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Children of the Nithari: Dhaani

Written in Hindustani and translated to English by Kiran Mishra

Kiran Mishra is 22 years old. She was just 7 when she started coming for pandies’ workshops immediately after the Nithari pogrom. A fabulous performer in all senses of the word she has been in all Saksham productions with pandies’, including a lead role in the performance at The American Center, Delhi. She has done her MA in political science. Aspiring to be a teacher, she is currently doing her B.Ed. She also has a senior diploma in Bharatnatyam dance. Central to the teaching programme at Saksham, she started teaching there after high school and currently she is both a teacher and the Co-ordinator at Saksham. She says, “I love to teach these kids specially those who want to get educated but are unable to because of different reasons. I think when we teach one kid, we teach one whole generation.”

Dhaani

I had come to Kota, Rajasthan for some company work but suddenly I had to leave for Delhi for an urgent meeting in office. Train tickets were not available and so I decided to take the inter-state bus to Delhi.

A small box like ticket house had been constructed at the bus stand from where I bought the ticket and boarded the bus to Delhi. The bus was full, people had left their belongings on the seats and not even one seat was without something on it. The next bus was at 4 am, too late. So, I knew there was no choice but to take this one, the last one that night. I entered the driver’s cabin thinking I will ask him where the earliest seat would get vacant. I was surprised that the seat next to the conductor was empty, nobody had noticed it. I quickly occupied that seat.

Settling I realised that the condition of the bus was bad, really bad. But well, I had no choice. Soon the driver started blowing the horn to indicate the bus was ready to leave. Hearing that people rushed to occupy their seats. The bus started moving. It sounded like a bronchitis patient. A girl aged 24-25 came and stood beside me. I started to ignore her, thinking I might be asked to give my seat to her as she was a woman. And as a man, it was only courteous to offer my seat. Without looking at her I could feel her staring at me, she kept doing that for a while and slowly she said, “This seat is mine.” I finally turned to her and raised my head and saw that her face was covered with a dupatta. She repeated, “This seat is mine.”

The bus was moving at a hesitant speed. I kept looking at her, the dupatta slipped a bit and half her face became visible. I could see she was beautiful. Though only her nose and lips were visible, I could estimate her beauty. I was still staring trying to estimate her face when she repeated that that was her seat.

“Now I can’t see how it is your seat when I am sitting in it”? I retorted finally. She continued in a very polite and sweet voice, “Yes this seat is mine since I kept a handkerchief on it and went to the washroom.”

I looked carefully at the seat, and yes there was a hanky, a white hanky, lurking in the corner. Irritated but conceding her point, I took a long breath and stood up to give her the seat. It felt like she grabbed my arm and then she said, “Hey, why are you getting up? Just shift a little and we can both sit together, any way there is no vacant seat in the bus.” And with that, she sat down next to me. I felt slightly embarrassed at the closeness, but she was seated quite comfortably.

The bus was moving slowly, as if protecting itself from the big potholes on the road.

It was November, and the chilly wind was blowing through the broken glass window. But the touch of her body started to thrill me to the core of my being. We sat on the single seat, clinging together lest we fall off the seat. I felt we were merging together. Her dupatta was raised more now, and I could see her whole face. This is what they call an “apsara[1]”. She was unbelievably beautiful, her nose, her eyes and her lips were like rose petals and the teeth like pearls between. Travel with such a beautiful girl was double fun and there I had been cursing the ride and the bus.

Every road bump would propel us in the air and then we would land almost on top of each other. A couple of times we almost fell off but in a second, she would be sitting, fully composed as if nothing had happened. Looking at me, she enquired, “Are you uncomfortable? Are you experiencing any trouble?”

“No, no, not at all,” I said reassuring. She started looking straight into my eyes and asked: “I think you have not recognised me”.

Now it was my turn to be surprised. I looked at her carefully. Her face clicked somewhere. And I was wondering where I had seen this face. She said in a very soft tone, “You have forgotten me.”

She said this in a way that I felt heartbroken and kept staring at her and thinking for some time but could not remember her. Avoiding her, I looked at my wristwatch. It was 10 pm, an hour since we started. She had turned the other way. Angry and upset at my not giving an answer? She was looking outside, and my mind was all in a mess.

Suddenly a word jumped into my mind: “Dhaani.”

I suddenly blurted out: “Dhaani?”

As soon as I said that the glow returned to her face, her eyes were happy, and a beautiful smile floated on her lips. “Too late,” she said, “But at least you have recognised me.”

