Hope and a cycle: Migrant worker cycles 1,700 kms to reach home amid lockdown

Mahesh Jena, originally from Odisha was working in Maharashtra’s Sangli district in a foundry

CycledImage Courtesy:hindustantimes.com

The hardships of migrant workers amid the lockdown have now become well known. Lakhs of migrants are either stranded or are desperately trying to get back to their villages to be reunited with their families, and some have lost their lives in the endeavor of doing so. Mahesh Jena was one of the approximately 120 migrant labourers in India, who was lucky enough to reach enough to reach home to Odisha from Maharashtra after cycling nearly 242 kms every day for 7 days.

A tale of grit and determination, Jena’s story is exactly the ray of hope that we needed to peek in during the gloom. Speaking to the Hindustan Times, Jena who was born near a cycle market in Ludhiana to parents who ran a pavement stall in the city recalled how he was sent to his home village in Odisha at 9, to live with his uncle and had ambitions of joining the army. However, after his father’s health suffered, Mahesh, the eldest of the siblings, had to take up responsibilities. He said, “I have two younger brothers, a younger sister. My turn had come, I needed to earn. We were very badly off, no money, no house to call our own.”

He then came to Maharashtra from Odisha, one of the three main sources of mass migration and first worked at a plastics factory, loading and unloading consignments. “I felt like my neck would break,” he said. “I hated it.” He became an apprentice in a metal factory making water pumps, despite many of his friends warning him of the dangers of the job. Early on in his apprenticeship, he says, he followed a commotion to find that a worker had died at a foundry after being buried under huge slabs of iron.

Though he had seen people losing their limbs at the job, he soldiered on. He learnt to cut, temper, and weld iron. For five months, he got no money. In January, he found a job that paid him Rs 12,000 a month at Jsons Foundry, which makes metal castings for the oil and gas industry.

When it was time to go home during the lockdown, to escape the uncertainty of his future in the city, he first thought of walking back, but gave up that idea as it would take him a month to reach home. He said, “The rumour was that all the factories would close for five months at least. Everyone was very scared. How we will earn? How will we eat? How will we pay room rent? No one said anything to us about how we will survive, whether we will be paid.”

“For 4-5 days, we were under great stress, we did not know what to do. I could not sleep. Do I go or not? Will I be able to make it? If I walk, I will cover 50 km a day… that will take me over a month! But then I thought, if I cycle, maybe I can do 100km or more in a day. That’s about 15 days. Not too bad,” he added. 

With Rs. 3,000 that he got from a cousin, a change of clothes, a blanket, a quilt, some snacks, water and soap, he chalked out a simple plan – to try following the same route he took from Odisha to Sangli, but in the opposite direction.

When he was first picked up by a contractor in his village, Jena and a group of men took a bus from Jajpur to Bhubaneshwar, a four-hour ride. From there, they took the Konark Express, which connects the eastern part of India to the western part, a distance of 1,932km from Bhunaneshwar to Mumbai, which it covers in 37 hours, 15 minutes. They got off at Solapur, a city in south-western Maharashtra close to its border with Karnataka, a day-and-a-half later. From Solapur, they took another bus to Sangli, a 12-hour journey.

“That was going to be my route,” Jena said. “I did not think of anything more. I did not think about food, or water, or whether the cycle would last.”

On April 1, he commenced his journey back home in Odisha’s Jaipur, nearly 1,700 kms away. He put on his blue jeans, his blue-and-gray striped t shirt, and his worn-out rubber slippers. He put his backpack on his shoulders, and happy with its weight, he slipped out of his tiny room and got on to his bicycle — a heavy relic of a bike with a 22-inch frame — and started pedaling at around 4 AM. He knew he didn’t have to stop. If his cycle broke down, he would walk.

On day 1, he hoped to make it to Solapur, cycling all day and resting all night. He had reached the city of Miraj by the time the sun was out and leaving it soon behind, he left NH 160 and got on to the Maharashtra state highway numbered 161.

He wasn’t too tired even after cycling all day and was helped by everyone during his journey. After cycling 150 kms through the day, he stopped for the night at a temple, barely 40 km from Solapur. The villagers there got him milk and food and repaired the punctured tyre.

Jena only feared the police as the contractor who had brought him to Sangli and a few other colleagues had reported his disappearance at the local police station. However, on his way back home, even the police didn’t detain him, and instead helped him with refreshments.

“I was stopped many times at police check posts,” Jena said, “and each time I told them what I was doing, and I said, ‘I can’t possibly go back, you can keep me here if you like, or you can let me keep going’. They always let me go.”

 The only constant problem Jena suffered throughout his journey was punctured tires. “It got me down,” he said. “When I started, I had no idea this was going to happen so many times.

Day 3 was quite a challenge for Jena after he got lost and went nearly 100 kms in the wrong direction as he was approaching Hyderabad. However, help arrived soon. At a village, a man told him a short-cut through hilly, forested terrain that would take him back to NH 65, and cut the distance by more than half. As he climbed the hill, the cycle’s rear tire got cut on a sharp rock. He covered the rest of the 10 kms on foot.

“At the top of road, I got back on to the cycle, balanced myself, checked my brakes, and then just let go,” Jena said. “It was wonderful, speeding all the way down like that on that empty road.”

Though someone did fix the puncture, the tire burst completely and only after he walked to the next village, did he find someone to replace it. The good Samaritan only charged Jena for the tube and not the entire tire. Jena, by then, had completed a third of his journey.

He saw many migrants walking back home, some even wondering if he would make it on the cycle. But the cycle was his blessing, he decided he wouldn’t let it go at any cost. “Even if I had to walk with the cycle, I would walk with it, but I was certain that I wouldn’t let it go. If trains restarted, I would take the cycle on the train. If buses restarted, I would put it on the bus. I had a fear that anything could be stopped any time, and in that fear, my one hope was my cycle.”

On day 4 he borrowed a phone from a stranger in Vijaywada and called his family to inform them he was on his way.

Jena was almost in a trance while he cycled back home on the scenic route home. “There was lots of beauty, it was amazing,” he said. “I felt like I could die doing this alone, and if I did die, it would be okay. If I lived, great, I would cycle.”

Past the gigantic barrage on the Krishna at Vijayawada, Jena switched to NH 16, curving sharply upwards along the east coast towards his home.

He began Day 6 by going past Srikakulam and crossing the bridge over the Nagavali river, which collapsed dramatically two years ago in June after the river flooded.

By the end of the day, he was in Odisha in the Ganjam district, where he cycled by seeing the Rishkulya river and the Chilika lake.

Finally, he reached Bhubaneswar on day 7, though he was still a 100 km from home. On the evening of April 7, he reached Jajpur town, just 5km from his village.

Jena, who thankfully didn’t carry the virus spent the next 14 days at a quarantine facility. “I called my uncle when I reached Jajpur and he told me to go to the police and tell them that I should be taken to the medical centre for quarantine,” he said, “and that’s what I did.”

His trusted cycle is in police custody but he is home. His only regret?

“I was sure that I would meet ghosts,” Jena said. “I did not see a single one.”


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