From Summer, the final instalment in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, and The Fell by Sarah Moss, to Burntcoat by Sarah Hall and Hanya Yanagihara’s awaited novel, To Paradise, we are starting to see the emergence of a canon of covid-19 novels. Other recent and forthcoming novels, including Tahmina Anam’s The Startup Wife and Daphne Palasi Andreades’ Brown Girls, end with visions of a virus.
Another notable addition to this list is Puja Changoiwala’s debut novel Homebound, which novelises the migrant exodus that followed the nationwide lockdown in 2020. Published in November, almost two years into the pandemic, the book is not only about a teenager, Meher, and her Dharavi-based family, but about a country, those left jobless and homeless by the lockdown, and a 900km-long journey of hunger, hardship and hope.
Also Read: Where is the big covid-19 novel?
Changoiwala, a journalist and author, writes at the intersections of gender, crime, social justice, technology, development, and human rights in India. Her non-fiction books include The Front Page Murders (2016) and Gangster On The Run (2020). A 2019 fellow with the Global Investigative Journalism Network, she is a recipient of the International Centre for Journalists’ Covid-19 Reporting Award, with her essay in Quanta magazine—Why South Asia’s COVID-19 Numbers Are So Low (For Now)—coming in second.
On email, Changoiwala talks about the rewards and challenges of foraying into fiction, having “a front row seat to history as it unfolds”, Homeric journeys and Dickensian tenements. Edited excerpts:
You are an award-winning journalist and acclaimed non-fiction writer. Why did you choose fiction to tell this story? Was it your first impulse?
Not at all. I have always been a non-fiction writer, and my first instinct was to write a true account. However, soon after the exodus, when I decided on writing this book, there was a ban on public movement and no clarity on when the lockdowns would end. To write a true account, I would have had to travel to the villages the migrants called home. But since I do not have a press card, being an independent journalist, I could not go out and meet the characters of my story. The lockdown turned me to fiction. I knew it was a risk but I also knew that I had to tell the story soon. There were two reasons for this urgency: I wanted to document the anger and anguish while it was still raw and not condensed by the habits of time and I wanted to make sure that the migrant exodus did not wane from public memory—which, I am afraid, it already has.
What were the challenges of writing in real time? And what do you feel the rewards are of speaking to this seminal, global moment—and contributing to the conversation on covid?
The two biggest challenges were fictionalising the story and getting access to the people behind this story. As I went about creating (the protagonist) Meher’s world, I realised that as a writer I can manage non-fiction, relying on facts for rescue. Fiction, however, challenged me. Fiction despises the creative censorship that walks in with truth, yet demands its reason. I was learning a new craft as I wrote Homebound and my self-doubt—which is like air to a writer—had multiplied by the thousands. All I felt sure about was the foundation, the facts behind the story I wanted to tell. That’s when my journalistic fixation on research walked in and rescued me. I found a way to get access to the workers and I told their story.
As for the rewards, I think as a journalist I have a front row seat to history as it unfolds, at least parts of it. And the greatest privilege is that of documenting this history, of being the storyteller, not the story.
Can you share your writing process? How did research for this novel converge with, and diverge from, your research for reportage writing?
I think all my books are an extension of my journalism and Homebound is no different. Research is integral to my news features as well as my books, as I believe nothing brings more depth to a truth than diverse perspectives of it. The only difference is that with my books, I have the time and opportunity to dive deeper into these narratives. To understand the characters of Homebound, for instance, in late 2020 when travel restrictions had eased, I visited dozens of villages in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, walking along the road that the migrant workers had trudged and interviewing scores of them. I spoke to NGOs along the way, the families of these birds of passage, and villagers, who saw them as a threat. I spoke with lawyers, police officers, migration specialists, and anyone who could educate me about their Homeric journeys, the nuances of their lives and their homes, and the structural issues that mar India’s informal workforce.
