“Say she is not here,” Jyoti Kumari said when her father, Mohan Paswan, approached with a ringing phone. Clearly, she was not eager to take a call from yet another celebrity.
Jyoti, 15, has been fielding calls offering appreciation or help ever since BBC , on May 19, how she was cycling nearly 1,200 km to take her ailing father, a migrant worker, home in Sirhulli village of Darbhanga district, Bihar. Among the prominent callers had been the actor and politician Shatrughan Sinha.
Mohan drove an e-rickshaw in Gurgaon in Haryana. In late January, he met with an accident that left him bedridden. So, Jyoti, her mother Phulo Devi, an anganwadi worker, and brother-in-law Mukesh Paswan travelled to Gurgaon. Phulo Devi and Mukesh returned in late February, Jyoti stayed to nurse her father.
After the lockdown to contain the coronavirus outbreak was imposed in late March, Jyoti and her father were stranded in Gurgaon. As they began to run out of money and food, Jyoti convinced her father, still not recovered fully, to let her take him home on her bicycle. They left the city on the night of May 7 and reached Sirhulli at around 9 pm on May 15.
Jyoti’s story – variously interpreted as symbolising the suffering India’s lockdown has caused its millions of poor migrant workers, a young woman’s determination and dedication to her family, even sporting potential – generated global headlines. Ivanka Trump, the daughter of US president Donald Trump, tweeted about it as well.
“Yes, I know and I feel happy,” Jyoti replied when I asked about Ivanka’s tweet.
She also knew about the statement by India’s sports minister, Kiren Rijiju, that she would be trained to take up professional cycling if she was found to have “potential”.
She would go for a trial at the National Cycling Academy in Delhi if invited by the Cycling Federation of India, Jyoti said, disputing the Times of India that she had turned down the offer.
A group of villagers were gathered at Jyoti’s home when we visited in the evening on May 23. It’s a two-room house with a small courtyard where three bicycles were parked, newly gifted to Jyoti by some of local political leaders. Many of those moved by her story have sent her money as well.
Bicycles gifted to Jyoti Kumari by local political leaders.
Her father had just come out of quarantine and was sitting in a chair outside the house. Bihar has mandated a for returning migrant workers, but Mohan was released after eight days. So were several other people quarantined with him, he said. Jyoti wasn’t quarantined upon returning. It’s not clear why. Newslaundry repeatedly called Darbhanga’s district magistrate, Thiyagrajan SM, on his listed number but the calls went unanswered.
Mukesh, Jyoti’s brother-in-law who lives in Darbhanga town, was at the house as well. We told him the purpose of our visit and he called out to Jyoti, who was talking to some neighbours inside. “Somebody is here to interview you.”
Jyoti was recently promoted to class 9, and she is glad to be in high school. “I had almost left my studies before going to Delhi but now I will study hard," she said, meaning her visit to Gurgaon early this year.
Now that she has some money, Jyoti added, she would probably take tuitions and aim for higher studies. Does she have a plan? "I am not sure about that. I will study and see what happens.”
Sirhulli is like any village in Darbhanga, poor and lacking public services. “This village has no proper medical facility. We have to go to Darbhanga even for regular checkups," a relative of Jyoti’s said. “Sirhulli is 20 km from Darbhanga and we have to go there several times a month".
Then, the conversation moved to Jyoti and her father’s journey home. “We had a full night’s rest just once. Other nights and days, we took little breaks whenever we were too tired," she recalled.
“Modi ji had asked landlords not to ask for rent,” Mohan said, referring to prime minister Narendra Modi. “But as the lockdown was prolonged, we were told to pay rent or leave. Also, we were running out of food rations.”
Jyoti couldn't resist a smile when Mohan said, “I am proud of my daughter who cared for me despite all the challenges."
Mohan had barely finished talking when Jyoti interjected. “We thought we were going to die, here or there. So, we decided to return to our hometown and not stay there.”
The family has since received Rs 1,000 each under the central government’s Jan Dhan scheme and Bihar’s cash assistance to ration cardholders.
Jyoti Kumari's home at Sirhulli village in Darbhanga, Bihar.
Mohan Paswan left Sirhulli for work nearly 20 years ago. For a long time, he worked in a restaurant in Gurgaon. When it shut down in 2016, he took up driving an e-rickshaw.
“There were no jobs and no industries in this village or nearby. That’s why I left. I hope we will not have to go back there now," he said.
Not much has changed in the area since Mohan left, claimed a villager overhearing the conversation. “There are nearly 5,000 people in this village and two-fifths are away in search of better opportunities,” he said.
Mohan added, "Why would anyone go away to work in faraway places if there were factories here?”
As we took our leave, two reporters with local media houses stepped forward to interview Jyoti.
Gopal Kumar studies Business Economics at the University of Delhi.
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