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Mohammad Saiyub at his friend Amrit Kumar's grave in Devari village, Uttar Pradesh, where they grew up. (Vivek Singh/The New York Times) Image Credit:

Somebody took a photograph on the side of a highway in India.

On a clearing of baked earth, a lithe, athletic man holds his friend in his lap. A red bag and a half empty bottle of water are at his side. The first man is leaning over his friend like a canopy, his face is anxious and his eyes searching his friend’s face for signs of life.

The man is small and wiry, in a light green T-shirt and a faded pair of jeans. He is sick, and seems barely conscious. His hair is soaked and sticking to his scalp, a sparse stubble lines the deathlike pallor of his face, his eyes are closed, and his darkened lips are half parted. The lid of the water bottle is open. His friend’s cupped hand is about to pour some water on his feverish, dehydrated lips.

I saw this photo in May, as it was travelling across Indian social media. News stories filled in some of the details: It was taken on May 15 on the outskirts of Kolaras, a small town in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

The two young men were childhood friends: Mohammad Saiyub, a 22-year-old Muslim, and Amrit Kumar, a 24-year-old Dalit, which refers to former “untouchables,” who have suffered the greatest violence and discrimination under the centuries-old Hindu caste system.

A moment preserved in a picture

Over the next few weeks, I found myself returning to that moment preserved and isolated by the photograph. I came across some details about their lives in the Indian press: The boys came from a small village called Devari in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

They had been working in Surat, a city on the West Coast, and were making their way home, part of a mass migration that began when the Indian government ordered a national lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Despite our image-saturated times, the photograph began assuming greater meanings for me.

For the past six years, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party took power, it has seemed as if a veil covering India’s basest impulses has been removed. The ideas of civility, grace and tolerance were replaced by triumphalist displays of prejudice, sexism, hate speech and abuse directed at women, minorities and liberals.

This culture of vilification dominates India’s television networks, social media and the immensely popular mobile messaging service WhatsApp. When you do come across acts of kindness and compassion, they seem to be documented and calibrated to serve the gods of exhibitionism and self-promotion.

The photograph of Amrit and Saiyub came like a gentle rain from heaven on India’s hate-filled public sphere. The gift of friendship and trust it captured filled me with a certain sadness, as it felt so rare. I felt compelled to find out more about their lives and journeys.

On a June morning, I left New Delhi for Devari. The highway was unusually empty. I passed hulking grey towers — tens of thousands of unfinished apartments, monuments to the broken dreams of middle-class home buyers.

The landscape morphed into a monotonous expanse of paddies and drab small towns off the new, impressive highway. I passed an exit sign for Aligarh, a town where I had spent five years at an old public university in the ‘90s. A voice on the radio promised a glorious future to prospective students at a new, private university. I knew those operations; they took your money and years and left you unprepared for the world.

To travel through a landscape that played a part in shaping you is to also travel through the layers of memories, to revisit the concerns and debates of an earlier life.

Criss-crossing a country

I thought of my journeys as a reporter in the 2000s on these roads — the debates about India’s economic growth, the comparisons of its newfound wealth and inequality to the Roaring Twenties in the United States, the debates about equal distribution of opportunity, equal citizenship and the campaigns against the violence of the caste system.

This time of hope and aspiration gave way to an aggressive Hindu majoritarianism and strident nationalism with the 2014 election of Modi. Within a few years, even his electoral promises of economic growth proved to be a mirage.

As the highway crossed a massive bridge over the Sarayu River and past the paddy-green fields and stacks of dried dung cakes, I could see the outlines of the temple town of Ayodhya, where in 1992 a Hindu mob destroyed a 16th-century mosque because they believed it had been built on the exact birthplace of Rama, the Hindu deity.

Modi’s party campaigned for building Rama’s temple on the disputed site for decades. In November, the Supreme Court of India cleared the way for the temple to be built there, another step toward transforming India into a majoritarian Hindu state. Next week, Modi will lay its foundation stone.

Along with his devotion to the Hindu nationalist project, a consistent feature of Modi’s rule has been his penchant for dramatic policy decisions — on everything from Kashmir to currency — without serious consideration of their effects.

