‘Delhi can surprise with its kindness. That’s my source of contentment’

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Illustrations: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

I came to this city in the month of March 1984. My hometown Motihari in Bihar is the kind of place that readies you for no other place, except its own galis and corners. Delhi is another beast altogether. Delhi requires you to employ devices of survival which you never imagined you were capable of. Delhi demands you take risks. If a life of contentment is what you seek, Delhi will take from you your lifetime in giving you that.

In the recent months, I have sold the auto-rickshaw I had bought with great difficulty to pay for the medical expenses of my wife who needs psychiatric therapy, and for my younger son whose eyes, doctors say, do not moisten by themselves. I also have an older son who wants to go to college. In all these years I have spent struggling for survival, I think I have learnt a thing or two about what contentment really means.

In 1984, when I first landed in Delhi, the main priority was to get any work that would fill my stomach and put a roof over my head. Invariably, with no real skills or an education, I became what many Bihari migrant youth of my age became in the city in those days; a cycle-rickshawallah.

I had seen the rough and tumble of various areas in Delhi before I ended up making the Kalkaji area my haunt. The local slum was where I lived and worked. For those of us boys who lounged in the periphery of the slum, looking for passengers, Bille was a great chatterbox to have around. A tall Sardar with rugged features, Bille was much older than us but engaged us cheerfully nonetheless. We spent out evenings oblivious to the treachery of the world elsewhere. Until we got the news one evening that Indira Gandhi was shot. I did not know immediately who had shot her. I was going to find out later. Not through the radio though.

Bille was out for some reason that day. It was only by evening that we learnt mobs were out baying for Sikh blood, cutting up any Sardar within sight. It was already quite late and Bille still hadn’t showed up. But the other Sikhs who had got an inkling of what was coming their way, fled. Only our Bille was late. The moment we found Bille, we took him into our house. We first discussed his family’s safety, and next we tried to figure out a way to ensure he reaches home alive.

As day broke, it became clear that the mobs were still blood-thirsty. We clean shaved Bille and cut his hair. I took my cycle rickshaw and cautiously made my way through the lane with Bille — my passenger, with death awaiting him. We finally reached his house and to our relief his family members were all fine. Except an uncle of his who lived elsewhere…

As we cut his hair and trimmed his beard that evening, it struck me how fragile things can get in life — how something as trivial as going home could suddenly become such a challenge. Some facial hair could give you away and make you a victim for crimes you have not committed. Bille died a decade later. His family still invites me to functions at their home.

I had seen this bloody madness and was grateful to have survived in my first year itself in Delhi. In its brutality, it remains unmatched. But the city can surprise you with its kindness too. And that’s the source of my contentment. My rented auto provides me the rotis and I find happiness in my family. My own auto could be a distant dream now — but at least my wife is doing fine. I find solace in the fact that one of my sons will be a doctor — he knows English. He will not be facing the same difficulties for survival when he leaves home.

(As told to G Vishnu)

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