Last month I read Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
Steinbeck is an author (I say is because I believe authors tend to be immortal) with his roots deep in all strata of the society, and deep into oddities of human mind. After he left Stanford university without a degree, he supported himself as a labourer and journalist for the next five years, and a caretaker of an estate after that until he could publish his first book. Steinbeck’s writing reflects his own experience as well as of those around him.
And because of this, though his novels are technically fictions, they mirror the reality of the time and space in which the stories take place.
Coming to Grapes of Wrath, the story takes place in America during the great depression, coupled with a major drought in Oklahoma. The farmers had lost their farms and homes to the banks. And then an endless migration started from the countryside to cities, from rest of the country to California in pursuit of jobs and better life, in the hope of making a living. Word in the street was that California was a place with no freezing winters, a place of fertile land and orchards of fruit, and with lots and lots of jobs, more jobs than they had people.
Today we are at the footsteps of another such depression, or bigger I don’t know.. This is the first one I am witnessing. Markets have already crashed, jobs are already lost, homes are already vacated and I don’t know about other countries, but in mine, a migration of a huge size seems to have begun.
It’s in the opposite direction though, from the cities to the countryside, back home, in pursuit of safety from this epidemic, in the hope of a roof on the head and food for the children, in the hope to keep on living.
Back then, in the story I mean, when hundreds of trucks loaded with migrants and their entire households began drifting along the highways, the well-to-do were scornful towards them. For the way they crammed up in the trucks, the way they had to camp along the road on their journey to the oasis, the way they were always hungry, but had no money and looked for cheap food!
And people despised them for due to this way of living, they would spread diseases.
Well, here is what’s happening today – after the long lockdown declared, people are walking home hundreds of miles away, flocking to catch a bus back home, against the directive to maintain social distancing. And in this case, of course the whole country is worried about the spread of the disease.
Till this stage, we are kinda exactly following the plot in Steinbeck’s story.
Coming back to Grapes of Wrath, let’s see what happed next.
Finally when the people reached California, the fate awaiting them was quite different though. Yes, it was the place with pleasant weather, nice orchards, fruits growing everywhere. But there were no jobs left. Where they needed 100 people to pick fruit, 1000 people turned up for work and worked for a tenth of the actual pay. The jobs available paid hardly enough to feed the family a dinner. And no job lasted for a couple of days, as the more people reached there, the faster it was over.
And people in California hated them. People feared the hungry. They worried that out of hunger, they might steal. They worried that the hungry would demand their right to grow food and reject the authority of those who held property. And with this fear, the better-off forced more control to keep them away from their lands. The employers repressed them more to keep their voices down.
Yes, the government had relief camps – with food, with sanitation, with safe homes. But they weren’t enough. And they were despised too, for showing the poor what they should have, and for fostering these ‘bad habits’ among the poor and hungry.
The families kept hunting for jobs day after day, week after week, moving from one town to another, camping along the roadside, being evicted from there by one sheriff after another.
What is the next stage going to now, in our story?
Will there be more such migration? Will there be people finding no way to make a living and kids dying of hunger?
You and I can only wait and watch.