As I took my seat in Coromandal Express at Chennai Central station to go to Calcutta two months ago, I found 4 young boys between the ages of 18 and 25, already in the compartment stuffing a lot of luggage under the seat where I had my berth. They were my co-passengers in the same compartment for the next 28 hours. Though I was annoyed initially since they did not leave any place for me to keep my bag, I was a bit comforted when I heard them speak Bengali, as I am from Calcutta Province and I loved speaking in Bengali. In a typical Indian way, after some arguments when the train started moving, we struck conversation with each other quickly and I began enquiring, where they had gone and how long they were in South India. I was surprised to hear one of them say that they were around 20 of them from West Bengal travelling together in the same train in different compartments and all of them were returning home in the remote villages of Murshidabad and Bankura districts after six months of working in Kerala.
Tarun, one of them said that he went to Kerala three years ago, since there was nothing to hope for in his village and the situation of the family at that time needed him to work to support them immediately. He had then finished class nine in his village. He is now a daily labourer in the construction industry in Trivandrum and he earns between Rs. 300 and 350 a day (around US $ 7-8) and saves scrupulously most of it and sends home in order to support his younger sister and his sickly father, while keeping the overtime earning for his own expenses. He says that he has purchased some land in the village and has constructed a small house for the family. He and his companions were in praise of the state of Kerala for its development and see Kerala as their ‘Dubai’.
Mukul, Tarun’s cousin who has been to Kerala only six months ago, still feels home sick and says that he can’t stomach the ubiquitous use of coconut oil and longs for his favourite mustard oil and ‘muri masala’ (puffed rice mixed with mustard oil and other ingredients).
Tarun says that there are thousands of Bengalis working in Kerala especially in Trivandrum and Ernakulam mainly at construction sites as daily labourers, carpenters, masons and also at small restaurants and hotels as cooks and cleaners. What they are satisfied with most is that there is no dearth of job, with wages paid in time and at least three times more than what they would normally earn in their own places in West Bengal. They said that they don’t have to spend much money in Kerala if they fall sick, since the government provides free medical assistance and the employers are also good in taking care of them, which they would never find in West Bengal.
As the train entered West Bengal, I noticed a sudden excitement in them of home coming. After a long conversation and comparison of both the states – West Bengal and Kerala – slowly our conversations became more personal and they began to narrate about all that they had purchased for their near and dear ones back home. Tarun, who had by then became quite friendly with me, with a little smile on his face announced, “I prefer to stay back in Kerala forever and I want to marry a girl from there,” though he adds he has not found anyone as yet.
Xavier Jeyaraj SJ, Delhi, India