There’s no place like home

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on May 28, 2020 Published on May 28, 2020

The return of the native: For women, homes can be sites of violence and discrimination   -  REUTERS/ADNAN ABIDI

It may not be the cocoon of love and comfort, but it is where we head when all else is lost

Some 10 days into the first lockdown, I called our painter, RJ. Once a mazdoor who worked with a contractor, RJ set himself up as a small-time contractor when his boss died some years ago. And he had a team of workers who accompanied him to turnkey jobs in homes and offices.

That day when I called, I asked how he was faring in the lockdown. “I’m all right, didi,” he said, “and I sent all my workers back home before this lockdown began because we feared the illness. But now I’m stuck here and can’t get away.”

Could I get him a pass, he asked. His village was only 150km from Delhi and he had a motorbike. He wanted to go, he said, because his mother was ill and dying, and he was worried about his wife and daughter.

I couldn’t figure out a way to help. And RJ had already tried everything he possibly could. He had visited the police station, put in an application, been told to get his mother’s medical reports from the village (an impossible demand, because the hospital back home was not functional and there was no mode of transport for his wife to even reach the place). He tried calling an old customer who had some clout with the police. Nothing worked.

And then, last week, I called him again to check and he answered, happy and relaxed. “I managed to make it home,” he said. “During the last lockdown — when they opened things a bit — I got a pass.”

Would he come back, I asked him; if yes, when? “There’s no reason to return,” he replied. “I’m home and safe... If nothing else, we will grow our food, or we’ll take a loan to start some work. At least we’re together, we’re home.” And then, he went on to add: “Why would anyone come back to that hostile city, didi? Yes, it gave us a livelihood but look at how it has treated us. Much better to be home.”

Home. A four-letter word. No matter how terrible it may be as a place, it is the home that beckons when disaster strikes, when illness is rampant, when heartbreak happens.

I recall working editorially on a novel long ago. One of the protagonists, a young man of ambivalent and fluid sexuality, is caught in a compromising situation by the villagers and together, the villagers and his family, chase him and his companion out of the settlement. The couple make their way to the city, where they find work. A year later, misfortune strikes, and the first thing they want to do is to return home — to the village, to the family, to the same people who chased them out.

For all the hundreds of thousands of workers (let’s not call them migrants; we’d be hard put to find one among us who isn’t one) leaving cruel cities and hostile workplaces, caught in the midst of a pandemic not of their making, the home exercises a powerful pull. It’s the only place they know where they can feel safe, feel connected, feel a sense of belonging.

Of course, we all know that what you leave behind is often invested with a dreamlike quality in how it is remembered. Homes are never what they are imagined to be, and for many people, especially women, they can be sites of violence and discrimination. But the dream, the desire and the longing, these remain all-powerful.

The home is also the place from which all of us draw some of our most basic rights: The right to leave and the right to return. Why, then, is it that a poor, hungry worker in worn-out chappals, making his way home, becomes a target for the might of the State? Why is a poor, pregnant woman walking thousands of miles beaten up by the police?

Is it really so difficult for those in power to understand this simple truth of our societies? What if the lockdown had begun with the assumption that people will want to return home and trains and buses had been arranged to safely see them to their destinations? What if those trains had taken the most direct route instead of losing track? What if the passengers had been given food and water?

It is a sad country where the right to return home is a crime.


Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan;


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Published on May 28, 2020
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