That trait was starkly illustrated by the imposition of a lockdown on March 24, which forced factories, businesses, offices and educational institutions to close with only four hours’ notice, at a time when India had a mere 600 coronavirus cases compared to the 1.58 million now.

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Migrant workers walking to their villages after the Indian government imposed a hasty lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak in the country. REUTERS

The lockdown struck India’s poor like a hammer. An overwhelming majority of workers — more than 92 per cent — lead precarious lives, getting paid after each day’s work, with no written contracts or job security, no paid leave or health care benefits. Most had left distant villages to work in Indian cities. Living in Dickensian tenements, they would remit a significant share of their earnings to sustain their families back home.

Within weeks of the lockdown, multitudes who had been employed at construction sites and brick kilns, in mines and factories, in hotels and restaurants or as street vendors couldn’t pay rent or buy enough to eat.

The only place that would offer them shelter and share what it had was the village, the home they had left. The Indian government, seeking to contain the spread of the virus, tried to stop them from leaving the cities, shutting down trains and buses.

The poor defied the government and hundreds of thousands walked or caught rides to their villages: the first wave of coronavirus “refugees” in the world.

Between April and June, the images of India’s poor workers returning to their villages evoked comparisons to the great migration accompanying the Partition of India in 1947. It reminded me more of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and the farmers of Oklahoma leaving the Dust Bowl to seek a future in California, except the Indian workers were fleeing their Californias for their impoverished villages.

Among the millions of migrant workers who made the desperate journey home were Amrit and Saiyub. They were trying to reach Devari, about 920 miles away. It was Modi’s decision that brought them to that patch of baked earth by the highway.

About an hour from Ayodhya

I got off the highway. I met Saiyub in a bazaar a few miles from his village and he led the way on his scooter. Devari is a smattering of mud and brick homes amid a few miles of sugar cane and rice fields, children loitering about, cows and buffaloes lazing under mahua trees. A visitor can fall for the romance of pastoral community, but an Indian village is a hard place.

The immense expanses of land in rural India might suggest plenty, but most land holdings in Indian villages are incredibly small. The yield of wheat, rice and mustard does not fetch enough to sustain a family through the year. Saiyub’s family owns a third of an acre, which will be divided between three brothers when his father dies. Amrit’s family owns even less: one-twelfth of an acre.

Saiyub and I sat on plastic chairs in the courtyard of his modest home. Three goats reclined on a charpoy, a bed woven on a frame, nearby. He had been in fifth grade when his father, a farmer, developed a severe back problem and couldn’t work. Two of his older brothers left for Mumbai to find work.

He helped with the chores at home, attended his school indifferently and hung out with Amrit, who lived a few minutes away. Interfaith friendships in India are not as uncommon as the regnant political discourse might suggest.

Amrit was the first to go. His father, Ram Charan, had struggled to make enough from farming and working on construction sites to raise his five children, and could no longer bear the hard labour. So Amrit dropped out of high school and went to Surat to find work.

Surat is a mercantile city close to the Arabian Sea shore in Gujarat, an ancient port, a major hub for India’s textile industry and the largest diamond polishing and processing Centre in the world. The city of 4.5 million people employs hundreds of thousands of workers. Amrit found a job in a factory manufacturing cloth and saris.

'I will find you a job'

Every year, when the factory closed for the Diwali holidays, Amrit would come back to visit. The friends would walk about the village, Saiyub told me. He was working construction at the time, whenever there was an opportunity. Amrit spoke about the factory, urging his friend to move to the city. “I will find you a job in Surat,” Amrit promised.

Precise numbers are hard to arrive at, but scholars of urbanisation and migration estimate that India has more than a 100 million migrant workers. The majority come from the impoverished northern Indian states which, like the American Rust Belt, have suffered decades of decline. They find work in the manufacturing and services powerhouses in western India, the national capital region of Delhi and increasingly the fast-growing states in southern India.

