Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A First Hand Account of Lockdown Travels - Sunil Jyoti's Personal Experience

Sunil Jyoti and I go a long way back, close to 36 years. We met in our Civil Engineering course, both belonging to the sports quota, equally at sea with balancing academics and our sporting commitments. Sunil played for India in shuttle badminton those days (and was a far more committed sportsman than I was). We shared, and continue to share, a great love for good times, travel, music, and laughter. He is one of my favourite people to laugh with. The things we roll over on the floor make no sense to others but we find them very funny indeed. Some of the times when I laughed the most are shared with him.
Sunil Jyoti - A "Migrant" Returns Home
Post-engineering Tops, as we call him, worked in the ONGC and then joined the Civil Services. He is in the Railway Personnel Services now, posted at Jabalpur. Recently, after the lockdown was clamped, Sunil travelled alone from Jabalpur to Hyderabad, driving in his car. When I spoke to him, he described the journey and was clearly distressed by the endless line of migrants walking all along the route. I asked him to write his experience down so we don't lose it. He agreed to write.

In Sunil's words:


March of 2020 brought with it the  dreaded Corona(Covid-19). With it came the lockdowns, social distancing, masks, sanitizers and new ways of normal.

Then in the last week of March, the unthinkable happened. Offices were shut and we were directed to work from home. My posting in Jabalpur, M.P had left me away from family that lived in my hometown, Secunderabad.


The one-day lockdown was followed by a series of further 15 day ones, with no certainty when they would end. So it was me and Manoj, my man Friday, left to ourselves in a big bungalow, to fend for ourselves.

The days began with my walk and exercise on the terrace, a big one, breakfast, many cups of tea. The green environs of the colony and the birds made my mornings blissful. Grey Hornbill,my favorite, were spotted all around. Thankfully, the weather was still comfortable and summer had not set in yet.
Wifey being farsighted gifted me a Netflix subscription, much against my initial resistance. Apart from the work from home, I had time enough to binge watch 55 episodes of a series on the Buddha, Roman empire and Spartacus, on Netflix.

In the middle of April, it became evident that the lockdowns would continue further. I grew desperate. I had to go home to family. With restrictions on travel, plans were made, some as ridiculous as riding on a parcel train, or an Army special train returning empty, traveling in the engine and the like. My colleagues laughed at me. The only way then was to drive home. Jabalpur to  Hyderabad, about 800 km.
The long and lonely road
I somehow managed a pass to travel out of M.P from the Collector's office. Leave was sanctioned, and I was set for my trip. Manoj planned all the food I would carry. Idlis, chutney, paranthas, aloo subzi, tea in flask, disposable plates and cups, tissue paper etc. He also loaded a huge bunch of homegrown bananas in the boot along with Pinto's homemade wine bottles for company.

On 30th April, I left home at 5.30 am. Stacked up with food and tea, air conditioning, music on stereo, and thoughts of a pleasant drive back home on the lovely highway.

But things changed once I hit the highway.
Barren roads
I never liked the word ' migrant ' being used on TV and newspapers for Indians traveling back home. Were they migrants in their own country? Was I also a migrant, albeit a different one, travelling by car? Fortunately, I was driving home instead of having to March home, as I was to realize soon.

The journey was to take me through Seoni, the lovely forests of Pench Tiger reserve, Nagpur, Adilabad, Nirmal, Nizamabad and finally Hyderabad,  covering about 800 km.
As I came on to the Jabalpur to Nagpur highway, I saw them. The migrants. Men, women, young,  old, marching in the hundreds all towards Jabalpur. Carrying on their heads and shoulders, perhaps their entire belongings, with children tucked in and an odd pet following too. The lucky ones were precariously seated atop loaded trucks, hanging on for life. The highway was completely empty, except for a few trucks.
Scorching heat, one can see the line of trucks on the highway to the right, and no shade

By the time I neared Nagpur, around 9 am, the numbers swelled. It was now a flood of migrants, marching ahead like a determined army. Steely determination writ large on their faces. Their expressions resembled that of a champion boxer, beaten and battered, but not wanting to let it show to his opponent.

They were all over,  resting in any shade, at toll gates, now-shut eateries and dhabas. Most of them traveling to M.P,  U.P,  Bihar and maybe beyond. Hundreds of kilometers. Even at my fittest best I would struggle beyond 20-25 km of jog/ walk. These were the real Rocky Balboas indeed. Perhaps it's a mind thing. Nothing else explains the madness of their journey.

At a pump where I stopped to fill up, a truck driver yelled out to the men and women to board the truck;  restroom break was over. The men climbed first, children were flung up and then women pulled up. No comfort of air conditioning, not even a roof above.

As the journey progressed, the sun god became hotter and harsher. More people were now seen under any shade they could find. It occurred to me that they may have walked in the night under the cool moonlight.

From nearby towns, the good samaritans were now seen distributing food packets and water. One big SUV stopped near me and the migrants literally pounced on it. Hunger makes one to behave in strange ways probably. Human dignity the casualty. I gestured with a thumbs up to one such family distributing food. That was the least I could to show my appreciation.

It then occurred to me that I should click some pictures of the scenes on my mobile phone to be put on Facebook, WhatsApp for the consumption of my friends. The roads were empty and I was doing constant 3 digit speeds. Clicking pictures at that speed was not possible. So at the next opportunity, I slowed down my car to almost still to get a good shot. Perhaps a close one to capture the faces and their expressions. The migrants were lined up to board a truck and jostling for space. But as I was about to click, I noticed two of them, middle-aged men staring at me. Their expressions blank, eyes wide open but unable to hide the utter loss of hope and despondency in them. I stopped. Acted as if I had stopped for something else, and sped away. I felt a deep sense of guilt for some reason. I didn't even attempt any pics for the rest of my trip.

It showed 42 degrees on my dashboard. But the inside temperature was a cool 22 degrees.
The same scenario continued till I reached the outskirts of Hyderabad. On the way I was stopped at some check posts, but was allowed to continue maybe because the cops didn't know what to do with this unique migrant travelling in a car. Obviously they couldn't have asked me to go back.


Ever since I reached home I've been telling my friends and family how grateful we should be for our privileged existence. Many questions also trouble the mind.

Have we let down the very people who built our cities, the highways, the skyscrapers, malls, those that fixed out plumbing, cleaned the roads and picked our garbage? Do they also feel let down or think it's their fate? Do they have an option? Why blame them for wanting to go back home? Isn't home where the heart is?

My journey was comfortable. But very uncomfortable questions will remain. Happy journey.


Thanks Tops. For sharing your experience. And pricking our conscience. Maybe the gratitude you feel will spread in our hearts too, and bit by bit transform the energy on the planet, and turn it into a trickle  of compassion and love for our brothers and sisters on the road. Just that will make their journeys more bearable. 

1 comment:

Srikanth Tirumala said...

very touching honest disgraceful truth of all our double standards. we live in a hollow dream in which every one is meant to be happy, but the reality is we have build a selfish bubble to just protect ourselves leaving the rest of them to fend themselves. we have not given them the weapons such as education, self confidence, human dignity to fight and find their livelihood. what happened to the migrants is a testimony of our hypocrisy.

thanks for sharing Sunil Jyoti. Admittance of guilt is the first step towards to realisation and action.

we intellectuals need to think what can we do to fix it .. one human at a time.