When the history of the present times of this country is written, not only will it record the failure of the current regime in managing a crisis but will acknowledge the struggles of common people, the labourers, children and women who covered hundreds of kilometres on foot to return home in the absence of any help from the government.
One of many such stories of indomitable courage and persistence is that of Jyoti Kumari, a 15-year-old native of Bihar’s Darbhanga, who travelled on a bicycle carrying her wounded father and covered more than 1,200 km from Gurgaon in Haryana to her village.
Jyoti’s father, Mohan Paswan, has been an autorickshaw driver in Gurgaon for the past 20 years. On January 26, he met with a road accident and got injured, following which Jyoti and her mother arrived in Gurgaon on January 31 to take care of him.
As Jyoti’s mother, Phoolo Devi, works in an Anganwadi as a cook, she could not stay in Gurgaon for longer than 10 days. She returned to Darbhanga, leaving Jyoti behind to look after Mohan.
Things were on track and Mohan was recovering when the Centre suddenly announced a nationwide lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic on March 24. Initially, the lockdown was announced for three weeks. At the end of this period, the lockdown was extended for another two weeks. Later, a third lockdown was announced and currently, we are in the fourth phase.
No ration, no money
The lockdown affected millions of migrant labourers across the country, as it did Mohan Paswan. He had no source of income and they were running out of ration. Soon, they were left with no money to pay rent.
“Problems increased after the lockdown,” says Jyoti. “Our landlord wanted to throw us out of the rented room. He had even cut the power twice as we hadn’t paid the rent. We had also run out of ration. What would we have eaten? Father had no income at all, so we thought of returning home somehow.”
On May 8, Jyoti started from Gurgaon on her bicycle with her father on the cycle’s carrier. She covered the entire distance to her village this way, except for a short distance when a truck driver offered them a lift.
They reached Sirhulli after 10 days of travel, at around 9 pm on May 17. “The truck driver gave us a lift for some distance, but we had to get down because they were going on a different route.”
Mohan is currently in a quarantine centre, while Jyoti is at home. On reaching Muzaffarpur on May 17, Jyoti informed her family that they would be reaching home by night. Like other villages, locals in Sirhulli too are scared of the coronavirus and are not allowing anyone from outside to enter the village.
As a result, when Jyoti informed the family about their return, her mother advised her to go to her maternal grandmother’s house instead.
But Jyoti did not agree. “I told the village mukhiya that my daughter and husband are returning to the village,” says Phoolo Devi, Jyoti’s mother. “Incidentally, a few other people had returned that day on a truck and the locals had allowed them to enter the village. So when my daughter and husband returned, no one opposed them.”
Speaking of her journey on the bicycle, Jyoti says, “I would ride the bike for more than 100 km every day. We would stop at a petrol pump, spend the night there and resume our journey the next morning. At all the petrol pumps where we stopped, people offered us food and drink. They treated us very well.”
Mohan Paswan does not own any land. He has three daughters and two sons. One daughter is older than Jyoti, while the others are still quite young.
How Jyoti came up with the idea
How did she come up with the idea of riding home with her father on a bicycle? “There was no ration at home and I was watching the news about people returning home on foot, on bicycles. I was scared that if the landlord throws us out, we would have no place to stay and nothing to eat,” says Jyoti.
“I told my father that I would take him home on the cycle, but he did not agree. He repeatedly told me that I will not be able to manage it,” she adds.
Mohan may have been sceptical, but Jyoti was confident. “I ride my bicycle a lot in the village. When father used to come home, I would often give him a tour of the village on it. So, I was used to it. I was confident that I could safely take him to the village. My father treats me like a son, so I thought of doing what a son would do.”
After the road accident, Mohan Paswan was unable to work. “The owner of the autorickshaw called us up and said that he would not pay for my husband’s medical treatment,” says Phoolo Devi. “So, I took a bank loan of Rs 38,000 and went to Gurgaon on January 31. Some of this was spent on his treatment. I handed the rest of it to Jyoti and returned home.”
“Meanwhile, I was sending some amount from my salary every month, but after the lockdown this became difficult. I told Jyoti and her father about it,” she adds.
“Jyoti told me that she wants to return home on the bicycle. Initially, I refused to allow her, but there was no other option available,” she says.
The cycle on which Jyoti returned home was purchased on May 8. “I bought it from an acquaintance who lived nearby,” recalls Jyoti. “He was asking Rs 1,600 for it. I withdrew Rs 1,000 from the bank which the Central government had credited in the account, paid him Rs 500, while promising to pay the rest later. With the rest of the money, I left for home with my father.”
‘Some people mocked father’
Besides the hardship of the journey, Jyoti said she had to put up with people who mocked her father. “People were jeering at us because they saw that a daughter was riding the cycle while the father sat on the carrier. Father would become upset when he heard such things, but I told him not to worry as people did not know that he was wounded,” she says.
“It did not matter to me that they made fun of us because I knew about my father’s injuries. Those people did not know,” says Jyoti.
The long and arduous journey has left Jyoti exhausted. “Ever since her return, she is complaining of body ache and says she is tired and wants to sleep,” says Jyoti’s mother.
Jyoti Kumari has studied till Class VIII. “I am very fond of studying our financial condition is not good,” she says. “If I went to school, we would face a financial crunch. So, I dropped out a year ago. But I want to study further. If someone helps me, I will.”
Umesh Kumar Ray is an independent journalist.
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman