A post by Anjali Sonu, Centre for Holistic Development, New Delhi
“The Man who moves mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” – Confucius
Well, I am not sure of mountains yet, but yes today I have the courage to carry small stones or responsibilities. It has been possible as I have overcome barriers of personal prejudices, religion and gender. It all began six months ago.
Becoming an intern
In December 2020, I was desperately looking for an internship, since I did not get one in my first-year. I had got promoted to second year, but as per the requirement of the post- graduate programme I hadn’t completed a two-credit compulsory internship. Not completing it would cost me a year more to get the degree.
Restless, I called up a university senior for help. He suggested Centre for Holistic Development (CHD), an NGO, working for the homeless citizens in the city. He informed that my internship research would be on homeless women. It would also require me to go for “night vigil” that is spend night out visiting shelters and observing the homeless population living on footpaths, under fly-overs and so on.
I belong to a middle-class, Muslim family. Neither my folks would allow nor was I willing to go out at night with strangers. Except for a semester in the university, all through, I have been in girls’ school and college. Seldom, have I been part of activities, in which both men and women participate. Then how could I step out at night with unknown men? I said “If night vigil is compulsory, I can’t join in.” He got my point and told me he would discuss with “Sir” and get back. When I called him next day, he informed I could work during the day.
On 20th December, I reached CHD office in Shahpur Jat to find two sleepy men. One of them was my senior. Both men were rather surprised to see me early. My senior informed me that they had returned late from the previous night vigil and hence stayed back at office. They seemed to be at ease, doing things as they liked, offered me tea and biscuits. I felt the place lacked professionalism. After a while, I met Sir and my notion slowly began to change.
On 30th December in the midst of the pandemic, I was given the task to shift a 20-weeks pregnant homeless woman from a shelter near Mansarovar Garden to a centre for pregnant and lactating women. I was nervous as I reached the shelter to meet the woman. I completed all the document work. Then called an ambulance and asked the caretaker to pack her bag with the requisite medicines prescribed by the government hospital. I was scared – if she got upset or something, would I be able to handle the situation?
Initially the plan was to shift her to an isolation centre as she could be COVID infected. I took her to Naari Niketan, located at Hari Nagar. On reaching, we learnt that there were no isolation rooms. After calling on 10- 12 numbers, I was told that she must go for COVID test in a nearby hospital before shifting her to the centre. I was a bit overwhelmed as I had never been to a hospital alone. But I gathered courage and took her to Deen Dayal Upadhhyay Hospital in the ambulance.
On reaching the hospital, we were guided to the emergency lab for RT-PCR. I had to face doctors, CATS (Centralised Accident and Trauma Services) staff and most daunting the Police who asked for my identity and purpose. In the midst of chaos, the good news came. She was COVID negative. But then a doctor suggested to get her pregnancy test done. At a glimpse, one knew she was pregnant, yet we went for the test. It was time taking. While she got tested, I stood outside feeling numb, looking at the condition of people around.
Finally, the test happened, and the result left us all in shock! She wasn’t pregnant! I asked the doctor to re-confirm, since it seemed impossible. They called the gynaecologist who did a thorough check up and reaffirmed that she wasn’t pregnant. Due to some other issue, her stomach had swelled up. So much for the doctor who had checked her at the shelter. I called up Sir and updated him on the situation. He asked me to drop her back to the shelter from where I had picked her that morning. It took me the rest of the day to shift her back. Initially, the effort through the day felt futile and defeating. But as the day closed, I had a sense of satisfaction that I was able to provide some clarity to the woman’s condition.
Sarai Kale Khan
On 26th January, while the nation celebrated Republic Day, CHD organised a Labour Camp in a slum pocket at Sarai Kale Khan. I along with our teammates listened to the grievances of construction site workforce. We in turn informed them about the need, right and benefits of getting a labour card. We filled in individual forms for them with details for the card. Subsequently, we signed a petition on the difficulties of labourers in filling forms and submitted it at the Labour Commissioner’s office. The hearing is still on.
I understood for a radical change to happen, voicing for rights is not enough. It is important to get the implementation right.
My mother knew CHD organises night vigil on Fridays. On 29thJanuary morning like every Friday, she specifically asked me to get back home early. As usual, she was afraid that I might go for the night vigil. We had argued many a times on this subject.
That morning, I visited Yamuna Pushta for the first time. It is the hotspot for the homeless. A number of shelters are built on the Yamuna belt for them. The shelters are so populated that one often lands up sleeping outside.
I saw thousands of homeless people. The place was throbbing with activities. There were some men bathing in cold water under leaking pipelines, some playing cards, some sitting, talking and others sipping tea at tea stalls. There were also people watching TV. Initially hesitant, I joined some of the men and boys for a chat and cup of tea. Curiously, I looked at one of the boys and asked how he ended up on the streets. He told me after a fight with his father, he ran away from home. Rest of the day went in interacting with people as Sir had told me that meeting and listening to their stories would be my greatest learning.