India migrants
Mohammad Saiyub grieved alone in the quarantine ward for two days, unable to see his deceased friend. Image Credit: Vivek Singh for The New York Times

“Way back from the 1960s Indian government policies encouraged industry in the western and southern areas — India’s major capitalists came from those regions and preferred investing there,” said Rathin Roy, one of India’s leading economists. “Most politicians in the north were rural folk who saw the few pockets of industry as sites for rent-seeking.”

For Saiyub, migrating to a city wasn’t much of a choice. In the winter of 2015, he left the village with Amrit. After a 36-hour train journey from the nearby town of Basti, they arrived in Surat. They rented a room together for 2,000 rupees, or about $27, a month near Amrit’s factory. A few days later, Saiyub got a job, with Amrit’s help, at a factory that produced thread.

Saiyub started his work at 7am, stopped for a lunch break and continued till 7pm. “We would go home for an hour, eat dinner and return at 8pm.” He worked another four hours till midnight, returning to his room to sleep for six hours, before setting out for the factory again. I was struck by the 16 hour shifts, but he brushed that off. “We could stop for a bit. It is not that bad.”

On his arrival in Surat, Saiyub had some apprehensions about being Muslim and working in Gujarat, Modi’s home state and the strongest bastion of Hindu nationalism. Throughout the five years he spent there, he read the news of attacks on Muslims in India but avoided speaking about politics in the factory. “Nobody bothered me,” he said. “I did my job. I got paid.”

Getting on with life

On Sundays, Amrit and Saiyub washed their clothes, walked around the city, and watched films and news on their phones. “Amrit bought a speaker and we lay on our beds and listened to music,” said Saiyub.

They made about 15,000 rupees or $200 a month each and wired most of it home to their parents. Amrit’s family was able to upgrade from a shack to a one-room brick house with a veranda and he was trying to save enough for his sister’s wedding in the fall.

On Mar. 25, the morning after Modi announced the lockdown, the factory owners told the workers the factories would close. They wouldn’t be paid while the factories remained shut. Saiyub’s boss gave everyone rice and lentils and about 1,500 rupees, about $20. Amrit’s boss offered his workers rice and lentils, but no cash.

Saiyub and Amrit resigned themselves to the situation and stayed in their room most of the time, stepping out briefly to buy vegetables or something else from a grocery store. “We talked a lot and watched videos on our phones,” he said. “Amrit spoke a lot about his sister’s wedding.”

They watched the news of the explosion of the pandemic in India. The dispatches were grim: Workers protesting about lack of food and demanding to be allowed to return home; police in Surat beating and arresting protesting workers; workers walking home in desperation; bodies of people dying of the coronavirus being tossed into hastily dug graves; cases rising steadily despite the lockdown being extended; and even middle-class Indians, who live in spacious homes and can bear the cost of treatment at private hospitals, being turned away from hospitals overflowing with patients and lacking beds and ventilators.

The Indian government spends just a little over 1 per cent of its gross domestic product on health care, one of the lowest rates in the world. Subsidised health care benefits are also tied to a citizen’s domicile, their village, meaning many migrant workers couldn’t use them. Treatment costs because of an illness push more than 63 million Indians into poverty every year.

Getting home

“We had to get home,” said Saiyub.

On May 1, after intense public criticism for ignoring the migrant worker exodus, the Indian government started operations of the state-owned railway network to transport workers. Amrit and Saiyub spoke to a travel agent to help them get two seats on the trains going to Basti or Gorakhpur, the stations closest to their village. They paid him. Two weeks passed but they could not get a spot. The travel agent promised to call the moment he had their seats booked.

Fifty-one days into the lockdown on May 14, the two friends were restless, running out of savings and certain that they needed to get home somehow. Amrit met some workers from their region in Uttar Pradesh who had negotiated with a truck driver to drive them home. They would have to pay 4,000 Indian rupees, or $53, each. They agreed.

The truck driver would wait for the workers at a secluded spot on NH-48, the highway, which they would follow north. The two friends packed a bag each, locked their room and set out at 9pm. They walked 15 miles through the humid night with about 60 other workers to the designated place on the highway and waited. The truck arrived at 2am.