“Hey, how are you here Dhaani?” I asked.

“Just understand,” she said, “I have come here to this bus only to meet you.”

“So, you have learnt how to joke too,” I remarked. “I still remember how you would get irritated over small things.” She looked at me with imploring eyes. Her eyes were raising questions and the four years she was in my life came across me.

This is about the time I was staying in Delhi to study. I needed money. So, along with studying, I wanted to give tuitions. A friend, who did tuitions, gave me her address and asked me to go to her home. I met Dhaani the first time there. I was giving tuitions to her younger brother in the 8th grade. Both her parents were working and she had done her graduation and was preparing to study further. There was a servant, but he was usually missing. Three of us would be in the house and Dhaani would give me tea and sometimes some breakfast. We became friends and I advised her with her preparations too. I did not realise when Dhaani fell in love with me. Dhaani was not her real name but she wanted me to call her that. Things were going fine but then something happened, and we could not meet again.

Dhaani was from a Rajasthani family. And one day, her maternal uncle arranged a marriage proposal for her and I too reached at the same time. Her family members were talking among themselves, so I went to another room and started teaching her brother. After a while, I was feeling thirsty. As usual I called out to Dhaani by name, and asked her for a glass of water. This created the trouble. Dhaani’s uncle came and glared at me. I could not understand. He roared, “Who did you call Dhaani?”

I pointed at her.

“Do you know the meaning?” he asked.

“No”, I said, “Maybe a nickname.”

Realising I was innocent, her uncle backed off, and the elders explained to me that the word meant “wife” and is used as an intimate address for one’s spouse. I could only stare at Dhaani who had tears in her eyes. Her father told me firmly that my services were not required anymore.

Four years later, I had never thought I would ever meet Dhaani in this rickety old bus in the middle of the dark night. Dhaani was shaking my shoulders, “Where are you lost?”

I blurted a series of questions: “Just remembering the old times. You got married, didn’t you? What does your husband do? Why are you travelling alone?”

She asked me “Did you get married?”

“No,”I answered.

“Why? You should have,” she responded.

We had left the town behind. We were in the jungle. Trees and sand. It was dark, the lights of the bus were weak and the visibility was poor. People were asleep in the bus. Maybe to keep awake, the driver started singing aloud a film song. His voice broke the silence.

I asked her again, “Why are you travelling alone?”

She said with a heavy heart, “I am on a journey that never ends, just one wish to see you and meet you once.”

“What nonsense!” I said, “Please answer my question.”

“You want to know where is my husband? Husband is one a girl like me falls in love with once, I am his Dhaani and never again will anyone settle in my heart. But you will not understand these things.” She took my hand in both her hands, “Swear to me that you will get married and have a family and a home.” With that she got up to leave.

I said, “Where are you going to go in this forest?”

“It’s a forest for you,”she said in a low voice, “For us it is our new home, we’ll never meet again but keep your promise.”

Saying this she got off the moving bus. I was stunned and stopped the driver, “A girl just got off the moving bus and you did not stop for her?”

The driver looked amused, a bit irritated, “Which girl?” he asked.

“The one sitting next to me, the one who I was talking to,” I was almost shouting.

He chuckled, “Near you. You were sitting all by yourself and yes you have been talking loudly to yourself but we get people like you, it doesn’t bother me.”

I craned my neck out of the bus and saw a smiling Dhaani waving to me. I was sweating despite the chill. “Dhaani, why did you do this?” I looked at the handkerchief in the corner, picked it, it had Dhaani written in the corner. Squeezing it tight, I cried. The bumpy potholes could not measure up to the pits in my heart.


[1] nymph

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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pandies' corner

Children of Nithari: The story of Rajesh

Written in a mix of English and Hindi  by Yogesh Uniyal, translated fully to English by Nirbhay Bhogal

Yogesh Uniyal is now a banking professional, currently working with Kotak Mahindra Bank, and has a Masters in Finance. He joined workshops lead by pandies’ theatre in 2006 and has performed in all the shows put up by the youth associated with Saksham, Nithari, including at the American Center, Delhi in 2010. A consistent performer and singer, he performs with the pandies’ besides doing street plays with Nithari friends and like-minded people on women’s education, cancer, and many other themes.

