Published in Countercurrents.org on 28 April, 2016
The journey from Kerala to Guwahati had always been eventful for me. This time it was the mid semester vacation, the train was Vivek express and I was travelling alone for the first time. As soon as I got into the 3rd AC compartment from Palakkad, I felt suffocated. The train is usually filled with migrant laborers from Assam, Bengal and Orissa. Whenever I get into these trains I use to think about the ways in which we deal with these workers coming from far. There is the
stereotypical fear about them looting us, or may be behaving badly with us.
There were many passengers who got into the train from my station.”Because of these uncultured Bengali dogs, we never get seat”, wailed a young army personnel who got into the train. I just thought how easily we could define us cultured and them as dogs. How easily the cataloging was done. How easily we were us and them the other? Somehow I managed to get into my seat only to find out that it was pre occupied. I was the only girl in the whole compartment and it seemed a bit strange and scary- with all the unfamiliar faces. I poked the guy who was sleeping; he looked like one from northeast. He was young, I shouted at him, may be to prove myself and to others out there (who were sleeping) that I am brave and don’t mess with me.
He went to the upper berth where his friend was sleeping. Next day morning I woke up quite late only to find almost everyone awake. The guy whom I scolded yesterday and two of his friends were waiting for me to get up so that they could sit. I brushed, cleaned myself and came back. The three had already brought tea for me and that was the beginning of a friendship.
Sitting opposite to my seats were three laborers from New Jaipalguri. Two young men and an old matured looking man named Ranjo da. I slowly started talking with them to realize their working conditions and salary. Most of them have an agriculture background. They have huge debts, and Kerala offers them a much stable and better working condition than home, he said. He was working in construction sector. There are many contractors who bring them in bulk and then the process just continues. “This is the first time in two years that I am travelling back”, said him.
On the side berth was Ajmal from Assam. A middle aged man with long beard, he was working in the fish market in Alleppey. He works from morning till afternoon he said, is paid around 1000 a day , and he has his own puri stand setup from evening.
Though everything seems to be really good from one side the stories they shared were quite sad. The living conditions for most of them were pathetic, many had to live in the half constructed building and diseases once affected by one spread easily. They also had complaints about how the Malayalees treat them, how they are accused for minor thefts and how people around always give a strange look while travelling.
Ranjo da also narrated the story of a young man from Bihar who had a serious injury and was sent back without any compensation by the company. Due to Illiteracy and unawareness and fear of the owners they never complain.
The irony here is that according to the report of national sample survey organization, Kerala is one of the states with highest unemployment and it is in the same state that a heavy flow of other state laborers happen. A study by ‘GIFT’ shows that 30% of these workers work for all 7 days of the day.
Somewhere these people reminded me of what Michael Sandel said about the market society, wherein everything is just for sale. It is more like business rule over relations and everyone become commodities. And nothing least be it human compassion is out for sale. The journey was an introspection of the self. I thought of the way I was afraid on seeing them, how easily I judged them. But then when I started talking, how the fear vanished, how the compassion came, how easily was I able to relate to them, their worries and how their tragedies became my personal tragedies. It was no more ‘them’ speaking’; but ‘us’. And it was beautiful.
Anamika is a second year student of Journalism and mass communication at English and Foreign Languages University, Shillong campus.