The workers completely filled the bed of the truck, packed together like sheep. Twelve men were still left, Amrit and Saiyub among them. They were asked to climb into a balcony-like space above the driver’s seat. The journey began. “We could feel the breeze and we were going home,” Saiyub recalled. They caught snatches of sleep while sitting cramped together and repeated their conversations about the pandemic, the loss of work and the solace of home.

The morning came. The truck groaned on through Madhya Pradesh, the huge state in Central India best known outside the country as home to the forests and wildlife parks that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Around noon they were passing by Kolaras, when Amrit turned to Saiyub.

“I am feeling cold,” he said. “I have a fever.” Saiyub suggested they keep an eye on the road and stop the truck when they spotted a pharmacy. The truck droned on. Amrit was shivering, his temperature rising. They climbed down to the bed of the truck to shade Amrit from the wind.

A little later, cramped in a corner among about 50 other workers, Amrit started coughing and sweating. Their fellow passengers were alarmed and cries of protest rose: “He is coughing. He has a fever. He has corona.” The voices turned angrier: “We are running home to save ourselves from corona.” “He will infect us all.” “We don’t want to die because of him.”

India migrant
For Amrit’s parents, the future is uncertain. “He was all we had,” said his father, Ram Charan Image Credit: Vivek Singh for The New York Times

Not ready to lose time

The driver stopped the truck. The passengers and the driver insisted that Amrit get off. Saiyub asked the driver to stop at a hospital. The driver and the workers were uncertain about the lockdown rules and weren’t ready to lose any time for Amrit. They refused and insisted Amrit get off right there.

“Let him go. You should come home with us,” the driver told Saiyub.

“I couldn’t let Amrit be alone,” he said. Saiyub picked up their bags and helped Amrit off the truck.

A blinding 109-degree afternoon sun baked the road the fields, the trees in the distance. They sat in the clearing by the highway. Scores of workers went past, following the highway toward their homes.

A politician arrived with a few cars and distributed food and water. Saiyub rushed and collected a few bottles of water. Amrit babbled incoherently; his temperature rose. “I was holding him and he was burning,” Saiyub recalled. He poured water over Amrit’s head but his body wasn’t cooling down.

Saiyub walked to the politician and begged him to call an ambulance. The politician made a call. Saiyub waited, cradling Amrit in his lap, wiping his forehead with a wet handkerchief and pouring handfuls of water on his lips. In that moment, somebody took a photograph of the two friends.

An ambulance arrived and drove them to a small hospital in Kolaras. A doctor found that Amrit had low blood sugar, a high temperature and feared he had suffered a heat stroke. He tried oral rehydration therapy to revive Amrit, whose consciousness was fading.

A few hours later, they transferred Amrit to a better equipped hospital in Shivpuri, a town about 15 miles away, where he was diagnosed with severe dehydration. “The doctors moved him into the Intensive Care Unit,” Saiyub recalled.

India under lockdown

He called Amrit’s father. In the village, the news of his son’s collapse shook Ram Charan. He conferred with his family and set out for Basti, the town where the government officials who administer the district were based. The coronavirus lockdown in Uttar Pradesh forbade people from travelling without official permission.

Ram Charan requested from officials a “pass” that would allow him to travel to the hospital to meet his son. They turned him away.

Saiyub stayed with Amrit in the I.C.U. The doctors tested the two friends for coronavirus, sent their samples to a laboratory and put Amrit on a ventilator. In the evening, they moved Saiyub to a quarantine ward. “I was not allowed to leave the quarantine ward and see Amrit till our corona results would come,” he said.

Sleep eluded Saiyub and nightmarish scenarios haunted him: He thought of the reports of strangers burying the bodies of people dying of coronavirus, tossing them into impromptu graves dug by backhoes. If Amrit died in the hospital, how would he take his body home? How would he face Amrit’s parents, who had no financial support beyond their son’s earnings?

“Around 3 in the morning, I felt terribly sad,” Saiyub recalled. “I felt that Amrit, my friend, my brother was not in this world anymore.”

In the morning, on May 16, a nurse came to the quarantine ward and confirmed his fear. Amrit had died of severe dehydration. A doctor joined a little later, and asked Saiyub to inform Amrit’s family of his death, ask them to collect his body. “His family can’t come here,” he replied. “I will take him home.”

