It’s a wonderful contrast. On the one side of where am standing, is Delhi’s famous ring road, where cars are whizzing by at breakneck speed, driven by people whose life has been following a similar pace. On the other side of where am standing is the Yamuna, on the banks of which, people whose life’s journey has come to a full stop are being cremated. I am actually standing in a park adjacent to Nigambodh Ghat located at Kashmere Gate, where temporary as well as permanent shelters have been erected to house those who have been left behind in this rat race to become successful in life and have taken refuge in the illusions spawned by the pleasures of semi-consciousness induced through drugs.
Contrary to popular perception, peace and tranquility is elusive for a person coming to this park, as the consciousness is haunted by the figures of people who, although awake, barely know who they are, where they are and what are they doing where they happen to be. They look at you with hope, hoping desperately to find their long lost friend, relative or well wisher until this hope turns into confusion, triggered by a conflict between imagination and reality and finally into disappointment. This realization is bitter, the truth behind it even more unpleasant, and hence to escape the clutches of this damning reality, these homeless seek shelter in the world of their own making, the world of imagination and fantasy built upon the foundation of countless bottles of liquor, choking puffs of smoke and unquantifiable amount of tobacco, smack and heroine.
In a society obsessed with its own sense of self righteousness and conceptions of virtue, these misfits aren’t even given treatment at par with other humans, and are left to cope, stumbling and staggering, in this whole wide world full of road blocks, on their own. Every winter, numerous of these homeless destitute leave this material world to live in their fantasies forever. Hence, it fell upon the courts to chide the government to realize its duty towards these homeless and erect shelters for them so that they could find relief from the biting cold of the winter and escape the clutches of a merciless and painful death.
I, through an NGO named Aman Biradari, which is run by Social worker and NCPRI member Harsh Mander, went to see some of these permanent and temporary shelters opened by the NGO and the government of Delhi. The people that I found there not only left a deep impact on me, but some of their philosophical insights were so deep that one could only scratch their head to determine the reasons that compelled these people to end up in the shelters for homeless.
Sunil is from Lakhi Sarai in Bihar. I find him sleeping under a tree, away from the comforts of the permanent shelter situated just 5 steps away. I stand near him and wait for some moments during which he stirs, perhaps acknowledging the presence of someone nearby and finally opens his eye to stare at me in wonder. I ask him for a short chit-chat and he readily agrees.
“I came here hoping to earn lakhs and crores” he says “but now I just want to save enough to buy a ticket to go back home”. His voice has a tinge of realization and repentance. “I want to accept all the wrongs that I have committed and ask forgiveness for them and want to serve my parents for the rest of my life.”
“I came to Delhi in 2001, along with an uncle of mine. We took up work in a factory in Gurgaon. However, after 3 months, the contractor who employed us, fled with all our money leaving us with nothing. My uncle wanted to stay there and find some other work, but I felt dejected. I left him and came here in Delhi to look for work. I did many odd and petty jobs for meager sums of money. At one time, I was pulling a hand cart in Chawri Bazar. But Money was hard to come by. Even after working this much, I barely earned enough to feed myself three times a day.”
“I fell in the company of bad people. They misguided me and cheated me. I was a novice in this game and hence I got cheated. I have no money now.”
“I have a family back home. I have two elder brothers and three elder sisters. I am the youngest of us all. I also have a wife but no children. All of us used to work on our farms or earn wages through some labor work. But I wanted to earn lakhs and crores. Farm work did not satisfy me as my eyes were on the glitter and buzz of big cities like Delhi. Now I am repenting.”
“Yes, I take drugs. I used to take smack and heroine, used to spend a lot on cigarettes, bidis and have consumed a lot of liquor. But now I take only bhang and tobacco.” He shows me a packet of ‘SWAGAT’ brand of tobacco that he chews. “It is my favorite brand” he adds with a smile.
I ask him about the harshness of the winter in Delhi. He pauses, and then looks at me and says “My life has turned into a cold winter. This winter is nothing in front of it.”
But all the drug addicts aren’t as forthcoming as Sunil, about their past. I spot a man sitting on a stone near one of the temporary shelters erected by the MCD. With long hair and an even longer beard, this man reminds me of the impoverished character of Adrian Brody in THE PIANIST. However, this man is neither a Nazi, nor a Jew, although like both of them, he seems to be fighting a war — a war against the ignominy heaped upon him by the docile denizens of the society.
He is visibly disoriented, perhaps drunk, and when I approach him, he gazes at me for a long time to mark out my features to ascertain whether I am a human being or an animal. I ask him several questions, but he answers only in monosyllables — yes, no or sometimes just a curious look coupled with a shrug.
Finally, I ask him whether he takes any kind of drugs. He shakes his head vigorously, as if to emphasize that he neither takes any nor has touched any kind of drug in his whole life. Yet, he seems to be unable to explain his presence in a camp for homeless drug addicts.
I leave him gazing at the Yamuna, where the relatives of someone who has just been cremated are dispersing his/her ashes, and perhaps wondering whether there would be someone to cremate him when he dies, let alone disperse his ashes.
But unlike the bearded man sitting in seclusion and gazing at Yamuna, some people are just not concerned about death. “It will come when it has to come”; says Hira Lal, aged 48.
“I hail from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. I used to have a family, but it has been 15 years since I left them. I don’t think anyone will recognize me now.”
For an ordinary little kid, Hira Lal may be the perfect depiction of all things with a devilish hue. With a distorted face, he also has a bright red eye — the brightness of which seems to have been aggravated not by lack of sleep — which is his favorite pastime — but by some kind of flu which went unnoticed and consequently, undiagnosed.
“I had a wife. But she died soon after the marriage due to measles. I could not save her and left home in disappointment.”
“Money is hard to come by. I also do not try much to earn it. On some days, when someone comes looking for some labor, I earn a hundred or two hundred bucks. On other days, I just sleep here and pass my time.”
“I take tobacco if that qualifies as a drug.”
Asked about the climate, Mr.Lal admits that the temperature has increased in the past couple of days, but “the winter is nothing compared to what it used to be 10 years ago.”
This winter, the Delhi government raced against time to cover up its ineffectiveness in covering up these homeless migrants who are forced to sleep in the open due to the lack of cover over their head. Several media reports in leading national dailies and television channels admonished the government for not carrying out what should have been its primary duty. The irony of the whole narrative does not seem to be the relative destitution of the homeless drug addicts, but the paranoia appended with them by the society, which is terrorized even at the thought of providing some space for these people in a ‘prime location’ near Kashmere Gate. For many, these homeless only represent the ‘daily nonsense’ that creeps into the capital every day.
However, for many like Sunil and Hira Lal, NGOs like Aman Biradari, who have been putting up temporary and permanent shelters along with the government in many areas which include central Delhi, are a ray of hope, the last step in the ladder for their survival. This does not mean that these people are sitting away, eating merrily and living joyously at the expense of the taxpayer and the donators, rather, these people are repulsed at the idea of having to accept the ‘generosity’ of the society for their survival.
One only hopes that with the passage of cold and harsh winter and the arrival of spring, the sun also shines brightly in the dark cells of these people’s lives and provides them with more opportunities to prosper and grow.