Surviving the streets

Print edition : May 23, 2003

Rampyari and Saroja Devi. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

For the homeless on the streets of Delhi who battle against poverty, police highhandedness and perverse intrusions, the kinships they forge among themselves and the helping hand some organisations extend offer solace.

IN the heart of New Delhi, in Connaught Place, is a Hanuman temple, which devotees throng day and night. In the murky shadows of this temple courtyard, between makeshift stalls of incense, flowers and prasad, under the open sky live homeless women. Many of them have known no other shelter for years, even decades.

It is a shrivelled community of tough, but battered survivors. Women of all ages gather here every night, in their begrimed, frayed discoloured sarees. Some are alone, others tend sick, disabled or drunken male partners, still others fiercely protect their children in the dusty spaces that are their homes without roofs or walls. Children wander around, bringing cheer and mischief. Older men grope for the women's unprotected bodies in the uneasy grey darkness of the city's night, and the policemen intermittently assault them with their batons and taunts. I will always remember the distraught faces of a group of these women late one night, as two policemen confiscated and set fire to the tiny, grubby, bundles of their entire life's belongings. Tempers always seem to run high here, as women quarrel or a man suddenly smashes an empty liquor bottle on a woman's head.

It is extremely difficult to get to know these women. Their lives are so brutally unremittingly public, and yet encased in hard, defensive shells. There are many widows among them, or abandoned wives, or women who have survived and escaped violent partners. Some are themselves grown up children of street women. Some women are almost always in a daze, drunk or drugged. Some talk compulsively, but the conversation typically is disjointed and inarticulate. Others are withdrawn and resolutely silent, hiding untold grief. Almost without exception, they all display diverse symptoms of some or the other form of mental distress. It is almost impossible for any of them to survive long on the streets without taking resort to casual sex work or intermittent begging, in order to supplement their efforts to subsist by petty pavement trade or occasional wage labour.

And yet, if you persist long enough in this unlikely community of the dispossessed, you recognise these to be women of extraordinary valour in the daily grimy battlefields of their utterly besieged lives. For a woman whose only home is the street or the open city ground, the inhospitable biting chill of winter nights or the foul deluge of the monsoons are the least of trials.

SAROJA DEVI should know. The streets and temple courtyards of Delhi have been her only home for the greatest part of more than 30 years.

Beizzati (dishonour). This was the overriding feature of her life, as Saroja recounted it, without sentimentality or self-pity. "To live on the streets - beizzati. The policeman beats you with his baton - beizzati. Any ruffian sits next to you and runs his hands on your body - beizzati."

Saroja Devi spoke readily about her life, but it was difficult for me to piece together the story from the scattered fragments that she shaped with her staccato words. She was born in a village in Guntur district in in Andhra Pradesh. She has faded memories of an uneventful childhood. Her father, the village pradhan, drank heavily and died early. Her mother was kind to her and did not beat her. She was married off at the age of 15 to a soldier. By 20, she was a widow.

All that she recounted about her husband was: "Woh English peeta tha", (he drank English liquor, not country toddy like the others). She repeated this many times. Most of their years of marriage he spent at the borders or battle fronts, while she lived with his mother at their home in Hyderabad.

Saroja Devi does not recall which war he died in. I found this extraordinary, but she brushed aside my question impatiently. What she did remember was that she was stretched in bed, in a stupor of malaria fever, when men in uniform brought home his ashes. She donned the coarse white of a widow, and resolved never to marry again. Her soldier-husband left her two young girls. With the girls by her side, she returned first to her parental home. Her brothers refused to give her a share of their father's agricultural land. She fought bitterly with them, and eventually left the home of her birth, never to return.

Her next destination was Bangalore. She stumbled through many fragile tiny enterprises, making agarbattis, candles and matchboxes. But there was never enough money to feed her children. Her savings were rapidly depleting. She met a woman who advised her that her chances were far better in the thriving metropolis of Delhi. She had never travelled north of Hyderabad, and knew only a smattering of Hindi. But she bravely decided to take the plunge.

Alighting from the passenger train at the New Delhi railway station nearly 30 years ago, it was not long before she found her way to Hanuman temple and its bedraggled unsteady collective of forlorn women. Her daughters and she lived mainly by begging and selling flowers.

She longed for some stability, some permanence, some dignity. Therefore, when a woman slumlord offered to sell her a shanty in a slum not far from Hanuman Mandir, she readily gave her remaining savings, a few thousand rupees. She moved into a shanty with her children, and continued to sell flowers outside the temple.

