“Wake up” “Wake up Laxmi!” Sunita nudged me from my sleep on the pavement of the bus stop. We had stayed here all night waiting for a bus driver to agree to take us to Khurai district in Madhya Pradesh from where we would walk to our village in Hanota. The government had made an announcement five days back regarding an illness that was spreading in the city and shut everything down. But this meant that I was only left with ₹500 from last month. Mrs Gupta, my employer in Saket, a posh residential society in Delhi, had asked me to not come to her house anymore, and the landlord for the room where Sunita and I had stayed had harassed us for payment in advance because he was scared of not getting rent for the next few months. And while Mrs Gupta had started buying groceries in bulk for a month, Sunita and I didn’t have enough money to buy food for the next week.
“We have to go back home,” I had told her, after our landlord had come banging on our door drunk two nights ago. She had nodded. He had shown up to our room drunk before, but this time his threats seemed more than just that. This time when he looked at my blouse, I felt as if he could see through it. This time he wanted to come inside and stay – to “get his money or at least its worth.” Sunita had pushed him outside with all her might while I quickly locked the door. He kept banging on the door for a few minutes and then suddenly stopped and walked away. I could see tears filling her eyes and I held back mine. We packed our belongings in a duffel bag and took off the next morning.
With no autorickshaws plying on the roads, we had walked for two and a half hours in the sweltering heat to reach the Nizamuddin Railway Station and stood in the lines for another three hours to try to get a ticket. There were hundreds of us there, huddled together on the platform. Some sat on the benches and many on the floor, with clothes stuffed in rugged bags and children crying with hunger, waiting for a train to operate. But in a few hours, scores of policemen carrying wooden sticks came to the station and asked everyone to disperse. There were not going to be any trains for the next week.
“Don’t crowd here, you’ll all spread the disease,” a policeman yelled as he used his wooden stick to push away an old man, barely able to walk straight without bending his knees and back. “And cover your filthy mouths!” another added.
For a few minutes, I couldn’t understand what was happening around me. A small girl next to me kept crying, carelessly held by her father on his shoulders, possibly hungry, or tired, or both. And a tall, thin woman, close to my age was walking away from the station with an old jute bag balanced on her head and a small boy clinging to her at her bony waist. It was as if we had all emerged from our nooks and crannies of the city, forgotten at the edges, and were now scrambling for some semblance of survival.
We covered our faces using the long, flowy ends of our saris like a veil and started walking towards the bus stop in Sarai Kale Khan. It was not a very long walk from the railway station but I could feel my legs giving up. Sunita and I hadn’t eaten anything since last night and we couldn’t find any stalls open to buy rotis. When we almost reached the bus stop, she spotted a man selling hot puris in a small shop around the corner with half his shutter down. In case the police were to come, he could immediately pull it all the way down and pretend that he wasn’t open. We slid ₹40 under the shutter and got two plates of puris with some raw onion and chilis. I suddenly missed the food I cooked for Mrs Gupta. Although I would only get to eat leftovers of what I made, I often got treated to chhole puri, shahi paneer with naan, and chicken makhani. I remembered the last meal I had cooked in her kitchen the day she had asked me to leave – the children had asked me to make chickpea burgers, something I had never made before. And I felt the taste of the crispy bun and the juicy patty return to my mouth fleetingly as I ate the last bite of my puri.
“What now?” I turned to Sunita who kept looking at the highway in front us. But she just stood beside me, not saying a word. We entered the bus stop and decided to just stay there waiting for bus drivers to come.
“Wake up!” Sunita nudged me again. It was morning now and we had stayed there all night, using our duffel bag as a pillow on the hard, dirt-covered pavement. I looked up to see many people walking away from the bus stop. Sunita pulled on my arm, lifting me up, and almost ran to catch up to the family walking away in front of us. “Where are you going?” she asked them. “Back home, to our village in Deoli, Rajasthan.” We looked at them for a second, puzzled at how they’re planning to make the journey. “Just like this,” the man answered and pointed to their feet after we prodded. He was a mason who earned daily wages from projects all over the city while his wife ran a tea stall near their house and took care of the children.
We walked out of the bus stop following close behind them and just stood staring at the highway in front of us. A journey of more than 500 kilometres lay ahead of us with less than ₹500 in our pockets.
We were the disease, and we had to go away.