Your protagonist is a teenager. I am reminded of recent novels such as ‘Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line’ by Deepa Anappara, where the voice of child narrators reverberates in often unique, unusual and whimsical ways. How did you find the voice for this story? Were you inspired by any particular fictional character?
There were several reasons why I chose Meher as the protagonist of this novel. The story of Homebound is the story of the 450 million internal migrants in India, and while there has been immense coverage about the men and women who make up this workforce, not much has been written about the children who migrate with them. Meher is one such child. And by choosing her, I hoped to tell the story of all those children—how the exodus affected their physical, mental and emotional well-being, how it robbed them of the educational prospects they find in cities, and how it stole their futures.
As for inspiration for Meher, I think she was born from the many girls I have met in Mumbai’s slums, girls as young as her, girls with the same dreams, same ambitions as her, despite their dilapidated homes. They speak better English than you and I do, these girls, and they walk the planet with fire within them. They destroy our classist views, these girls, and they make us wonder what builds them. I wanted Meher to be that girl too, to have their dreams and their charm, their idealism and their courage to seek. I think, in a way, Meher also embodies the sobering hope and valour of our migrant workforce, which, considering their circumstances, seems almost juvenile.
You have said in an interview in ‘Platform’ magazine: “I think fiction, especially contemporary fiction, has an obligation to be friends with reality.” Can you speak to this relationship and what it means for you as a writer?
Fiction does not mean something that is false.... I believe that fiction can underline the truth, embolden the truth, and hand it a megaphone. And that’s what I have attempted to do with this novel.
Homebound is the sobering truth of the men, women and children who, after the Indian state announced the lockdown, fled the cities they built, trudged hundreds of kilometres to their rural homes, walking under the stars and the sun, in a trickle, in a flood. At its core are the millions of internal migrant workers in India: humans who form the bulwark of our economy, while living in Dickensian tenements, mostly working as daily-wage labourers without safety gear, written contracts, job security, paid leave, healthcare benefits, social security and fair wages. Homebound is their truth, and although an interplay of fact and fantasy, it has no imagined atrocities, no made-up brutalities and no fictional victories.
The migrant “crisis”—beyond covid-19-related journeys—has been exploited and distorted by the media. What kind of narrative intervention were you trying to make?
I think, as journalists, we are trained to identify failures. Often, with the pressures of topicality and the 24x7 news cycle, we tend to report on what is and not what has been. We tend to forgo the history for the contemporary, the cause for the effect. And with Homebound, I wanted to offer a peek into the cause of the migrant exodus. As a journalist who has reported on India’s informal economy and the workers who pillar it, I knew that the migrants’ plight was to be blamed on the systemic, structural decay that has spanned decades. It wasn’t new, their crisis; it was just that the exodus had lent this crisis a new, more newsworthy face. With Homebound, I wanted to look beyond this face, peep into its spirit, and lay it bare.
I also wanted to answer some questions that were bothering me. Why do migrant workers leave their home and build a new one in a strange, unforgiving land? What makes them dream when no odds favour them? What makes them hope in a world that just won’t forgive their limited means? Why did they leave on those treacherous journeys home, where there were no cars, trains or buses, where there were endless roads on foot, livid authorities and dangers unknown, where there was heat, fatigue and a fatal pathogen on the loose? Why would they take that risk? Why this fatal romance with one’s permanent address?
‘Homebound’ is about a single family’s journey, but also about a country—and our global trajectory. How did you balance the zooming in and zooming out?
Homebound is a composite portrait of several true accounts, and by weaving these accounts together, I have tried to touch on the macro while focusing on the micro. For instance, through the course of my research for this book, I interviewed migrant workers across geographies, ages, professions and income groups. I saw the different shades that make up their motivations, hopes and dreams and I have tried to incorporate these in Meher’s encounters. There’s a brick-kiln labourer in the book, migrant anglers, waiters, an autorickshaw driver, a leather craftsman, a construction labourer, and many others. Their stories are different, but their truth is the same.
Sana Goyal is pursuing a PhD in literary prizes at SOAS, London.