Put yourself in their shoes

migrant-girl-slipper The migrant girl tries on the slippers given to her by volunteers of Karwan-e-Mohabbat

For me, the first 56 days of the national lockdown was a housebound saga of domestic and feline crises, heartache, pandemic-induced anxiety and social-media-addiction. Basically, a comatose mind. I also undertook a two-day long road trip, from Mumbai to Delhi, to see my mother who had fractured her shoulder. Once I got my bearings at home, free from my single-existence angst in Mumbai, I could no longer ignore that niggling feeling I had been having since the day reports and images of migrants walking home surfaced. I felt ashamed to be in the safety and comfort of my home when lakhs of people were being forced into hardship and arduous barefoot journeys to their villages. I decided I must participate in some relief effort and I scoured social media to see what kind of work was being undertaken.

I made a few calls and spoke to some on-ground volunteers to see what kind of intervention I could help in. What did they need? Donations to arrange buses, food packets, grains, sanitary napkins, train tickets? “Ma’am we have all that,” said Nitesh Pandey of Pushti Foundation, “But there is one thing you can do!”

“What?” I asked in anticipation.

“Arrange for slippers.”

The migrant crisis is the most shameful story of our time, and the broken slippers and blistered feet of lakhs of migrant workers expose the negligence of the state toward its most vulnerable citizens.

I can do this, I thought. I began to look for leads to reach the marketing teams or owners of shoe brands. Contribute shoes, slippers, or any footwear suitable for walking, in mixed sizes, for men, women and children, I requested. #DoOurBit, I put hashtags in text messages.

Action Shoes, Athleo Shoes and Relaxo (upon Salman Khan’s recommendation) kindly agreed to supply us with footwear. The first stock came from Action and Athleo. I joined the committed volunteers of Karwan-e-Mohabbat in distributing the shoes.

On a hot Delhi summer afternoon we set out in search of migrants. “I got a message that there are 3,000 migrants waiting in Lajpat Nagar for fitness test,” said a volunteer. “But we have only 500 pairs of shoes.” So, debating and discussing, we began to search for smaller groups. Our first stop was outside Khanpur bus depot, where a hapless group of 40 had been squatting on the pavement for the past four days because they had heard (wrongly) that buses for UP were departing from there. The moment we asked them a few questions, one of the chattiest of them teared up and said, “Koi nahi aayaa (No one came to ask after us.)” We began to distribute some food packets, drinking water and shoes.

Our next stop was under a flyover near Anand Vihar Bus Terminal. Scores of suitcases and bags lined the edge of the pavement and hundreds of people sat in small groups. We unloaded our boxes of shoes, sanitary napkins and food packets. Within minutes a curious crowd gathered. Women and men started angling for shoes. Sizes didn’t fit. We pulled out more shoes. A little girl, aged 11 or 12, came up—her current slippers one desperate vulcanised bind away from tatters. “Chappal,” she held out her hand. I handed her an approximate size. She tried it on, it didn’t fit. It is big, she stated firmly. One of the sweating volunteers turned to her and said, “Thheek hai (It is fine.)”

She crossed her arms and shook her head and said emphatically, “Nahi. Thheek nahi hai. Hum gir jaayengey (No, it’s not fine. I will fall.)” I looked at the girl, turned back to the boxes and dug out another size. “Yeh dekh (Check this.)”

The girl took the shoes and laid it on the dusty pavement, then delicately slipped her feet into them. I waited. It fit! She looked at me with bright black eyes. We both smiled. She skipped away and melted into the crowd.

I looked around at the desperate people, let down by a state criminally negligent of their fragile existence and I marvelled at the girl’s spirit.

Never settle for less, my little one. Find the shoe that fits. Be your own Cinderella. Instead of a prince, find your dream.

The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.