The Story of Rajesh

Somewhere in this wide, wide world, lived an eighteen-year-old boy (quite sensible and honest) going by the name of Rajesh,  in a small village, where he had a family with his  parents. Since childhood, Rajesh had always liked watching movies. Despite not having a television at home, he would commute a kilometre within their village, to the home of his paternal uncle ( being a good friend of his father’s) to watch movies on that uncle-by-sentiment’s TV. While watching a film at his uncle’s, one day Rajesh made a plan to venture outside their village after finishing his intermediate education. Rajesh had no idea that there was a huge gap, between this real world and the fictional world of movies, almost as if one were Purgatory and the other Heaven.

Rajesh’s Decision to go to Delhi

This is the story of that boy from an underprivileged family who came with big dreams to Delhi – “The City of Hearts, Brimming with Living and Giving” – leaving behind his village, his home, his parents, his everything. Rajesh had come to this city after completing his schooling with a great hope kindled in his heart – a desire to earn buckets of cash. But little did he imagine what he would lose while trying to fulfil that dream.

Living in their village home were Rajesh’s elderly parents. Leaving them behind and coming here wasn’t easy for him. But he left them and moved  nevertheless, for his happiness and theirs, which revolved around his attaining a higher standard of living.

Rajesh’s life in Delhi

He started lodging in a room that he rented in “The City of Hearts, Brimming with Living and Giving, also The Capital of India”. He stumbled wandered around the city for two to three months, looking for a decent job. But he did not get any employment. Then he came across a person who promised to get him a job, in return for Rs 20,000[1].

Rajesh, gathered the money from multiple sources – including some remitted by his parents from the village on his request. He paid the agent an advance of Rs 15,000, and promised to pay the remainder after securing the job.

After waiting for many days, Rajesh secured this job in a company that would pay him Rs 9,000 a month, at a workplace that was 4 kms from his room in the city. This salary certainly sounded small as Rajesh had to pay for his lodgings, food, water…and also send some money home.

Every morning, he would walk to the company where he was employed. And, every evening, he would walk from there to his neighbourhood. He knew that every expense, such as commuting by vehicles in a city like Delhi, wasn’t possible on just Rs 9,000.

He threw himself with all his heart and mind into his nine-hour job. Many times, however, he was made to stay back and work for ten to twelve hours a day. That earned him Rs 70 for every extra hour. He continued to work with dedication. What he didn’t know was that you needed to be street smart to compound your dedication to get a raise in such a place. Even after working so hard, he wasn’t getting the increment or promotion that he was worthy of. He brought this up many times, in conversation with his manager, but the manager would keep evading him on this. After one year, Rajesh decided to leave the company. After quitting his job, he gave job interviews at many other companies, and eventually did get hired. He joined this other company on 1st January 2020.

In the new company, he was paid more than double his last salary, and he was happy that he could manage all his expenses. But his struggle had just started.

For two months, everything was fine. Then, suddenly, a disease called Corona started to fester and spread. Cases of its transmission were quickly increasing in India. Observing this COVID-outbreak, the Central Government declared a lockdown in all of India on 22nd March 2020. Rajesh and all other employees of his company were kicked out of their jobs.

When the fired employees protested, the company said, “Whoever have their own computers can work from home.” But employees who’d been hired only in the past two months, how were they supposed to afford a personal computer? Some of the employees still managed to arrange computers for themselves, and they were re-hired. But what about people like Rajesh?

Eventually, Rajesh too was fired, which was a huge blow for him. He had no means of livelihood. His monthly expenses were piling up, and the spectre of groceries loaned from his regular shops kept looming over him.

After losing his job, Rajesh sat in his room, spending time on the same old TV news channels. But none of these channels gave the truth: about how the pandemic was hurting families like his, how they were living, what was the solution, and what were the safeguards that were being put in place?

Who knows how many families had people like Rajesh, who lost their jobs? What on earth was Rajesh going to do now?

For ten days, Rajesh kept brooding over the job he’d lost. Rajesh asked a neighbouring Uncleji[2], “Would any of the nearby bungalows have need of car-cleaning personnel?” Uncleji was moved to tears by seeing him in such a state. He said to Rajesh, “Why would you…a computer-operating professional…be doing such work?” And he started providing Rajesh food from his own domestic kitchen.

But how long was he supposed to feed Rajesh? Uncleji’s wife would taunt every now and then. This eventually became too much for Rajesh to bear, and he decided once again to clean cars for a living.

Rajesh had been reduced to the condition of one who belonged neither here nor there. And he was worried about his parents. He was managing to arrange two meals’ worth on certain days, and not even one meal’s worth on other days. Some evenings he would line up, for a meal at food stalls, set up by anyone wishing to feed the poor. Other evenings, he would scrape together a meal in other ways. What else was he supposed to do? Borne to the City by Hopes, and Buoying Himself Against the Blows He Received, He Was Still Not Able to Get Enough Food.

