Homeward journey in difficult timesStories of people longing to go home during the pandemic show the grim realities of these uncertain times.
The massive movement of Nepalis migrants and their efforts to go home propelled by the fear of Covid-19 has opened up a number of questions about home and state. In the media were two kinds of pictures—movements made within the country and efforts made from outside to go home. Thanks to the efforts of the audio-visual media we saw the graphic pictures of their difficult journeys, the chaos and the egregious side of the management. The pictures are getting grimmer and more hopeless as the days go by.
It is not easy to hold anybody particularly responsible during such extraordinary times. But looking at what could have been done and what is not done, we can say the homeward journeys of the Nepalis especially those returning from India could have been made more respectable, humane and manageable. The homeward journey of the people has been difficult, and their managements appear to be chaotic. The spate of movements to go home in recent months has also opened challenging pictures of home and exile. Those who are waiting to return home in countries other than India are in dire situations because the native brands of commissions and omissions have gone into play in that.
Invisible to the state
Though we knew millions of Nepali and Indian working class people crossing the borders to work, never had we seen them panting to reach home in hordes as we saw this time, thanks to the availability of the visual media. What struck me most was the common nature of their suffering, their urge to reach home covering hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres on foot. These journeys with bleeding bare feet, and the total mismanagement of those who crossed the borders reveal as never before the poor and working-class people's tenuous relationship with the state. The very moving and crucial part of the narrative is that they have homes somewhere on this earth, where they feel that they can survive however hard the conditions may be. And the one topic not addressed by any kinds of politics—socialist, communist, non-secular or secular, is the welfare of these people. As revealed by the pandemic conditions suffered by many around the world, the poor have neither governments nor states. They are invisible, but they have homes. That is the most moving part of the story.
The phenomenon of displacement, or moving away from home, is more common than returning home. People get uprooted owing to the harsh conditions they have to endure. They either go to refugee camps or into exiles. Exilic conditions are interpreted in political and literary terms. The famous scholar Edward Said has written eloquently on this subject in his book Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (2000). People become disenfranchised, become part of the armed movements or they simply suffer as described by Frantz Fanon in his often-cited book The Wretched of The Earth (2004). The drive towards home by people who are invisible to the state is the power of a new order that is revealed by Covid-19 all over the world.
Crossed the limits
I want to focus on the Nepali scenario. The Nepalis who are returning home, and who want to return, are not inspired by any plans that they would see as the bases of their starting a life in their native land. The pandemic represents fear and uncertainty, which adds to the already existing sense of doubt that anything magical will happen suddenly in the state of Nepal. The failure of the state, its indifference to the fate of the people and its tenacity to the principles of crony capitalism have become manifest in the situation of non-management of the quarantine centres and testing.
It's so miserably ignored that the people who have come thus far on the way to their homes are condemned to linger in the infernal huddles. There is no point in repeating that the pandemic situation is very difficult and full of challenges for the government. But what is very clearly visible is the way the people's homeward journeys are thwarted so ignominiously; the situation could have been saved with a little effort and management especially in terms of managing the quarantine homes and testing. Home as a space with value, hope and human condition could have been used productively. People's journeys to their homes could have been made possible if these two conditions were fulfilled in time.
But it seems to have crossed the limits. People's homeward journeys have turned into ghoulish and sardonic laughter. We ask the same question again—are the people of the earth now condemned to realise that there is no such thing as home any more? This, even though people still feel deep down that whatever may be the condition, home remains the most important space to return to.
There are many literary writings and artworks about returning home. I read a moving novel entitled You Can’t Go Home Again (1940) by Thomas Wolfe when I was in college. That was the first novel I read about the intense passion of returning home but failing. I read many other novels about this desire to return home. In Nepali, one story of Indra Bahadur Rai entitled ‘Jayamaya Aafu Matrai Likhapani Aaipugi’, dramatised and performed by Sunil Pokharel on May 3, 2017 in Kathmandu, is the latest theatrical oeuvre on the subject of the passion of returning home by people of the Nepali community living in Burma at the time of the First World War.
Alaka Atreya Chudal, a university teacher and researcher at Vienna University, has been doing works on the theme of the Gurkhas who fought and suffered during the First World War. Under the title 'What Can a Song Do to You? A Life Story of a Gurkha Prisoner in World War I', she writes, 'More than 940,000 South Asian soldiers and labourers were shipped across oceans between August 1914 and October 1918 to help sustain the British war effort. Of these, some 200,000 Gurkha soldiers are reported to have served in the British Indian Army, with one in 10 never returning home from the battlefield'. (Journal of South Asian Studies: April 26, 2020).
The stories of people with longing and passion for returning home to escape Covid-19 are not imbued with lyrical imagination. It's a grim reality. But deep down, the ruling passion is the same—returning home. To understand that passion is the mantra of respecting and helping the returnees.
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