The Death of Billo Rani’s Kids

Even though her home in a slum cluster near Batla House is demolished, a ten-year-old is most pained by the death of her kittens after debris fell on them.

New Delhi: Billo Rani seems to have been irritable the past few days. She is jumpy and difficult to get ahold of. Her kids, four of them, had died only two days back, and the fifth also gave up her fight for life on Sunday. Locals say that she is still in shock. Amina, one of the locals, saw it in bits, a bunch of tails – brown and black and grey lying around, tiny pink paws mixed in dirt lying in the debris of Anisha’s home in a slum. Her heart pounded and she let out a shriek when she saw the three-day-old kittens dead. However, she insists on calling it a murder. “They were bulldozed on purpose,” she says.

To give a brief background: about a hundred people were rendered homeless last Thursday when their slums were bulldozed in the Dhobi Ghat area of Batla House, New Delhi. A demolition drive by the DDA has resulted in families losing their homes and being forced to live on the streets. People living in this slum cluster are mostly engaged in the informal sector – men are daily wage earners and women, domestic house help in nearby houses, not even a hundred metres away from the slums and boast of air conditioning, pucca structures and 9-5 jobs.

Behind the slum cluster, is the area of Batla House. Photo: Ismat Ara

The residents of the slum cluster say that their homes were bulldozed without notice, and without giving them enough time to clear out their belongings. A small third-hand fridge that managed to keep water sufficiently cold during summers, her school books and notebooks in which she was still practicing the alphabet – among all the things that Anisha has lost in the demolition, the loss of her kittens has been the most painful.

Anisha, a ten-year-old and a student at a nearby government school enrolled in the fourth grade, had rescued Billo Rani from near her house about a year ago. She saw the cat’s vibrant black and white skin getting dirty in the mud water collected near the slum area. But to her, covered in mud and dirt was the ideal cat to have. She picked her up and brought her home, to her slum, expanding over 35 square feet. She had had a hard time convincing her parents but they agreed after she “threw a fit,” Anisha says.

Talking about the kittens, she says, “They were so small and had not yet opened their eyes. It is unfortunate that they were born into this cruel world. Our slum is gone, our area has been demolished – but why should animals suffer for anybody’s fault?”

The residents knew that their slums would be razed someday or the other. “We are a burden to them [the government], living on their lands. They call our homes unauthorised. What about our lives? Are our lives also unauthorised that they can just uproot it anytime they like?” an old man asks. When the deafening sound of the bulldozer could be heard at about 11 am in the morning on Thursday, the slum dwellers knew that their time was up. Anisha, along with her mother and fourteen-year-old sister, were alarmed. They then got up and vacated the slum. Her father had gone out in search of work.

A child looks out from a slum that has not been demolished yet. Photo: Ismat Ara

The bulldozer had started demolishing houses before they could even make sense of what was happening. There was chaos everywhere – and debris.

Not used to having five kittens with her, it was only seconds before the demolition that Anisha remembered that the newly born kittens were asleep inside. “Ruk jaiye, meri billiyan so rahi hain andar,” she pleaded. Please wait, my kittens are sleeping.

Her voice lost the battle against the sound of the bulldozer. The slum was razed. When Anisha went to find her kittens inside the debris a few hours later, she was half expecting that they would be meow-ing somewhere under the debris, that some miracle would have saved the cats, even though kilograms of debris likely fell on them. After searching for a few hours, Anisha found the kittens. To her surprise, she says, one of the kittens was alive. She was struggling to breathe under the debris. When she was pulled out, she took a sigh of relief.

On Sunday, however, that kitten also died. Two days after saving it, Anisha feels relieved that it died. It was struggling to stay alive, as the debris had crushed its body.

“Do you have a picture of her?” I ask.

“Yes, but I will only show you a happy picture of her, not the one where she is dead,” Anisha declares and takes out her mother’s phone and shows me this photograph: Anisha, surrounded from both sides by her sister and friend, is holding the last kitten in her palms. The kitten with black and white stripes is smaller than her hands. Anisha is smiling, and so are her sister and friend, while the kitten’s eyes are still unopened. They all seems oblivious to the tragedy that awaits them in a few days.

Anisha’s photo with one of the kittens a few days before the demolition. Photo: Ismat Ara

Anisha sits now, along with her mother, on a makeshift slum with cardboard and some plastic. Anisha’s mother announces, “For them [referring to the government], our lives are insignificant. We are just slum dwellers who do not benefit them in any way. For us, our kittens, our hens and our goats are our only friends.” In the meantime, Billo Rani slowly slides into Anisha’s lap and closes her eyes, as if in solidarity with her. After all, both have lost things they immensely loved.