Journalist and film-maker Vinod Kapri’s new book, 1232km: The Long Journey Home, is prefaced by a haunting poem by Gulzar. Recalling the exodus of millions during the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, the poet pays homage to the numberless migrant workers who were forced to take to the road, on foot or bicycles, during the nationwide lockdown to curb covid-19 last year. “Which partition was bigger?” Gulzar wonders in the concluding lines, his question echoing through readers’ minds.
“(Last year’s mass migration) was not caused by geographical division, but rather by the partition between the classes, of hearts,” says Kapri, whose documentary of the same name as the book is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. As the lockdown kept getting extended, migrant workers in cities set out for their homes in far-flung villages, driven by lack of income and hunger. Kapri and his colleague Manav Yadav trailed a group of seven men—Ritesh, Ashish, Ram Babu, Sandeep, Mukesh, Sonu and Krishna—who set off from Loni in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, to cycle all the way back to their villages in Saharsa, Bihar.
Aware of the risks—of police atrocity, accident, exhaustion—along the way, their decision was based on bleak but infallible logic: “What if we die of hunger before the corona pandemic gets to us?” as one of them puts it. The story of that incredible journey—spanning 1,232km—is documented in the movie and the book.
While the screen version helps put faces to the names, the book fills in crucial gaps that the camera can never fully convey. Indeed, Kapri and Yadav were not around to capture some of the most chilling moments in the journey—a daredevil attempt to swim across the Ganga with the bicycles or a near-robbery on the highway, for instance—which bring breathless suspense to the narrative. These details were fleshed out through post-facto interviews, as were many of the intimate touches—stories about the families of the men, their growing years, and harsh truths about poverty. In a telling moment, for instance, Mukesh argues forcefully that the poor don’t need charity—they need a decent education. “If they get an education, they will manage food, clothes and houses.” Life is a better teacher than any university degree.
As for Kapri, one of the key struggles through this project was to maintain a fine balance between the impulse to clinically document the journey and intervene in the decisions taken by the men when the going got tough or unpredictably tricky. “As documentary film-makers, we ask people to recreate scenes we miss, but in this instance we decided to let it be—to capture only the footage we managed to,” he says. “It was our policy not to interact with the men for more than 10-15 minutes every hour or so, as we did not want to slow down their momentum.”
There was also another rule from the start: “If anyone was suffering, we will help them, even if it meant compromising the quality of the movie,” Kapri adds. “As we began to follow the men, we told ourselves there were nine of us on the journey. We (Kapri and Yadav) were as much part of it as the seven men.” To this day, Kapri has kept alive his bond with the seven. “I invited them home for Diwali last year,” he says. “They are like family.” All the earnings from the book as well as the movie will also go to the men.
Bearing witness to tragedy comes at a cost—not merely physical and emotional, but also ethical. It was no different for Kapri, who narrates the story of the 1,232km journey with humility and a keen self-awareness of his privilege. When he tries, with tact and consideration, to question Ram Babu’s decision to have four children in spite of gnawing poverty, he receives a riposte that leaves him speechless. “In our area, floods, disease or poverty claim at least a couple of our children,” Ram Babu says cuttingly. “That’s the reason we have four or five children.”
1232km is filled with many such bitter truths—some epiphanic, others obvious—that open the readers’ eyes to the realities that stretch outside their cocoon of safety, a world of desperate hunger that pushes humans to scavenge among leftovers that the elite choose to ignore as they take Instagram-friendly photographs of their culinary conquests. Kapri forces us to reckon with this so-called underbelly of society with empathy and even moments of humour. At the end of this wrenching journey, he writes, “not only these seven labourers, but all the labourers in the world were no more nameless, faceless humans for me.” His audience will hopefully share the sentiment.