A Mid Winter Night's Dream
NEW DELHI: The beginning of winter for some means shifting from whiskey to rum but for Shankar, that’s not the pressing issue. In his case, the major concern that winter brings with it is the evening. And maybe the morning too.
It seems almost impossible to imagine Shankar in a state of full consciousness at any point of time, round the clock. The room he was lying in was once a big classroom of a former government school that has now been turned into a permanent night shelter for the homeless in central Delhi.
Shankar, 30, is originally from Shahjahanpur (U.P.) and people say he’s been in the shelter for the last two months. He talks about his qualifications and says that he is a graduate in arts. He claims to have married some 10 years ago and says his three children are at home. Perhaps it was the alcohol, but as we spoke, his emotional tolerance came to its limit. Sensing some concern in my questions, he was unable to clear off any mystery from his past. The only thing evident from his emotional breakdown was that he somewhere had a profound sense of guilt related to his family.
The first favour he wanted from me was medical assistance as he asked me to take him to a hospital and get admitted. Though he denied any serious illness he doubted if his kidney or liver were okay as his stomach aches often. Though I found him under the utter influence of alcohol in the middle of the day, I had reason to believe him when he secretly and fearfully told me about the physical torture he was subjected to by the shelter staff.
Given that people like Shankar are vulnerable to any kind of abuse and violence due to their addiction, it’s not hard to imagine that such shelters are manipulating the situation to their interest.
The only second person in the same room was lying in another corner just a few feet away from Shankar. The blanket he had on him was from the shelter. The haunting silence in his eyes was no less than a warning: Depress Responsibly!
I was charged only a bundle of cheap beedi and a match box, just rupees seven in total, for him to give me a few details about his life. The old man lying before me was Abdul Shakur in his mid seventies. The way he told me his complete address made me think of Kanpur not as a railway station but a city that starts from its railway station. With a shabby water bottle on one side of his head and few broken pieces of parle-g biscuit on the other, Abdul said that he once used to be a labourer-tailor and didn’t forget to tell me about his one fierce enemy who ditched him in some business and ruined everything.
With one hip broken Abdul said that he hadn’t walked out of the room in the last 3 or 4 days. He can’t even get up by himself. For a very brief moment I happened to notice his long, skinny fingers as they came out of his blanket. They seemed not to have touched water in ages.
Out of more than 200 night shelters in Delhi, majority of them are temporary, as they come into existence only during winters. An underground subway at AIIMS is one such temporary night shelter where the subway has been closed and the area has been switched to accommodate needy people from the surroundings. Since it’s near AIIMS, the majority of people living in the shelter are poor patients and their relatives who can’t afford to rent an accommodation nor bear the cold out there. Among these, Mayank, two and half years old, is sitting quietly, almost absentmindedly in his mother’s lap.
He is suffering from some mental illness that causes him sudden rounds of fits. He is not even capable of eating by himself. He has come with his parents and a relative from Gwalior (M.P.). His father, Manoj, works as a labourer in a tailoring shop and manages to earn around 7K rupees in a month on average.
Manoj is yet to meet the doctors the next day and has no idea how long he might have to stay in Delhi for his child’s treatment. But he is sure of one thing: he would be staying only in night shelters, preferably this one, as long as he is supposed to stay in Delhi.
There are two kinds of temporary night shelters in Delhi: tent built shelters and porta-cabin shelters. Naseer Khan lives in a porta cabin shelter in south Delhi region for almost a year now. He is not sure about his age so he leaves it to those who have concern for it. He is only concerned about his fading eyesight.
Naseer basically belongs to Aligarh, U.P. but has been living in Delhi now for decades. After the government demolished his slum dwelling along with others in R.K.Puram, Sector-1 area, for Delhi’s commonwealth games -- he started living by the roadside in Mohammadpur area. He said he has 6 children, 3 sons and 3 daughters, some living in another part of Delhi and none of them are in touch with him.
Coincidently and very surprisingly he also used to be a tailor worker once and had also a government job of sewing police uniforms. Due to age related eye sight problems, he had to quit his tailoring job some 4-5 years ago. Now, with no one to help him with his eyes, he desperately asks me if I can do anything. Or if I could suggest any hospital or doctor or so. The way Naseer takes off his eyes and looks lost even while talking suggests that even the bunch of kids playing around him doesn’t kill his loneliness to any extent.
After meeting Shri Ram Ganga Charan inside another temporary night shelter in South Delhi you can feel the universal presence of the likes of Gheesu and Madhav, the two central characters of Premchand’s infamous, timeless story ‘KAFAN’ (Shroud). At around 7 pm in the evening, I found him lying comfortably on a new-looking mattress, talking to his friend from the shelter. Both of them were having rounds of conversation after having polished off today’s quota of alcohol. Ganga said that he was from Moradabad, U.P. and had no work to earn a living. He claims to have worked as a labourer when this night shelter was being constructed but was paid nothing. Now all he wanted me to do is to tell the authority to provide his shelter with food like it was when the shelter started some 5 years ago.
But the caretaker of the shelter, an elderly from Badayun (U.P.), told me in a whisper that Ganga works as a sweeper and spends whatever little money he earns on nothing but ‘saansi ki daaru’ (a local brand of cheap alcohol). He adds that they often work just on deals for a bottle. The caretaker, in a flat, tired voice said that it was a common story in the shelter.
I have visited only a few shelters and been told a few tragedies. These night shelters, the pedestrians, their lampposts and the winter itself, are yet to witness countless stories in Delhi in the coming days. And I am sure some of them would be far more brutal than the ones I have told here. The size of the population always seems ready to diminish every effort by the government and other organisations. And yet, not all intentions are reliable.
A recent mobile app for homeless people by the Delhi government looks very promising only from a distance. I wonder, even initiatives from responsible citizens will only assure of small part of the intervention needed.
No one knows whether ending up in a night shelter in Delhi will save someone from the killer winter or the shelter itself will turn out to be a house of nightmares for such people.
(Rohit Rajvardhan is a photojournalist with The Citizen)