A person contracted Corona in the neighbourhood. This cast a spell of fear over all the residents. Now all of them, including Rajesh, were taken to a hospital and tested in isolation. Rajesh tested negative, but he still had to suffer his neighbourhood being barricaded. Now nobody could either go out or come in. This meant Rajesh couldn’t go to clean cars in the morning. He had no means of arranging food for himself. For seven days, he subsisted on water and one meal a day.

He then somehow got permission for resuming cleaning cars for the rich. But back home in his village, his parents both contracted the virus, and they were soon in a critical condition.

Rajesh had no means of going back to his village, which was 700 kilometres away. He didn’t know what to do. He began to recall his old life in the village, when he lived without any tension, amidst the warmth and safety of his home. Whatever presumptions he’d had about Delhi, and big cities in general, were proving to be opposite of what he had hoped and dreamt. All he could think of was going back to living with his parents in the village. He wished to rid himself of his current situation come-what-may.

Initially, he couldn’t come up with a plan, since he didn’t know any route back to his village, even if he started back on foot. Finally, he decided that he would follow the rail track to reach his village. He started on this path, hungry and thirsty.

On the way, some people were handing out food to migrants like Rajesh, who were journeying back home. For two days, Rajesh kept walking like this, surviving on such charitable provisions somewhere or the other, and thus he would store food for breakfast as well at dinner.

One such night, after eating and storing the food for the next meal, he resumed walking along the railway line. That night, he felt very tired, so he lay down on the track. Exhausted, he drifted off to sleep.

That very night, a train passed by on those tracks. And, after that, his eyes never opened.


[1] Indian Currency rupees: $1= Rs76

[2] An elderly gentleman in often referred to as uncleji in North India, ji being an honorific title

Nirbhay Bhogal is a 32-year-old amateur actor, with pandies’ theatre since late 2014, when she first experienced with them an altogether improvisational mode of workshopping a script chosen by the group. She’s currently pursuing a Bachelors in English Literature and hopes to make a career out of translating literary and non-literary works from Hindi into English, and vice versa. She was involved with the tail end of pandies’ workshop theatre at pre-pandemic Saksham school in Nithari and has also co-facilitated Zoom-based workshop theatre with Shakti Shalini’s shelter for women survivors of gender-based violence.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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pandies' corner

Children of Nithari: Stranger than Fiction

These are stories written by youngsters from the Nithari village. They transcended childhood trauma and deprivation for many decades. The column starts with a story by Sharad Kumar in Hindustani, translated for us by Grace M Sukanya

Sharad Kumar is a 22-year-old engineer / artist from Nithari, Delhi, currently in the final year of his B. Tech in Information Technology. He has also performed as an actor and singer for various college productions. He has been associated with pandies’ theatre group since 2010. His performance at the American Center, Delhi, with 40 more children from the school Saksham, Nithari, was the audience’s pick. Working with younger children in Nithari, teaching them Physics, Maths and also, how to perform on stage, he hopes to be able to give back to the community he comes from. His desire: quality education and opportunities to children from under-served backgrounds.

Stranger than Fiction

When it had begun, it had seemed it would just be for a short while and would get over quickly. But it had now been three months since the lockdown had been announced.

Mumbai’s streets were so quiet that it seemed the multitudes had been anaesthetised. Only the sound of dogs continued to disrupt the silence of the alleyways. Even the air felt cleaner.

But there was still one pollutant left: the virus. 

The corona warriors worked away at their jobs as though this was the battle of Mahabharat. Excepting a few people, everyone was busy waging a personal war.

On national television, people initially behaved admirably. But now they too showed symptoms of being infected by the virus of television rating points.

Mritunjay, an ordinary hawaldar, took time out of his busy schedule to lay out his gamchha and rest on it, as he did every day, and started knitting a dream from the past — his grandfather’s memories.

He traveled back in time to an era when the British Empire extended to almost all parts of the world.

*

Somewhere far away from the Indian sub-continent, Mritunjay’s grandfather, Dirghayu, was a soldier in the British Indian Army. Due to the circumstances of that time, Dirghayu and his compatriots were beholden to do the British’s bidding, waging war in trenches, pits, and holes for their colonial masters.

Meagre rations, living in squalor with rats, snakes, and other parasites, were all part of their war time trials. Standing every day in the cold water and the wet mud of waterlogged trenches had started taking its toll. With each passing day, Dirghayu’s legs were becoming more painful.

