‘Tired of staring at the wall’: Labourer brothers confined in 10×10 room in Thane slum

Rai had come to Mumbai 20 years ago to work as a cook. Now he works at a cake-box manufacturing unit during the day. After 6 pm, he works as a caretaker at a Mulund playground a synthetic turf has been laid on it recently.

For the last nine days, Digambar Rai, a 37-year-old migrant worker from Bihar, and his brother Dinesh have not left their 10×10 room in Thane’s Warlipada slum. “I am tired of staring at the wall,” he says.

The 100-square foot room, its roof made of asbestos sheets, stands on the mezzanine floor of a one-plus-one structure. Its cooking area, a small washing area and a cupboard fills up most of the space, leaving little room for the brothers to stretch out. “There is no space to move, so we just keep changing our sitting positions all day. It reminds me of the scenes from movies where people are locked in jail. The only difference is that we have our mobile phones and are can look at something or the other on them to kill our time,” Rai says.

Rai had come to Mumbai 20 years ago to work as a cook. Now he works at a cake-box manufacturing unit during the day. After 6 pm, he works as a caretaker at a Mulund playground a synthetic turf has been laid on it recently. From the two jobs, he makes between Rs 15,000 and Rs 17,000 a month. While both his employers have sent him on a “leave” after the 21-day nationwide lockdown was announced, Rai hopes to get a salary at the month-end. “This is the first time that I have heard that word: lockdown,” he says.

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Until last week, the two men were sharing the room with their younger brother Umesh. On March 19, just two days before Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced a lockdown across Maharashtra, Umesh had taken a train back to Bihar after his employer had asked him to go on a “long leave” citing the COVID-19 outbreak.

Rai and Dinesh, however, had assumed that they could go back to work once the “Janta Curfew” – announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 22 ended. Two days later, when the Prime Minister announced a countrywide lockdown from March 25, the brothers say the decision to stay on had become their biggest regret.

“My wife and two children, and Rai’s family (wife and three children) are in Bihar, and I want to go back to them,” says Dinesh with a grim look on his face. “It’s a torture to be locked inside in such a small room all day.” He works with a wholesale dealer of mobile phones and he is also on “leave” since the lockdown was announced.

By the time they wake up around 8.30 am, it is already stifling hot inside the room. The only time the brothers step out is in the evening to buy vegetables. “Our landlord has a shop on the ground floor from where we get milk and other groceries. We step out to buy vegetables in the evening and return within 15 minutes,” Rai says. Two days ago, when Dinesh had gone to buy vegetables in a nearby market, police reportedly were canning people for violating lockdown orders. “Many people had stepped out of their homes that day, and the police came charging at everyone. Luckily, I was not beaten, but I am scared now. I just go downstairs and return as soon as I can,” he says.

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With the temperature steadily rising, the brothers wonder how they will sustain themselves in April. Pointing at his vest soaked in sweat under his T-shirt, Rai says, “We usually have a wet cloth around to wipe our sweat. But we are also ensuring that we don’t overuse the wet cloth as there is a fear of catching a cold, which we cannot afford these days.”

Despite home isolation, Rai says there is no certainty that they were safe from contamination – the brothers use a common bathroom with many others slum dwellers, and often their shoulders brush with others while crossing the narrow lanes here.

“Hum toh nahane ke badh bhi ghar aakar fir se do baar haath dhote hai (after taking bath, we come home and again wash our hands properly),” Rai says. “We are taking all the precaution of wearing masks and using sanitisers, but if somebody in the slums gets infected then I cannot even imagine what will happen.”

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