Maheebunissa and Amrita

By Amrita Sharma, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions

Who is this other?
One who just walks in unannounced from the derelict, forgotten past of my country?Reminds me of its poverty and hunger that I thought no longer existed
Knocks at my door asking for my humanity.
How I fail to recognize you
So much is the distance between you and me.

I am the city-dweller, educated, child of middle-class, hard-working people,
One who believes that all my privileges are well earned;
You come here, talking of your landless father and how you can’t be in the village anymore
Your income from the manual work in the city is the only income and that also can’t sustain the family
You tell me how the city treats you because you are uneducated, emaciated, hailing from a lower caste.
You live in indignity, facing brutalities every day
Trying hard to keep a foothold in the city for you are not wanted here.
You are told that the city is Swachh without you and you do not belong.
You work in inhuman conditions; live on the road, inside the construction site or a factory
I see you precariously walk up the uneven slopes on the worksite with heavy loads on your head
From my high-rise, I see your children sleeping in the open, unattended in a sling,
Late in the night, I see you hiding in a corner cooking with few utensils and little firewood.

I wonder what separates me from you and what makes our lives so different.

I sit beside you, holding you
As you grieve your husband’s loss
A construction worker, he fell off a building
Suffered for two months with poor healthcare and apathy of those in-charge
And then one night he passed away, just like that.

You are cajoled to not file a case claiming compensation
Then you are threatened that his body will be dis-interred if you did
You have to run around to file an FIR and obtain his death certificate
Shaken. Broken. Devastated.
You look at me and I can’t bear to look back.

Sitting in your 150 sq.ft. house I think of my husband, my child
I wonder what separates me from you and what makes our lives so different.

You tell me the city is not for you
You would return to village as at least you have a house there, Mumbai is too expensive to live in.
You don’t know what you would do back home
But return is the only option.
You leave your eldest son behind, not more than 16 to continue the toil in the same indignity
To be the other in this ruthless, unforgiving city.

I wonder what separates me from you and what makes our lives so different.


Cities in India receive a large number of workers from its villages as footloose labour – people without an anchor, whom the villages fail to sustain and the cities do not accept. As per an estimate, close to 140 million people migrate every year, and by extension, nearly 560 million people (half of the Indian population) depend on migration for cash income.

Mumbai has been known to receive migrant workers for decades. More than 40% of the city population is made up of migrants. Still, their existence is mired in instability, insecurity and excessive structural violence. Our governments and people fail to acknowledge this floating workforce as they suffer from pervasive indifference and apathy.

This is a story of one such migrant Maheebunissa who came to the city of Mumbai with her husband Haider Ali and five children from Balrampur, UP. Living in a decrepit, degenerated part of the city and toiling inhuman hours, the family of seven stuck along in the hope of a better future, only to be robbed of that subsequently. Within seven months of arriving, Maheebunissa lost her husband to a worksite accident and was forced to go back home with mounting debt and worries of an uncertain future. 

“Maheebunissa and Amrita” tells the tale of a tumultuous, schizophrenic Mumbai where two women inhabit two divergent worlds in the very city that brought them together in the first place.

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