But one day, government bulldozers arrived and razed the entire slum settlement. It was government land, she was told. They were illegal squatters with absolutely no rights. The woman who had sold her the shanty disappeared. Saroja could never find her again. She took with her the life savings of many dispossessed people.

So Saroja Devi returned to the temple courtyard, and its community of the luckless. The ensuing years were the worst in her life. First, her elder daughter had jaundice. She managed to admit her to the government hospital ward one day, but she died the next day. It was not long before her younger daughter fell from a tree, which she had climbed to pluck its jamun fruit. The child lingered in agony with broken limbs and festering wounds in the overcrowded public hospital for six months. Her mother did all she could to try to save her life, but she died.

It was during those months of desolate loneliness that Saroja met Rampyari, a crabby eccentric older widow who shared the community spaces of the temple compound. They cannot say who was initially drawn to whom, but Rampyari was kind to the twice-bereaved mother, and Saroja in turn began to take care of the older woman. These two profoundly lonely women, each without family or home, decided to adopt each other as mother and daughter. It is a sturdy unwavering bond that has survived more than two decades of the vicissitudes of life on the streets. Many such alliances are formed between despised people on the cities' pavements - alliances that are sturdier in loyalties, more tolerant of idiosyncrasies, and more tender in giving, than most biological relationships. I recall a street boy who adopted a disabled old man as his grandfather: He would carry the old man on his back, and save from his own earnings from rag-picking for food, medicines and even the old man's addictions.

Between Saroja and Rampyari is another of these unlikely unions of the streets. Rampyari is a widow from Rae Bareily in Uttar Pradesh, proud of her Rajput origins. Her husband used to work in the railway police. He and her sons were killed in a family feud. Rampyari found her way eventually to the courtyard of Hanuman Mandir.

Saroja, on the other hand, dark-skinned and of gaunt frame, fluent only in Telugu, is everything that Rampyari, with her surviving vestiges of upper-caste north Indian arrogance, looks down upon. "I don't know what she is," Rampyari told us. "A Madrasi," she said disparagingly. "Maybe an isai. Maybe a kasai. Who knows?" An isai is a Christian; a kasai is a pejorative word for a Muslim. But one day it happened that Saroja gave her tea. They began to take care of each other. And their kinship was sealed.

Together, the two women set up a small, wayside stall, under a peepul tree on the pavement in front of what Rampyari described as that `very tall glass building', the Life Insurance Corporation's sky-scraper in Connaught Place. For years, they sold a variety of trivia - rudrakas from Hardwar, maps of India and Delhi, trinkets, flowers and newspapers. The bulk of their clients were foreign tourists. They would return at night to sleep outside the temple. Sometimes worshippers would give them money. In winter, there were always people who distributed blankets.

If there was one thing that women in the streets of Delhi are most frightened of it is a van named, ironically, after Gandhiji's ashram Seva Kuteer. The van carries raiding squads that round up people who live by begging and incarcerate them in beggars' jails for up to three years. Women have to be alert and nimble on their feet to escape their periodic marauding. However, Rampyari is ageing and therefore has been twice jailed in Seva Kuteer in recent years.

Saroja was distraught when I spoke to her because her mother was in the beggars' jail, serving a year's sentence. Apart from her husband drinking `English', it was a theme to which she constantly returned as we spoke; "We must find a way to get her out," she kept telling me. She visits Rampyari every week at the beggars' jail, and carries with her fruits and sweets wrapped in her saree's edge. She also smuggles in bundles of bidis for Rampyari to smoke in secret, a privilege for which she has to bribe the caretaker. With her characteristic stubborn resolve, Saroja even managed to meet Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, to petition her to release her old mother.

SAROJA's fortunes have changed. Activists from Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, an organisation for homeless people in Delhi, met the women who live in the courtyard of Hanuman temple. The women said that they wished most of all for the security and dignity of some roof over their heads. There was no shelther for homeless women anywhere in Delhi. The organisation joined hands with the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and Bangla Saheb Gurudwara, and built a small shelter called Anugraha for the women without any home. The gurudwara provides them food, the YMCA subsistence wage work in a vermiculture pit.

For the 40 women who have found an abode in Anugraha, it is the only home with a roof that they have known for several years. The facilities are austere, but together they keep it clean, their belongings neatly piled beside their floor mats. The walls are decorated with pictures of gods and places of worship of all faiths. The women still quarrel and grumble, but the mercurial violence outside the Hanuman temple that was integral to their daily lives is at bay. A few women have small children, who are now smothered and nurtured in this new sisterhood of the sanctuary.

Saroja Devi would be content if only she could free her mother and tend her in their new home. "The best thing about Anugraha is that you can have within its walls a full night's undisturbed rest," she said.

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