Later in the day, I learnt that voter ID card day would be celebrated in Old Delhi. I was keen to be a part of this event. At 8 pm, I called Mummy to inform her about my plans of not getting back home that night. Angrily, she screamed “What! I don’t understand you! Just come back home. What will your Papa and Grandma say?” Calmly, I told her that I would handle them. She disconnected. I called Grandma to inform her that I had some important work and would not be home. Thankfully, she understood.
The night vigil that evening was not a planned one. The team collected voter ID cards from the Electoral office at Asaf Ali Road. We moved on to Khadi Baoli and nearby areas where we distributed the cards. After that we went to Jama Masjid and once again to Yamuna Pushta.
In that cold winter night, I saw people huddled together around bonfire as if they were in a safe haven under the skies. While I watched them, I overheard TV sound from somewhere behind a tea stand. With curiosity, I walked in and to my amusement saw people covered in blankets. It was well organised though not neat or luxurious. I was informed by the owner that these are spaces for night stay. A space with a blanket costs 10 rupees plus 5 if one wants to watch a movie through the night. I had interrupted their entertainment. Feeling a bit of guilt, I walked out.
Memories of that chilly night, walking through lanes, meeting people on fire-lit pavements and huts with their offering of tea and warmth has stayed on with me. I had never ventured out at night. It had seemed impossible until I had done it.
On 28th May, when most were home during the second wave of the pandemic, the homeless were not! They hardly had the means to survive. On that day, Sir had asked me to be at Yamuna Pushta for gamchha (thin cotton towel) distribution. But the preparation began much earlier. The entire process of getting the gamchhas ready took 4-5 days. It included unwrapping the cloth, cutting into perfect one meter squares and then neatly folding them into a pile. The gamchhas were meant for multi-purpose usage.
The time for gamchha distribution was 7 am as that was when the food-less and homeless people sat in queues waiting for food from the nearby Gurudwara. We ended distributing 5000 gamchhas. Earlier, I had complained to Sir about the task of folding the gamchhas. But now I realised the neatly folded gamchhas added dignity to the cloth and the person receiving it. That day we just didn’t give but also received a smile from each of them.
Afterwards that day, I visited the Sarai Kale Khan crematorium with Sir. In the last few days, he had performed the last rites of many who had lost their lives to COVID or had no near-ones to perform the rites. It was time to collect their ashes for immersion. On reaching the crematorium, I witnessed for the first time an ongoing cremation. Except in movies, I had never seen a Hindu funeral or a Muslim burial.
We moved towards the electric crematorium where I observed a body packed from head to toe. As we crossed it, I mentally comforted myself that the deceased must have moved from this world to another. While we waited to pick up the ashes of those cremated, we were offered tea. As I sat there sipping, I realised that in the midst of the pandemic, without Sir and those at the crematorium, the journey of many a lives would not have ended with dignity.
On 29th May, I reached Yamuna Pushta at 7:10 am. Near shelter no.105, I saw kalash earthen pots. There were 168 of them with ashes. The pots were to be garlanded and packed to be taken to Gadd Ganga (nearest location of the Ganges from Delhi).
Flower garlands were bought. Sir began decorating them. Initially, I was scared and hesitant, as the urns contained the remains of humans – ashes, bones – that I had never seen in my life. Then I dared myself and began decorating. Gradually, I became peaceful within and got absorbed in the moment. Somewhere in my mind, I knew I was breaking some barriers. Finally, the team loaded all the pots in a bus and our journey began.
We reached Gadd Ganga and booked a boat. According to Hindu religion, we were told to perform preliminary rituals. We were instructed to wash our hands in the river and stand in a queue, with our feet dipped in water. Flowers were distributed to be kept in our hands. Then the priest started to chant Mantras. I began to pray within.
The peace, purity and equality that I felt at that moment is inexplicable. Then we all sat in a motorboat for asthi visarjan – the immersion of the remnants. I brought out a kalash, uncovered its mouth and then with due respect emptied the ashes. I repeated the act many times for many people who were unknown to me. I told Sir that the task I performed had not been done by any women in the history of my family.
We finished and reached the other side of the river. It was picturesque with a girl selling fish food and a watermelon seller sitting beside a boat. Thirsty, I drank water, looked at the view. With the clouds above, the sunlight falling upon the waters and the tiny waves rushing to the bank, I imagined human life to be a river. Faraway, funerals were taking place. One of my teammates informed me that Gadd Ganga is not only a destination for last rites and important rituals but for holy start for the newly wedded. Here people come to bathe, to purge their sins and cleanse their souls.
With the ritual over, a holy thread tied on the right wrist and a tilak (mark) on the forehead, my internship too came to a close. It has been much more than deskwork and normal challenges that is usually experienced in an internship. CHD has transformed me head to toe and deep within. It has unshackled me from social, religious and moral prejudices that make us label right and wrong.
Anjali Sonu is pursuing her masters in Development Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi. Her journey in social work started during her internship.
Cover image: Author
Story images: Author
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