Migrant Diaries: The story of Zia ul Sheikh

“I am scared to return to Mumbai because you never know what will happen next,” a goldsmith from West Bengal hopes he can find work in his home state

Migrant diaries

Zia ul Sheikh, a skilled goldsmith, is back home in Birbhum. The 32-year-old loves the clean air and green spaces of Harishpur village, where he was born and lived for 20 years. This is where he got married and now lives in a home full of love and care with his parents, wife and two young boys.

“My firstborn is five-years-old and the little one is just one-year-old,” says the proud father who has enrolled the elder one in an “English-medium private school.” He credits his wife for all that she does for the family, and especially the children’s education. “She looks after all of us. She is very caring and at the same time she is strict about the children’s studies, so that they stay on track,” he says feeling relieved that even under the lockdown when the schools are closed, his little lad studies at home. 

“My father is a farmer and grows all the vegetables we use, he has made sure there is food on our plates even in this lockdown and we don’t have to depend on anyone,” Sheikh is a proud son too. But all the love, home grown vegetables, and fresh air will not pay the bills, and Sheikh says he wants to start earning again and save money. “At the moment I am trying to look for some work anywhere in West Bengal, so that we will have some money if needed in an emergency,” he says wisely cognizant of the possibility of sudden future requirements.

The biggest lesson he has learnt in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic is this: Always be prepared for the worst. He is still shocked by how quickly the situation changed in Mumbai where he worked. “I had reached the city just two days before lockdown was suddenly announced. I thought it would last for maybe 14-days or so. My fellow workers and I had enough food stocked to last us till then, so we were not too worried. But the Coronavirus spread like fire, and the government extended the lockdown. That too suddenly,” he remembers the panic that began to creep in then.

“Soon enough we were struggling for food, and had to seek help,” he says they approached many organizations for ration but only got a response from Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and a Bengal organization. “We got enough rations for an entire April month, and sometimes also got packets of cooked food from some people. It was only because of all this help from various places that we managed to survive in this lockdown,” he says grateful for the generosity of strangers that taught him the other big lesson: Seek help when needed, and give help when possible.


 Once the emergency train schedules were announced Sheikh and his group filled the travel forms. “We got a call after ten days from the police station. They told us to get ready to board the next train to West Bengal from Mumbai CSMT. On May 17 we went to Pydhonie Police Station and a thermal screening was done before we were taken to the railway station,” he says. The sight there was overwhelming for Sheikh, “There were so many migrant workers standing in queues, looking so happy to be given a chance to reach their villages. We boarded the train systematically; all the IDs were checked.” The next development surprised him even more, “We were each given two masks, two parathas with pickle, a biscuit packet and a water bottle. I was so happy when I got my seat, we all were maintaining proper distance from each other and all of us were wearing masks.”

Sheikh who has lived in Mumbai for over 12 years, says he was one of the lucky ones who seemed to have the best experience on these Shramik Special Trains. “During the journey we were given biscuits, bananas and water. No ‘real’ food was provided but I did not care. I was happy to be headed home. We reached Murarai Railway Station the next day, and had thermal screening done, we were told to be in home quarantine for 14 days,” a new term that Sheikh says he obeyed like the law. “My home is close to the railway station so I walked back and followed all the instructions. I did not step out for 14 days,” he says. He was grateful to be home but waves of sorrow rose whenever he thought of the thousands of others who had to take uncomfortable truck rises, or worse walk for hundreds of miles to reach home. His quarantine is long over, and he is keeping busy helping at home while searching for a job. 

He also misses his workplace at Zaveri Bazaar, in Bhuleshwar Mumbai. He has been working here since the day he first came to Mumbai. “I earn around Rs 15,000 per month and manage to send almost Rs 9000 back to my family. I stayed with five roommates, all of us are from West Bengal, and we would divide the rent of Rs 11,500 per month among ourselves,” he says describing how things were going fine and every year Sheikh would visit his family in the village for two months. This schedule may have now been reversed, fears Sheikh, “I hear in the news that the situation is getting serious every day as the number of cases are increasing. I got a call from Mumbai that work has started, I want to go but I am scared because Mumbai has most cases,” he says. “My wife is also not allowing me to go, so I guess we will have to wait for the official announcement of a normal situation,” says Sheikh.


He does not want to complain now. He is home, there is food to eat, family to talk to and rations of grain from the government. “Everything is fine here, and I don’t want to go and get myself in trouble, because no one can predict what will happen in Mumbai next. I will wait till the situation is normal.” 



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