottles at a lake and rested.
After three days, Khalid and Asad reached their home, with their calf muscles aching and itching salt on their faces, left behind so much sweating. But, they were still alive, safe, and now joyfully embracing their families.