ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Of Migrants and Mindsets

A train journey unravels the experiences of migrant workers in Kerala.

A friend, who has worked and lived in Kolkata for the last 15 years, was travelling by train to her home townin Kerala recently. It was her annual visit to spend a few days with her ageing parents. As she couldn’t get a reservation in the AC coach, she was travelling by second class. The coach was thronged with young men from Bengal and Odisha who were on their way to Kerala. They were very young, between the ages of 15 and 30, from interior villages and agricultural families. From their interactions, it was evident that almost all of them had attended some years of schooling or college. Each of them invariably had a mobile phone, ranging from smartphones to the small, rustic Nokias. Throughout the journey they were talking on the phones, or watching videos in groups, laughing and commenting loudly. The queue at the charging point for mobile phones at the end of the compartment was perpetually crowded, with four or five phones stuck to the multi-plug adaptor and being charged, their red lights glimmering. At all hours of the day and night, the youngsters—all male—were constantly walking up and down, sharing seats and berths, snacks and drinks, jokes and gossip. Into the second day of the journey, when they had all settled down, the senior ones among them began talking about their experiences in Kerala. They had been working in Kerala for the past few years, while the eager listeners were on their first trip, lapping up their tales about the alien land towards which they were headed.

Interestingly, they were talking about the strange and funny habits, behaviour, and beliefs of Malayalees: their obsession with personal cleanliness and daily bathing rituals, their children who are rarely found playing on the streets, working in paddy fields, or loitering in the neighbourhood, their general aversion to manual work, etc. They were recounting amusing incidents about their Malayalee bosses or muthalalis (pronounced with a distinct accent) who didn’t have a clue about the crucial little details of the work at the ground level, and about their inefficiency in terms of supervision and in negotiating wages, being surprisingly stingy on certain occasions, and at other times foolishly generous. One of the most painful and striking observations they made was about the propensity of the average Malayalee to look sideways or tangentially while dealing with them; there was a certain diffidence or refusal to look the migrant worker in the eye. This, the young workers felt, was a kind of denial of their humanity, a hesitation on the part of the hosts to acknowledge them as humans, equal and real.

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Updated On : 10th Feb, 2017

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