Shamim was barely 15 years old when he took over his father’s profession. Many young men like him, born into impoverished and landless homes in Western Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district, become pheri wallahs or travelling cloth salesman.
Shamim is now 30 years old. Over the past 15 years, he has spent months at a stretch away from his family and village, while touring states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Gujarat and Haryana to peddle his wares.
Pheri wallahs travel in groups of three or four, going door to door to sell piece of cloth or ready-made garments like salwar suits, shirts and jeans. Their thekedars or contractors meet them from place to place, invest in the wares and take half their earnings.
Every month, Shamim used to send a few thousand rupees home. On a good day, he would save Rs 300 rupees for himself. He would visit his village in Shamli once in three or four months and spend a fortnight with his family – his father, wife and four children.
Since Shamim took over the profession 15 years ago, he hasn’t stopped travelling. The roads are his livelihood. But the latest journey he undertook, after the imposition of a nationwide lockdown within a four-hour notice, is the one he will never forget.
In March, Shamim, three other pheri wallahs and their contractor, had hired two rooms in the district town of Jhalod in Eastern Gujarat, not far from Banswada in Rajasthan. It was during their stay here when they heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of the 21-day lockdown in an attempt to contain the spread of Covid-19.
Everyone was directed to stay indoors, wherever they were, for three weeks.
Through the night the four men tried to make sense of this sudden and dramatic alteration in their fortunes. In the morning, they went to the contractor’s room only to find that he had checked out and disappeared, without a word. They tried to call him, but he had switched his phone off.
Shamim had barely Rs 500 in his wallet. His companions had just as little money. They had kept most of their savings with the contractor for safe-keeping. Shamim called his wife and children. They wept in fear and confusion – “whatever happens, just come home”, they urged him.
Shamim and his companions weighed their options. They did not have the money to pay the room rent or buy food for 21 days. They had to return home at any cost. As buses and trains had halted because of the lockdown, their only option was to walk.
The distance from Jhalod to Shamli is 893 km.
As they began the journey on foot, they saw that they were not alone. According to their estimate, there were 60,000 to 70,000 others on the highway.
The police were not unkind. They did not try to stop them. They were fortunate, as they were among the early walkers. Those who set out in the days to come would meet many roadblocks, including police batons and disinfectant sprays.
At each state border that Shamim crossed, he found health staff pressing a gadget against his forehead to check for fever. All those who showed no symptoms were allowed to continue walking.
Soon, Shamim and his companions grew weary. They had little money left for food and the heat was unbearable. The occasional hand pump or public tap would see interminable lines. There were some kind people in villages and towns who distributed packed food and water to the travellers.
Sometimes, the men slept by the roadside. Most of the time, they just walked and walked.
As trucks would pass, some of the travellers would hop on. Shamim too was lucky that he was able to cover some of the distance by truck.
Days and nights merged into one another, and Shamim started losing track of time. He would call his family once or twice a day, limiting the call time to save phone battery. His family would cry each time he called.
“Come home”, they would say. “If we have to live or die, let us at least be together.” It was hearing their voices that encouraged him to keep walking.
Around 10 days later, he finally reached the boundaries of his village. He called his family, but said he would not come home directly to them. He did not want to infect them in case he had caught the virus. Instead, he went straight to the home of the village chowkidar, who worked with the local police.
The chowkidar took him to a hospital, where the compounder checked his temperature, said he was fine, and told him he could go home. His children, his wife and father, wept when they saw him.
But soon, he was faced with a new challenge: he did not know how to feed his family. His wife had procured 25 kg wheat from the ration shop, but this was quickly exhausted. When he spoke with me, a week after his return home, he said their food stocks would last them only three or four days.
They had no savings and Shamim’s contractor had vanished with all his earnings. They owned no land, and received no government assistance. They could not turn to anyone in the village, as everyone was struggling for survival. Besides, he said, there was no way he would beg for food.
His only solace was that at least he was finally home.