This assignment began with a familiar unease.
How do you call somebody who may be grieving or who may be dead and his (all were men) phone with a loved one? Every time a call connected, I launched into muddled apologies, a lame question tagged on: “It’s a little difficult to explain who gave me your number, apologies, and I know this must be a difficult time, apologies, terribly sorry, but are you so-and-so and I hope you and your loved ones get home safe?”
I was cold-calling passengers on the ill-fated Coromandel Express, from a list of numbers shared on networks of migrant workers to help track down missing relatives. At least two of the 18-20 numbers I dialled had already received calls asking if they recollected a particular passenger in the same compartment.
A few numbers were unavailable; I like to imagine that the phones were destroyed or lost as their owners survived what was one of India’s worst-ever railway tragedies, a three-train collision in northern Odisha’s Balasore that left at least 291 dead and nearly 1,000 injured.
The conversations with strangers that yielded this report were with men in their 20s and 30s, who had all boarded the train from West Bengal to find work in Tamil Nadu or Kerala, 1,500 km to 2,000 km away from home. They belonged to Murshidabad, South 24 Parganas, Purba Bardhaman and other largely rural districts of Bengal. Frequently, their narratives mirrored one another’s.
Most were school dropouts and had taken up hard labour at an early age, mostly as construction workers, masons, painters, and unskilled labourers. Kerala, with its promise of considerably higher daily wages, going up to Rs 1,200 for skilled workers, was a favoured destination.
“You get a salary to make phone calls?” Osman Shaikh, 27, asked. He was from Purba Bardhaman, and he had been accompanied on the train by his younger brother Ajijul, promised a monthly salary of Rs 15,000 to handle laundry, cleaning and cooking services for a group of Bengali workers in Malappuram. Like the others, he described the hard labour they did—12-15 hours of work every day, including weekends, often in harsh weather, work that was as physically strenuous as it was monotonous. Both brothers sustained injuries in the train tragedy.
There were tens of thousands like him in Kerala, he said, young men from across Bengal and Bihar, some from as far as Assam and the northeast. Disease or death, pandemic or rail tragedy, there was no question of not returning to the cities, Shaikh said.
Their stories painted a picture of an India that is invisible to many, young men separated from their families for extended periods, sometimes up to a year; lads barely out of their teens scrimping and saving to repay the inter-generational debt; all of them trying to build a small asset or help fund a sister’s wedding; and all of them one tragedy away from square one.
They were among the millions building the construction boom, the unseen faces behind new cities, roads, bridges and ports. Equally, threads from the agrarian distress across rural India emerged in the narratives of first-generation migrant workers from agricultural households. The land could no longer support them.
By some estimates, these young men number nearly 200 million, a massive slice of young India clambering onto passenger trains to reach the destinations of their hardship and sacrifice. It reminded me of Steinbeck’s line, “A sorrow that weeping cannot symbolise, a failure that topples all our successes.”
You can read Kavitha Iyer's full story here.