I did not know his name.
Everyday, I went up to my terrace and smiled back as he gave me a smile. I looked at his work as with skill and dexterity, with sharp eye and nimble hand, he shaped and moulded my once broken terrace wall, into straight lines, strict and exact! With a quick turn of hand, his little spade lifted slurry cement from rusty basin, then with fluid flow and flourish, the cement flew, and with careful use of precise force, it gripped fast on roughhewn wall, fighting gravity, yet settling meticulously!
I watched his skill each morning, and knew his little team called him their mukadam, their leader: His work told me why!
I did not know his name!
Then yesterday I saw his picture. Wasn’t that him? His little team, their wives, their children? He stood at Bandra bus-stand with other thousands, protesting, pleading, petitioning the police, to let him return home.
Was it him again in another newspaper pic, another state, UP? Police lathis mercilessly falling on his pleading palm? The very hand I’d seen wielding artistic spade!
Did I see him again, walking, hundreds, nay a thousand kilometres, holding pathetically skinny child in equally wasted arms, while his woman, eyes downcast walked behind, beaten!
I did not know his name! Sometimes, at his lunchtime, I’d come up in the blazing sun, and see him laughing as his companions talked to their wives and family on whatsapp. I’d surreptitiously peep and see a pretty village belle, laughing to her man, and in his eyes I’d see love.
Did I see same man rushing, that day, holding in his mind, that precious, pretty woman, he wanted to get back to? Thinking I don’t want to die in this unwelcoming city, I want her arms around me, for which I’ll pay a price, to hell with this new word, the police are brandishing, ‘social distancing!’ What social distancing was there in the nakas, the street corners where they jostled with each other every morning to be picked for work? What distancing in the nights, in a room, where twenty slept, spooned into each other? Not for love or intimacy, but to use each available square inch to fit themselves to sleep!
I did not know his name! But now I know! The city gave him one: Migrant Labour! I cannot stop the tears that gush out, had he none other? Was that all we knew of him?
Was that all we could give him, besides lathi lashes, no transport to his home, and empty plates with videos taken when unripe banana was handed out?
The work has stopped. The cement, dried in buckets, they did not come back for. On walls, on nails they’d hammered, hang work clothes. I look sadly at rags, the wind makes alive as it flaps, frayed pants and shirts around. A faded shirt, flaps lifelessly, then stills itself, just like Migrant Labour, either lying still, filled with the deadly virus, or stilled by starvation, somewhere, on some highway!
I did not know his name! Do you?(Published on 20th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 17)