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‘What will I do when this food runs out?’

There were a lot of tears during the weeks of lockdown, but receiving a good yelling is what made me feel better

Migrant workers found themselves abandoned in their battle against hunger and uncertainty during the lockdown.
Migrant workers found themselves abandoned in their battle against hunger and uncertainty during the lockdown.

There were a lot of tears during the weeks of lockdown—some solitary, some in the presence of others—but the story I want to tell today is about the first time I felt better after receiving a good yelling.

After being homebound in a suburb of Delhi for the first two weeks of lockdown, I began to venture out regularly to distribute dry ration kits to families and groups of people who were stuck without wages and food within a 30km radius of my home. I have been working closely with the Karwan e Mohabbat, a human rights campaign, and as soon as the distress of stranded workers began to flood the news, we immersed ourselves in fund-raising for, and distribution of emergency relief to, as many people as we could reach.

The severe restrictions of lockdown meant that we had to constantly innovate to find ways to procure large-scale dry rations even as wholesale markets were sealed. Distributing them in a city dotted with police check posts with instructions to restrict all movement on the roads was a daily challenge.

Many colleagues were unable to volunteer for fear of the infection of covid-19. Our teams on the road were small and most of us were learning on our feet to identify the most vulnerable groups and reach out to them with respect and dignity.

I partnered with Ashok, who works as a driver for our family, and together we would load our Ertiga with almost a thousand kilograms of ration, divided into family kits, each weighing 16kg. We had a verified list of names and addresses created by teams who were coordinating online and one by one we would call each person and deliver rations to them.

If we had collectively been struck by a natural disaster that had rendered a large number of people helpless, perhaps this role of being a rescue worker might have been somewhat satisfying. As things stood, we were constantly and acutely aware of the injustice inherent in the implementation of the lockdown that had decimated the ability of the otherwise resilient working class to be able to survive. While the privileged amongst us were safe at home, experimenting with new cuisines and entertainment, daily-wage workers and unorganized labourers found themselves abandoned in their battle against hunger and uncertainty.

When we met people to deliver food packets, often someone would break down from the helplessness. It was terrible to watch, especially since we could not even extend a reassuring touch as we stood awkwardly at a 6ft distance. When others thanked us, we felt awful too, because it heightened the severity of the injustice that had destroyed this person’s ability to be self-reliant. The worst was when people spoke to us with fear and earnestly insisted that we check their Aadhaar cards to make sure that they were authentic victims.

I did not know it at the time but the response that would finally reassure me was anger.

Her name is Sumaiya Parveen, she is in her early 20s and along with an extended family of labourers from her village in Jharkhand, she is stranded in Kasna, an urban village near Greater Noida in Uttar Pradesh. It was past 10pm when Ashok and I were trying to find Parveen’s address with the vague instruction of stopping near a temple on the highway. Parveen had been impatient on the phone, telling me that she wasn’t sure the police would let them come out of their homes and cross the street to meet us on the highway. I was mildly amused that this young voice on the phone sounded like she was scolding me for what was her personal frustration.

When we met Parveen and her group, I was startled by how young she looked even though she had a child balanced on her hip. “What is in this dry ration kit?" she asked me.

I began to tell her that it had wheat flour, rice, dals, masalas, cooking oil and some soaps.

“How long will this last?" she snapped.

“Sumaiya, this should be enough to last for 10 days for a family of five," I said.

“How long will the lockdown last, please tell me?" she said.

I hesitated before answering because at that time there were still two weeks to go before the first deadline of the lockdown. I began to explain the situation to her, telling her that millions of people were in distress across India and we were barely being able to reach a minuscule percentage of them. I was trying to suggest that she should be thankful instead of snapping at me.

“What will I do when this food runs out?" Parveen asked, cutting through my spiel. “We have barely been in the city for a month and we are stuck here. Our landlord is cooperating but how long will he allow us to stay without rent? I have small children, how will I feed them?"

“I am sorry," I began to say, reminding myself to listen to her rather than try to answer her rhetorical questions. And that’s when Parveen gave me a sound yelling, standing by the dark highway in the middle of lockdown.

“I am not the state, Sumaiya," I said at one point. “You didn’t vote for me. We are just some people struggling to help in this time of crisis."

Parveen’s anger stayed with me for a long time. There was something inherently perverse in this scene in which I had stepped out of my car with 10 days worth of bare minimum food and had tried to convince a desperately scared woman with little children to be thankful for it. Parveen’s words tore through the semblance of normalcy I was trying to restore. Her questions washed away the absurdity of what we were trying to pass off as some form of justice.

Despite finding herself on the brink of abject poverty, Parveen would not allow herself to be diminished. She knew she had a right to demand a lot more than just meagre rations. She demanded the dignity of being able to support herself. She wanted to reject the city that had reduced her to the status of a helpless refugee. She did not want to be treated like a fugitive for no fault of hers.

Meeting Parveen restored some of the broken parts of my own self. Rage, rage against the flickering of the light, young Parveen. Your anger is the energy we need.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.

Twitter - @natashabadhwar

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