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Mamma – I am coming home

January 2, 2010

Habib Hussain eyed the mammoth Air India AirbusA-330 from the corner of his eyes. The desert sun was beating down his back mercilessly and the blue plastic overalls that identified him as a loader on international flights at the Medina airport, made the heat almost unbearable. Lately the number of flights had increased as it was the month of Ramadan, but these would reduce as the holy month was at its fag end. This was one of the last Air India special Hajj flights back home. The smell of the Airbus made him home sick. The blighted Air India flights look different, he mused. This is the closest to home, which was in Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, that he would get for a long time, he knew. Habib climbed the stairs to the Airbus A-330 and tentatively entered the lavatory, holding his identity card that allowed him through to the airplanes. His mouth was parched and he was shaking. He hadn’t had had anything to eat for the past two days, not because he was fasting for Ramadan, but because his employer had not paid him for months. He had on him, however, some Riyals that he had saved from the little they had given him. He had pocketed all his savings, which was not much, just a few ten Riyal notes, into his working overalls this morning before coming for work. Not that he had planned anything, but just on a whim. Maybe at the back of his mind ……

He shut and locked the lavatory from the inside, sat on his haunches, and cried. He had come to Saudi Arabia with a lot of hope. Had sold the couple of bigha of family land, his buffaloes and had managed to make it to Saudi Arabia – the el-Dorado, or so they told him. The broker had charged more than a hundred thousand rupees to get him a job in Medina. His friends had told him that he would easily be able to earn all that he had spent on his passage to Saudi Arabia and would be able to send back money to his old mother and his family in Moradabad. It was only on reaching Saudi Arabia that reality dawned on him. His employer had taken away his passport and he was made to work for 13 to 15 hours every day, living in a smelly shanty – fifteen men in a small room with a common lavatory some distance away. Off days were few and far between. He had a few friends in Medina who were from India but he had come here to earn money. And money was nowhere in sight. The few times he had asked for his salary, he was beaten black and blue by the thugs who were on the payroll of the employer. He slept many a nights on an empty stomach. He called his mother back in Moradabad and told her of his plight. She told him to come back home. But he had no passport now. He knew he was in a bind. He had looked at the mirror and called himself – a slave. Yes, that is what they had made him – a slave. A slave of a foreign employer, who made him work, flogged him and his coworkers when they asked for money and threw food at them as they would to their dogs. A slave in a foreign land in the twenty first century! He could not believe what had happened to him.  He wanted to get back home. He wanted to get back to his village, run in the fields with daughter Shereen, 5 and son Ayaan, 2 – be with his wife of six years Humsari, sit under the village banyan tree and bathe in the nearby well. Yes, he wanted to get back to Milaq Muhammad Jawapur, his village and perhaps go to school even now, at the age of twenty five. He had always avoided studies. If only he had headed the voice of the village elders and learned to read and write. He again started shaking as his mind wandered to his home and the face of his mother and his kids danced in front of his eyes. He sat down slowly, without making any noise. This plane was going home. He cautiously began to clean the lavatory.

Sound of people boarding the plane could be heard now. They were talking in Hindustani. One woman even sounded like his mother. Habib could not gather the courage to open the door and look at the woman who sounded so much like his mother. He did not want to get off the plane and walk out. If he walked out, he will be back in the hell that had been his home in Medina for the past six months. He did not want to go back. He stayed inside the lavatory. A look outside the window told him that the plane had started to taxi. Now it was too late for him to get down, he knew. He had made his choice. He had chosen to try for freedom – freedom from repression, hunger and laanat (disrespect). He had turned his back on his employers who were supposed to be his benefactors but who really were blood sucking monsters who had treated him worse than an animal. Through his tears sprang a faint smile, maybe he will get back home. How happy his mother would be! How his kids would dance with joy!! He could not bear to hear his mother cry over the phone last time he had called her. Mamma, I am coming…… I am coming home.

He heard someone try the door from the outside. He kept still. The plane had been flying for some time now. He knew that he could not stay inside the lavatory all through the four hour long flight. He had been around long enough to know that the crew could open it from the outside and find him anyway. He had to get out and try and mingle with the passengers. That was his only chance and hope. He prayed silently that no one notices him once he gets out. When the plane lands in Jaipur he would see what he could do, perhaps try and escape by climbing the airport walls. He had taken his chances – he had to make a break. He buttoned his overalls and caressed the the few Riyal notes he had in his pocket. These few currency notes was all he had. He gingerly closed his palm around his identity card that gave him access to the Airbus, called out to Allah almost in a whisper, unlocked the door hesitantly and peered outside. Luckily, there was no one in the passage way. He got out, closed the lavatory door and slowly walked to an empty seat at the rear without looking anyone in the eye, and sat down. Heads turned and people looked at him in wonderment. There was a commotion in the plane. The passengers pointed him out, hollering as to who was he. He looked at himself and saw that he was still wearing the cheap, blue plastic working overalls that his company had given him. He had missed a trick when he failed to take them off and leave them in the lavatory. The overalls made him stand out. He was a stowaway and everyone could see that. He began to shake uncontrollably and all his pent up emotions came out like the flooded Ganges during the rainy season. He broke down.

The stewardess came to him and the passengers surrounded him. He told his story. The aircraft crew started discussing whether to turn back to Medina or keep going towards Jaipur. They were out of Saudi Arabian airspace and going back would be tedious, besides Habib would be in trouble if they turned back, they reasoned. And he did not seem to be a threat at all. The captain and the crew decided to carry on towards India. Habib took a sigh of relief. Had they decided to go back to Medina he would have been dead meat. He could only imagine what they would have done to him. He broke into a smile. Mamma, I am coming home.

Note: Stowaway, Habib Hussain has since been taken into custody by Jaipur police and has been interrogated. The airlines staff has been pulled up for the oversight. Habib faces five months of imprisonment as per the Indian Penal Code. If he is thrown into prison it will be going by the letter and not the spirit of the law. If the Indian system has any human dimension to its law, they would not only let Habib go home right-away but also ensure that his Saudi employers return his passport that they have illegally confiscated, and get him his dues for the time he has worked. There are many a Habib’s slogging it out in the Gulf. The government should take up the issue of rights of Indian expatriate workers with the Saudi foreign office. They could begin by telling them that India will send just about anyone as ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and not necessarily a Muslim, as they demand unashamedly and we acquiesce meekly.

Update 07.01.2010: Habib Hussain has been granted bail and has been let off. He has been charged only for passport violation. I hope the Indian government takes up the issue of expatriate Indians in the Gulf with their Middle Eastern counterparts and in Habib’s case ensure he gets back his passport and his unpaid salary. His employers should compensate him for the inhuman treatment meted out, but I guess that will be too much to expect from a toothless government like the one we have in New Delhi.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. arun permalink
    January 28, 2010 9:28 am

    A very sensitive recreation of the plight of thousands of helpless Indians stuck in foreign lands. shows that the writer is not only very well read and aware about international affairs, but is also a very sensitive human being!! this is a rare combination… I thoroughly enjoy the blog. it has diverse topics, which makes it interesting and readable.

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