Known yet unknown tale of 2 cities

Updated: Apr 22, 2020, 07:11 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Diving deeper into definitions is how you can distinguish work from home (WFH, yeah), for someone who has neither

Migrant workers returning to their villages seen on the Mumbai Ahmedabad Highway. Pic/Suresh Karkera
Migrant workers returning to their villages seen on the Mumbai Ahmedabad Highway. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Mayank ShekharNope, not being that bigot who prefaces his jibes against the chosen 'other' with, "I have Muslim/Dalit/Black friend/s." Still, pretty sure, unlike you, I have hung out, at least for an evening, as an equal, with a homeless man, for reasons that aren't zoo-level poverty tourism.

His name being Ajay. At the time we met, he'd been sleeping for 13 years, with 3,000 others, on sand-beds by the sea, off Mumbai's relatively posh Mahim Causeway. Equally aware of not coming across as romanticising poverty, the fact is that I found young Ajay to be one of the happiest people I knew.

His simple formula involved waking up in the morning, standing on a designated pavement, where a truck would pick up daily-wagers from, and drop them off to various locations that required people for odd-jobs — mostly to do with billboards/hoardings in Ajay's case. Late evenings he'd spend drinking away, before a decent dinner — both of which he'd bought from exhausting the earnings of the day.

During the wedding season, when he could double his daily income, in waist-coat and bow-tie, standing behind food counters, he'd take the following day off from work — since the booze plus food was already taken care of.

No, it did not occur to me how saving nothing for the rainy day (and it rains a lot in Bombay) placed Ajay perennially on the jagged edge of emergency. A gentle push and he would fall. I was only awed by his deeply uncluttered, carefree life.

Also, I didn't ask what, according to him, did he do for a living. For in its deeper definition is how you can distinguish 'work from home' (WFH, yeah) — for someone who has neither. By general parlance, Ajay would identify himself as someone who has work — 'kaam/kaaj', as it were.

What he doesn't have is a job, or 'naukri', meaning certainty of monthly income, broadly. That makes him a freelancer, albeit at the bottom of the pyramid of the 'gig economy' — a reality for hundreds of millions of workers in every sphere (middle-class included), with fewer and fewer labour rights.

Hierarchically, homeless Ajay was way too many notches below someone in an upmarket slum, and chawl. But if you asked him where his 'ghar' or home was, he would have an answer — his 'gaon', or 'native place', so to say. Bombay was his 'thikana', or location. The electric-pole closest to his sand-bed (all of them have a unique number) was his current, as against official, address — for correspondence with his cellphone service-provider, for instance.

That said, if Ajay could afford an upper-class lifestyle in the city that was still not his own, he'd be addressed as an 'expat'. For the fact that he's poor, he's a 'migrant'. And if he was desperate enough to travel to a foreign land in the simple hope of competing for a better life (for his family), he ran the comical risk of being considered an 'illegal' human being altogether! Cosmically adjudged so by other humans whose existence in that area can only be explained by an accident of birth, besides their own ancestors' history of migration! Who's not a migrant?

Painful as it must be, surely there are multiple reasons for people to move from home; starting with work, of course. But it's dignity and hope, I suspect, that keeps them forever where they migrate to. Cities are seen as repositories of hope, even when life is even more demanding/punishing. At least peers can't see it. They'll envy the big house you'll build back home for them to gawk at eventually (hopefully).

As for self-respect, aren't there but chiefly two ways to overcome the zillat/humiliation of class, and more so caste, of the feudal, close-knit, rural India? One, education. Two, the anonymity attained through urban cosmopolitanism. The latter defines your worth wholly by the economic transactions you make — between landlord-tenant, shopkeeper-customer, contractor-labourer… But this relationship, unlike human bonds, is too transient. You're simultaneously out of mind, once you're out of sight.

It's not a surprise therefore that when an unprecedented nationwide lockdown was put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19, the volcanic eruption one experienced of Delhi and Mumbai's invisible migrants hitting the streets in hundreds of thousands, seemed shocking/unexpected to everyone watching it from their living rooms on TV.

Who were these people willing to walk back thousands of kilometres to where they called 'home'? Instead of being willingly pushed with sticks like snakes into holes, while the other city they served was in for a 'staycation'!

They had no 'work', failing which they were instantly of no use to anyone. And they'd never had a human employer — only an AI bot, paying them by the hour, anyway. The social distancing, always strongly practised between the two cities — of the seth and the servant — ensured the puzzled better-off only felt the workers must indeed be fed for free. As if they were beggars. Last checked, Ajay had long moved out of Mumbai. Glad. He's the only one in that entire mass that I would've even vaguely known anything about.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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