India’s ‘cycle girl’: How pandemic changed a Dalit family’s life

Jyoti Paswan, 15, cycled 1,200km in May with her injured father on the back, drawing adulation and international media headlines.

Jyoti's story of determination caught the imagination of people across the country [Chinki Sinha/Al Jazeera]

Darbhanga, India – India’s coronavirus lockdown in March triggered a mass exodus of desperate migrant workers from cities, with many of them walking and cycling hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes following a blanket ban on transport.

Among them was Jyoti Paswan, a 15-year-old Dalit girl, who peddled more than 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) from Gurugram, a suburb of the Indian capital, to Darbhanga in Bihar state in May to take her injured father Mohan Paswan home.

Hers was a story of determination that caught the imagination of people across the country and grabbed international media headlines.

Ivanka Trump, the daughter of United States President Donald Trump, called it a “beautiful feat of endurance and love” on Twitter.

Jyoti was dubbed ‘the cycle girl’ and honoured by the Cycling Federation of India, which offered to train her for the Olympics.

Since then, journalists, filmmakers, politicians and NGOs have queued outside her house in Sirhulli village, presenting her with cash, clothes and at least six bicycles.

Local authorities have also helped Jyoti, who dropped out of school two years ago because her family could not afford her education, to resume her studies.

Anand Kumar, a renowned mathematician and founder of Super 30 institute, offered her free coaching. Super 30 tutors poor students for admission into India’s coveted engineering colleges, a venture that also inspired a Bollywood film with the same name.

“I am proud of what I did. I want to study and make something of my life,” Jyoti said.

The teenager has returned from appearing on a popular television show called SaReGaMaPa on Zee TV recently. And that was the first time she travelled by plane.

Jyoti holds a photo showing one of the six bicycles she received [Chinki Sinha/Al Jazeera]

Newfound prosperity

Over the past six months, the mud hut, which used to be the family’s living quarters, has made way for a three-storey concrete house, thanks to donations given to Jyoti.

Most men and women from Sirhulli village – home to about 1,000 people – migrate to cities to earn a living. Jyoti’s father Mohan, 45, worked as an e-rickshaw driver in Gurugram earning Rs 400-500 ($5.5-$7) a day.

Mohan belongs to the Dalit community, which is at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy. Despite laws to protect them, Dalits still face widespread discrimination.

Most Dalits in India are landless, and the majority of the 40 Dalit families in Sirhulli village work as daily wage labourers on farms owned by the upper-caste Hindus.

Now, Mohan says, everyone is jealous of them in the village because of their newfound prosperity.

The former village council head, Shravan Choudhary, a high-caste Brahmin, said the residents do not practice untouchability – but they do not mingle with Dalit families, either.

“Caste is a way of life in Bihar,” Choudhary told Al Jazeera. “All this money that Mohan Paswan has got is not a big deal. There are many in the village who have much more money so if he thinks he has become an important person, it means nothing.”

Desperate situation

In January, Jyoti had to rush to Gurugram along with her mother Phulo Devi, 40, after her father had an accident.

Phulo returned after 10 days to work at an Anganwadi centre, a rural child-care centre run as part of the Integrated Child Development Services programme to combat child malnutrition.

She was working as a daily wage-earner on top of her regular job to earn extra income to support her injured husband, who was unable to work.

Jyoti took care of her father with the money sent by her mother.

Jyoti, pictured in the back, with her family in Darbhanga [Chinki Sinha/Al Jazeera]

After the lockdown was announced on March 25, Jyoti says, they felt alienated, as their savings were soon spent and no help was forthcoming from any corner.

“I had to stand in a queue for the food the government was distributing and sometimes I’d get it and at other times, I would return with nothing,” Jyoti told Al Jazeera.

“We had no money to buy medicines,” she said.

Mohan lived in a shanty in Gurugram, a suburb of the Indian capital known for its posh gated societies and offices of multinational corporations, along with other migrant workers. They had to shell out Rs 3,000 ($40) per month for a dingy room.

By the first week of May, as her situation turned desperate, Jyoti met some migrants at the local grocery store who were planning to cycle to their villages in Bihar.

Migrant crisis

By then, India was in the middle of full-scale migrant crisis, witnessing the biggest population transfer since the subcontinent’s partition in 1947.

Nearly half of the 10 million displaced migrants belonged to northern Uttar Pradesh state and Bihar – two of the poorest states with a combined population of more than 300 million.

