Sometime in October 2006. Air India flight from Singapore to Chennai.
“Sir, help please.. form fill up” – this was what I could hear. Next I saw a man all of 30 , in unkempt clothes and clutching a bag, thrusting an ‘Immigration Form’.
This was a common request. Nothing special about it. The persons who would request would be manual or semi skilled workers who would be on their way to Chennai ( India ) from Singapore. Usually these are the people whom I chat with just to know about their background and what they were up to.
The only difference this time was that this person who had thrust the papers on me had only two fingers in his right hand and hence was not able to write on this own. Apparently the fingers had been damaged beyond recognition while working in a metal cutting machine. And so he was returning back to India as he was unfit to work.
He had been in Singapore just for two months and had paid close to 2,00,000 Rupees to a broker to secure him a job in Singapore. Now he was returning home in great debt and after suffering a great loss.
“What are you going to do after going home?” I ask.
“Sir, some porter kind of work. Luggage loading kind of jobs”, he says.
Some time in December 2008. Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Chennai.
“Sir, form fill up. Help please”.Had gotten used to these and was anticipating a request. I was returning to Chennai from Tokyo.
This time, the guy was a soft spoken impoverished Indian laborer. He was travelling from Singapore to Chennai.
“Why come to KL?”, I ask. Apparently Singapore-Chennai route is more expensive than Singapore-KL-Chennai route. So he had chosen that route.
Further inquiries reveal that he was going back after 4 years. And he has a wife and child waiting for him in a remote village of Andhra Pradesh ( a state near Chennai in India ). And he has been married for the last 4 years.
“What? “, I am dumbfounded. “When did you get married?”, I ask.
“Sir, marriage in October 2004. I come to Singapore in December 2004 and going back now after 4 years”. He is visibly moved. So am I. This guy has been with his wife for 2 months and had gone to Singapore for work and after 4 years is returning back home to see his child for the first time.
“What is your plan? Are you bringing your family back to Singapore?”, I ask.
“No Sir, I cannot. My visa does not allow that. So I will come back to Singapore in another one month all alone”. He breaks down completely now. Not wishing to probe him further, I remain silent thinking about how poverty kills families.
Sometime in May 2012. Tiger Airways Flight from Singapore to Chennai.
This time I meet another Indian national who is on his way to Chennai to undergo some technical training in a construction related trade.. He works for a construction firm in Singapore. As usual, I ask his plans and he opens up thus :
“Anna, after the training in Chennai I will again come to Singapore and look for a better job. I have to repay a debt of 3,00,000 Rupees , the loan I had taken to marry off my sister. My parents are no more and hence have to take care of my sister.”
“How about your marriage?”, I ask, in typical Indian tradition.
“Not planned yet, Anna. First I have to close this loan and later have to work for some years to get ready for marriage”. ( ‘Anna’ in Tamil means ‘Elder Brother’)
Fortunately these interactions have helped me stay on level ground while at the same time opening my eyes to the other side of the world where people with lesser opportunities for education often end up in situations where they end up in debt either for themselves or for the sake of their families.
I sincerely hope these three persons were not part of the mob that indulged in arson under the influence of alcohol last Sunday in Singapore and ended up behind bars.