Then, one day the commander’s voice had announced the beginning of war, and everywhere cartridges, canons, and weapons poured forth rivers of blood. Perhaps, because of his name, Dirghayu, meaning the long-lived one, the hawaldar’s ancestor had been blessed with good luck and courage. He survived the enemy gunfire, the terrible living conditions, the horror of warfare, and managed to win the British their victory. The Commander was happy with his performance and decided to send him back to his homeland.

Back in the Indian subcontinent, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had just taken place. General Dyer’s order to fire at point blank range on a peaceful prayer meet had shocked the empire to its core. The cruelty of the British Raj had been increasing since Gandhiji’s successful Champaran Satyagrah. Some political parties had taken to violence and arms, challenging the British to a direct conflict. 

The Spanish Flu too, was at its peak. Millions of people had lost their lives. The death count was rising every day. Some scientists had estimated the death toll at as much as 5% of India’s entire population. 

Economy and communications had collapsed. The rulers, in an attempt to veil their incompetent handling of the pandemic, had busied themselves in passing a variety of bills and ordinances. The only relief forthcoming from them was a lockdown.

The people in the Indian subcontinent were faced with starvation, unemployment, lack of education, and an utter lack of services.

Seeing the country in this state, Dirghayu realised there were three more battles that he had to face: (i) to provide for the comforts and security of his family; (ii) to take precautions against the spread of the Spanish Flu; (iii) and, to continue to work honestly for the British government without compromising his principles.

One day, Dirghayu’s son asks him, “Why is the Spanish Flu known as the Spanish Flu?”

Dirghayu, who has had a little education, and had gleaned some information from the company of the British officers he served, told him: “It is because the Spanish were the first to report it, but people’s mind-set is such that they started calling it the Spanish Flu.”

Then his son suddenly changed the topic and asked him, “Why are you opposed to Gandhiji and the other freedom fighters?”

Dirghayu, shocked, attempted to circumvent the issue by proffering a false excuse: “Gandhiji has gotten the flu, and he must not be allowed to spread it to other people through these huge public gatherings. This is why I am opposed to them. In any case, my priority is the safety of you people. I have to earn money so I can look after you!” 

“So, if you had been there at Jallianwallah Bagh, would you too have fired at the crowd?” 

At this, Dirghayu was upset. He scolded his son, telling him to focus on his studies instead of asking unnecessary questions.

A few months later, however, Dirghayu faced a challenge that could lead to his losing all the three battles of his life simultaneously.

Dirghayu was summoned by the senior officials of the British Army. They told him that they had been informed by their secret services that some university students were involved in a massive conspiracy against the Rowlatt Act passed in 1919 to allow indefinite incarceration without a proper trial.

They gave him two options: He could either give up his post in the army and be dismissed in disgrace, losing his right to a pension, or he could arrest the mastermind of the conspiracy: his own son.  

Keeping his priorities in mind, Dirghayu chose to give up his post in the army even though he knew he would not be able to support his household without that money. Without the army pension, his fight against the Spanish Flu would also slow down, and he would have to face the problems that the many had to face in the subcontinent.

However, he gave his son some money, and managed to send him to a safe place.

He was brought in for questioning by his own colleagues. They cajoled him, coaxed him, threatened him, even tortured him — but he refused to give up his son’s location. Eventually, the authorities gave up and let him go.

After his wife’s death, he was left alone but he has managed to conquer at least two of the battles he had set forth for himself.

Night and day, like a Spanish Flu warrior, he was engaged in helping people, getting them medicines, arranging food for the poor, encouraging the sufferers to live, and helping them out in any way required as he fought against the devastation wrought by the disease.

But perhaps he could not win this last battle. His name had protected him so far, but he met his end at the hands of the Spanish Flu.

*

Suddenly, Mrityunjay was woken up by the voices of his colleagues.

They were asking him: “What are you dreaming? You seem to be lost in your dreams.”

He said: “Perhaps this is not a dream, but the reality. After all these years, things are still exactly the same.”

Glossary & Notes:

Gamchha – a cotton towel

Hawaldar – a police constable

Jallianwallah Bagh massacre: Click here to read.

Champaran Satyagrah: Click here to read.

Rowlatt Act: Click here to read more.

Spanish Flu: Click here to read more.

Grace M Sukanya is a 28-year-old filmmaker based in Delhi, India. She is interested in creating arts-based educational interventions for children that respond to socio-political issues. She has been associated with pandies’ theatre since 2020.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL