The Search For Empathy And The Pangs Of Pain

Wiping off the beads of sweat, I got up, dragged myself to the fridge, pulled out the bottle of water, gulped it down and thought about the disturbing thoughts frittered all over my psyche when I pretended to ‘sleep’. 

It was the haunting image of the 17 migrant workers – the strewn chapatis which were left on the tracks even as they were run over by a goods train in Aurangabad. They were walking home, from Maharashtra to their respective villages in Madhya Pradesh. They took the route of railway tracks and they were exhausted. They collapsed on the tracks and they fell asleep – they never woke up again. This was the sleep, this very image kept troubling me, this was the sleep no one wants and yet, this was the sleep that kept coming back. 

There has been an outcry, even this outcry has been muted, it has been coloured with convenient politics, it is littered with fancy words, with agendas and amid all this, India keeps sleeping day after day, under the fan, on a bed with filled stomachs even as more than 90% of India’s workforce struggle to barely walk, they have no place to go, they are simply walking, they have a hazy idea of the destination, but this haze has become a prolonged gloom. 

“Kya kre sir, kahan jaaye. Garmi itni badh gyi hai, paisa jo hai manage kar par rha hai, itna kaam tha, itne dino se kaam kar rhe hai, ab koi kuch nahi pooch rha. Ghar jaana hai, but jaaye kaise, yahan jo ghar hai, wahan rhe kaise (what can we do, it has become so hot, where do we go. We do not have enough savings to manage, want to go home. Have worked here for so long, no one is bothered about us now. Don’t know how to reach home, the home we stay here, we really cannot go back there and survive),” a worker who was meandering along outside my gated society told me. 

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Figure this – I snuck out of my home to grab some fresh air and this person, wants to get to his home. Both of us were on the same road, on that same stretch, I wanted some air, I wanted cash, I wanted perhaps something fancy to eat, and this worker wanted to go back home, he wanted to lie down, even though he was hungry, he wanted to find the warmth of his home. He did not have cash, but all had was the spirit and I feared that under the scorching sun, even this spirit was beginning to erode.
I can sit on my balcony, look at the skies, defer my chores, flip the pages of a book, binge on the latest show which has received rave reviews and all the while, the people who form the backbone of the economy continue to offer shallow hope to their children – the kids who were once reading a book.

At least I have this job, I can send money to my family back home, yes, the society is giving me food, I can sleep when my shift is over, but in my locality, there are families who have been dragging on, who have been forced to back their bags, put their kids on their heads and start walking. One minute the government announces something, they have hope, the very next moment, nothing is clear, and all they can do it wait. But, they are hungry, they are daily wage earners, they do not have savings, how will they survive,” a security staff told me when I walked back into my ‘gated’ society.

And as I count the groceries, I find that I have been charged 50 bucks extra for a kilo of rice. I am enraged – I am entitled to my own anger. And I remember, those eyes on the road – yesterday they had a job, they had just about enough to last each day and today, they are meandering on the streets without any destination. 

Who, then, has been short-changed? When everyone has stopped, when everyone is in isolation, there are masses of our people clinging on to bare minimum – no food, no water, no sight of justice, but the fickle nature of hope.

So, perhaps me cribbing about 50 bucks was giving it back when I was sleep. It was as if someone was firing volleys at me, someone screaming down my gut, there were a shuffle, an uneasiness and a breath and a jerk. When the eyes opened, it was all like it was a day before, it was all like a week, a month ago.