A few nights before Eid, a homeless rickshaw puller in his 50s, asleep fitfully on a road divider in Old Delhi, was run over by a speeding vehicle. Homeless people asleep near busy highways are mowed down with monotonous regularity in every Indian city by recklessly racing automobiles and lorries, often driven by drunk men. So it isn’t surprising that news of this homeless man’s death did not merit a small mention even on the inside pages of any newspaper.
Even as I write this a fortnight later, the mangled body of this man still lies in a mortuary. The police are unwilling to allow his burial until they follow the drill of first publishing his picture in a local newspaper. They have not been able to find the time to do this so far.
Was this then the inevitable eventual destiny of this man to become just one more anonymous “unclaimed body” submerged and then erased in cold police statistics? With no identity. No name. Unmourned. Homeless and destitute. Leaving behind no trace even that he had ever lived. Was his life and death indeed of no consequence?
For this man, however, we do know his name. And we have a precious record of his life. His name was Mohammed Abdul Kasim Ali Shaikh. We have a record of his life because we at Karwan-e-Mohabbat had decided to make a series of short films about the lives of working-class people. We wanted to know about their perspectives on life and our country. Maybe we could learn something from them. We wanted to try in this way to penetrate the often-toxic world of social media.
A garrulous, friendly man
Shaikh was an obvious early choice for this series. He had lived the last years of his life in a shelter for homeless men run by my colleagues in Aman Biradari, at Geeta Ghat in Old Delhi on the banks of the river Yamuna. He was garrulous and friendly. When approached, he said he wanted to speak about his life on camera.
It is as though before he died, he wanted to tell the world his story. He spoke eloquently, with unfailing dignity, interspersed with philosophy and even lines of poetry. He spoke to us of his coming alone to Delhi at the age of eight from his home in rural Bengal, of his abuse as a child, of survival through sex work, of contracting HIV, of the dignity of surviving by plying a cycle rickshaw.
When the film was ready, we showed it to him, to make sure again that indeed he wanted it to go out into the world. He pointed to the smartphone of Sandeep Yadav, our young cameraman who had come to care a great deal for Shaikh
while making the film. Put this now on your phone and show it to the world,Shaikh said. We did. The film touched a deep chord in all who watched it.
Where can you push a homeless person, Shaikh asks philosophically at the start of the film. If you push him out of Delhi, he will go to Jaipur. You push him out of Jaipur, he will go to Ajmer. You push him out of Ajmer, he will go to Kanpur. You push him out of Kanpur, he will go to Kolkata. You push him out of Kolkata, he will come back to Delhi. Where else can a homeless person go, except to the streets? A man of the streets remains a man of the streets. There is no other place for him.
Escaping hunger and poverty, Shaikh came to Delhi when he was eight years old, clutching a small bag of flat rice and jaggery. He has been homeless in all of the more than 40 years since then. He did whatever work came his way, earning sometimes just Rs 5 in a full day, sleeping alone on hard city streets, braving the seasons, braving hunger and loneliness.
One day an older man signalled to him. He spoke to him with what seemed to the child to be kindness. He offered him some food, and asked him to walk with him. He led him into his room, and there behind closed doors took off his clothes, asking him to sleep with him. The boy was repelled and disgusted, but the man persisted. Over time, this fell into a pattern. When he was hungry, he would stand outside a restaurant, and men would pick him up, giving him food and money for sex. In this way, he grew to become a man.
Dignity in hard labour
It was when he learned to ply a rickshaw that he found both escape and dignity in hard labour. He saved money over time and bought his own rickshaw. Men would still approach him for sex, but now he would turn them down. Some still forced themselves on him. He learned that he would be safe if he did not wash his body, and allowed himself to be covered with grime. His unwashed smelly body kept men away from him when he slept on the streets.
When the years passed, he found his strength flagging. He often fell sick. He went at last to a doctor, who diagnosed him to be infected with HIV. He said he could be treated in hospital but for this he needed to produce some proof of identity.
But what identity does a homeless person have? Shaikh recited some lines of Bengali poetry:
“This land is not mine
This place is not mine.
Yet I have made this place my home.
I built my home here
But still in the end who owns this home?
The owner of the land.
I own nothing.”
Eventually Shaikh’s journeys brought him to the Aman Biradari homeless men’s shelter in Geeta Ghat, on the banks of the Yamuna in Old Delhi. My colleagues counselled him that he would need to take medicines all his life, and for this he was welcome to live permanently at the shelter. In this way Geeta Ghat became his home, the first home he had after he left his village in Bengal as a young child. He worked as an active volunteer, making purchases and cooking for the homeless TB and injury patients there. He made friends among the residents and staff, and transported our homeless patients to hospital in his cycle rickshaw.
On a hot summer night a few days before Eid, Kasim lay down for the last time in his hard life on the pavement next to a busy highway just outside the Geeta Ghat shelter. Most people cannot understand why homeless people sleep on traffic islands or pavements near busy highways risking their lives every night. It took many years of our work with homeless people to understand the simple reason: mosquitoes.
What we have learnt is that especially during the summers and monsoons, homeless people choose to sleep on the sides of highways teeming nightlong with automobiles and on traffic islands as the only way to escape mosquitoes. On safer locations like parks or even homeless shelters, they cannot sleep because they are assailed by the insects all night. They have found that automobile fumes drive away mosquitoes. Despite the noise and lights of traffic, traffic islands and highway pavements alone become a strange haven that affords them some kind of sleep.
Our Aman Biradari colleagues often tried to dissuade Shaikh from sleeping on the sides of the highway. He told them, I can’t sleep because of the mosquitoes. On the footpath on the side of the highway, I can at least sleep a little.
Searching for home
We are not sure exactly what happened that night, but a big auto-tempo taxi driving at breakneck speed drove over Shaikh. It dragged him a distance, until the tempo itself overturned, and broke the leg of the 19-year old driver.
Weeks before he died, he had begun speaking wistfully of taking our help to try to find his family in Bengal. He had only the faintest memories of his childhood, but maybe he would find someone from his family again. But that was not to be.
The life and death of Mohammed Abdul Kasim Ali Shaikh are a reminder once again to us of the world we have created. A world with cities in which people have to destroy their lungs forever and risk their lives each night only for a few hours of some kind of sleep. A world in which our most vulnerable brothers and sisters have to survive hunger, abuse and loneliness in cities that do not care.
I mourn Kasim Shaikh. I mourn us.