The doctors moved Amrit’s body to the hospital morgue, where it would have to wait till the results of their coronavirus tests arrived. Saiyub grieved alone in the quarantine ward for two days, unable to see his deceased friend. He received several calls from officials who administered Shivpuri, the district where the hospital was located.

The officials in Amrit and Saiyub’s home district in Basti in Uttar Pradesh had made it clear to the Shivpuri officials that they would not allow Amrit’s body to enter Basti district or his village if he tested positive for Covid-19. They had urged them to cremate him in Shivpuri itself.

For two days, Saiyub repeated a single prayer: “Ya Allah! When the results arrive let me and Amrit test negative for corona.”

On the afternoon of May 18 the reports came from a laboratory: Both the friends had tested negative. In the evening, after a few hours of paperwork, Saiyub was allowed to return home with Amrit’s body.

The final journey

An ambulance was ready. “The freezer they had kept him had not been working,” he said. Amrit’s body had discoloured, turned black, his skin and flesh was peeling off. “He was already smelling.”

Saiyub sat beside his friend’s body in the ambulance and they left. He feared Amrit’s parents wouldn’t be able to bear the sight of their son’s decomposing body. “I called his father. He agreed that I should take him straight to the graveyard in the village.” Most Hindus cremate their deceased family members but some Dalits like Amrit’s family bury their dead.

The ambulance drove on. Saiyub ignored the numerous calls he was getting from friends and family in the village and stayed in silence beside his friend throughout the nightlong journey.

About half a mile from Amrit’s home in Devari, the Dalit graveyard is a single acre of land lush green with wild grass and shaded by mahua trees. Amrit was buried there. The plain brown mound of earth about six feet long and three feet wide has no tombstone.

Saiyub walked home from the graveyard. A little later, his phone rang. The travel agent from Surat was on the line. “I have got tickets for Amrit and you,” he said. “The train for your village leaves tomorrow.”

Five weeks had passed since they buried Amrit when I met Saiyub in the village. He was living with his parents, surviving off their meagre savings. There was no work in the village for him. He worried more about the fate of Amrit’s family: his parents, his four teenage sisters, his 12-year-old brother.

The home Amrit had helped build with his remittances is a small rectangle of brick walls: two rooms and a raised platform open to the elements.

A buffalo and a cow were tied to their pegs beside the house. A few bales of cotton were stacked outside the bedroom; his mother and sisters turn them into quilts for a vendor. Twigs of brushwood lie around a mud oven used for cooking.

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Amrit Kumar’s photograph from the Diwali holidays in 2016, hanging on a wall in his parents’ house Image Credit: Vivek Singh for The New York Times

The last image

The sole adornment was a framed photograph of Amrit on a wall, a picture taken during the festival of Diwali in the winter of 2016. He is posing in a photo studio against the backdrop of a landscaped garden by water. His eyes are bright, purposeful against his boyish face.

His polka dot shirt, his drainpipe denims, a smartphone daintily held in his right hand are a statement of confidence and social mobility. His years of toil in a faraway city had helped the poor Dalit boy earn a modicum of freedom from the poverty, humiliation and violence that shadows every Dalit body in the village.

Amrit’s loss had left Ram Charan, his father, a shrunken shell of a man. He spoke in monosyllables, struggling with his words. His eyes were stony, coming alive with occasional flashes of anger and grief at the hand fate and follies of powerful men he would never meet had dealt him. His daughter’s wedding was deferred. The villagers were talking about pooling resources to help out.

Ram Charan gets between 30 to 40 days of work a year through a public works program. Since the pandemic began, he has found three days of work overseeing labourers cleaning an irrigation canal in the village, making 202 rupees, or about $2.70, a day. The future seems uncertain after Amrit’s death. “He was all we had. He kept our family going,” Ram Charan said. “He is not here anymore.”

A narrow muddy path led out of the village, to the town, to the highway, to the cities. Saiyub and I walked together a while. The factory owner in Surat had called the day before. Some of the workers were already back. He wanted Saiyub to return.

“I have to go back. In a month, maybe two,” he said. “Not right now. The heart is not ready yet.”