Away from home; The trials of a migrant girl

excerpt

Away from home; The trials of a migrant girl

Economic deprivation, insurgencies and deadly ethnic clashes have driven thousands of impoverished women and men from the northeastern region of India to seek a better life elsewhere in the country and even abroad. But for many, their jobs in metros have made them targets of racism, harassment and class exploitation.

The Exodus Is Not Over by Nandita Haksar, published by Speaking Tiger, features the experiences of first-generation migrants, who candidly tell their own stories of resilience in the face of exploitation and discrimination. Here is an excerpt:

Huimila phoned Atim to say she was going for an interview at a posh hotel in Connaught Place. Perhaps both of them would be given a chance. They took a bus and walked to the Metropolitan Hotel. The security guard refused to let the two women enter. When they said they had come for a job, he called the owner and Huimila was asked to come in. She came out and announced that she had been selected. Atim was not even summoned.

The two women were very hungry. But  they realised that between them they only had Rs 15. They walked to the Central Park in Connaught Place and sat there. They bought Rs 10 worth of channa masala from a man selling them in paper cones.

Atim and Huimila started walking towards Vasant Enclave. On the way, a bus came and they got on. But the conductor threw them out when he discovered they did not have money for the fare. They finally reached Vasant Enclave late in the evening.

Huimila then announced that she did not like the job, and Atim said she wanted it. Mayori, ever resourceful, phoned a Tangkhul IAS officer and asked for his help. He said he would speak to the owners of a boutique in the hotel.

Atim found herself at the Metropolitan Hotel again. This time she went inside. And from afar she saw the brilliant blue of the swimming pool. It took her breath away. She did not know words like ritzy, stylish or even luxurious; in Tangkhul one word described all these qualities—khamatha or beautiful. And she could not help comparing the vast space with the small, cramped room that she called her home back in Ukhrul.

Atim looked very attractive, though she may not have known it. She was wearing a blue shirt given to her by Mayori’s friend, Angam, and black trousers and she had borrowed black shoes from Lemyaola. She carried herself with dignity and had a brilliant smile which made up for her lack of experience and knowledge of the English language. She got her first job!

Atim discovered that she was to work in a shop selling handicrafts. The owner said she could wear the clothes she was currently wearing. She would be paid Rs 5,500 but she would have to bring her own food. There were two shifts; if she were on the night shift she would be dropped home.

The owner of the shop told her to open a bank account, but Atim had no identity card. She, like most migrant workers from the Northeast, did not have a voter’s card, a ration card or any other proof of identity. The bank asked for her appointment letter, but the other women working in the shop had told her that they were not given appointment letters. Atim turned to Mayori who once again phoned the Tangkhul officer, who phoned the owner and Atim found herself with an appointment letter and a bank account! It was almost five months since she had come to Delhi and she could now begin her life as a migrant worker, although she did not know what a ‘migrant worker’ meant. There was no such word in the Tangkhul language.

Atim discovered that the shop sold many varieties of organic tea. She had no idea what ‘organic’ meant. When she found out, she suddenly realised why the vegetables in Delhi tasted so awful in comparison to the vegetables grown in the kitchen gardens in Ukhrul.

She had to learn to package different kinds of tea in lovely wooden boxes, then wrap them in handmade paper and put little green dot stickers to indicate that they were vegetarian products. It felt like being back in school with lessons to be learnt every day.

In addition, there were the pashmina shawls that were ever so soft. Atim could not believe that the cheapest cost Rs 25,000. Her co-workers had shown her how the entire shawl could be passed through a finger ring—it was like magic.

A few days after joining, as she entered the hotel lobby, she was distracted by a commotion. Right in front of her was Dino Morea, the actor she so admired. Atim had seen a film of his in Ukhrul called Raaz. That evening she returned home bursting with enthusiasm. When she told Lemyaola about the incident she was told that it was ‘a useless story’.

Every day Atim was learning something new. She learnt how to embellish pashmina shawls and scarves with Swarovski crystals. It was a delicate task and she had to be careful. But with this, the price of the shawl went up several times. Atim’s greatest achievement was when she sold a shawl costing Rs 35,000.

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