The teenager thought tagging along with other migrants was her best chance of returning home. Then she called her mother for permission.

Jyoti used her meagre savings to buy a second-hand bicycle from the neighbourhood for Rs 1,000 ($14) and set off on May 10 on the arduous journey with a water bottle and some food grains they could cook on the way.

We are no longer ostracised in the village for belonging to the lower caste

by Phulo Devi, Jyoti's mother

But peddling hundreds of kilometres carrying her injured father on the back was not easy, particularly in the oppressive heat of May.

The first two days were gruelling, Jyoti said. “I was afraid. I didn’t sleep for two nights in the beginning and my hands and feet would ache,” she told Al Jazeera. “I was worried how we would ever make it.”

Mohan said a Muslim family from Araria district in Bihar, who travelled with them, lent them a hand.

“They shared their food with us,” he said. “Also, people gave us food on the way.”

Jyoti also remembers how fellow travellers helped her.

“I don’t remember how many times we sat down to take a break. All I knew was that I had to get home somehow,” said Jyoti. Only once, she said, they rode a truck for about 50 kms (31 miles).

At times, she said, she felt she could not do it. But others offered encouragement.

The one time when she smiled was when they saw the iconic Taj Mahal in Agra, about 200km from Gurugram, from a distance. “I had only heard about it,” she said.

Mohan said he felt bad that his daughter had to carry him all the way, but there was no other way.

Basking in the limelight

When they finally made it home, they were asked to quarantine themselves in the government school outside the village.

“I couldn’t even give water to my daughter,” said Phulo, Jyoti’s mother. “The villagers kept saying they will bring corona to the village. I took food to her later.”

Phulo said that when Jyoti arrived she looked emaciated. “She had wounds on her back and hands and feet,” she said.

With all the attention, Jyoti has become somewhat of a local celebrity [Chinki Sinha/Al Jazeera]

The accounts of how they reached however, differ. Some say they hitched truck rides twice during the purported one-week journey.

“I wanted to do a follow up but I decided against it as it would seem that I was trying to discredit her,” said Alindra Thakur, a local journalist who broke the news.

I fear big cities. You feel so insignificant there. I felt sad in Gurugram and nobody cared for us there

by Jyoti Paswan

“It is still a big deal that she cycled with her father riding pillion,” he said.

Meanwhile, her mother Phulo, sitting in their new home, said the attitudes of upper-caste people have changed towards them. The Dalits – the former untouchables – have faced social discrimination for centuries as the upper-caste Hindus believe they are impure.

“We are no longer ostracised in the village for belonging to the lower caste. Previously, we would be shunned but now even upper-caste neighbours want to come to their house for tea,” Phulo told Al Jazeera.

Phulo used to earn Rs 180 ($2.45) per day to help make ends meet but she has stopped work since Jyoti arrived. The family hopes they will be able to pay off the Rs 100,000 ($1,362) loan with the cash windfalls they have received.

“I didn’t go back to the fields to work again,” the mother said. “We had too many people coming in. Our life has changed now.”

Two filmmakers, Vinod Kapri and Shine Krishna, have offered Jyoti film deals centred around the issue of migration.

“My film is about migration and lockdown and Jyoti is the symbol of courage. As a filmmaker I wanted to understand what compelled her to take this decision,” Kapri told Al Jazeera.

Mohan said the filmmaker had already paid Rs 51,000 ($695) as the signing amount for Jyoti’s story, which he used to build the house.

‘I fear big cities’

With all the attention, Jyoti has become somewhat of a local celebrity. “Now they all want to be friends with us in the village,” she said with a smile.

Sitting in her room, she flipped through the prints of photographs that were clicked when she had returned, as her father pointed out local politicians and others in the photos.

When Al Jazeera met her in September, the teenager was wearing jeans and a shirt. She has bought many pairs of her favourite attire.

Jyoti is not sure what she wants to be but she expressed her love of learning English, the language of India’s elite.

She now takes lessons at a local coaching centre, which the family could not afford previously. A tutor also comes to their home to teach her younger sister, Mansi, and her two brothers.

The 15-year-old now plans to study in her home town of Darbhanga. “I don’t want to leave this place any more.”

“I fear big cities. You feel so insignificant there. I felt sad in Gurugram and nobody cared for us there,” she told al Jazeera.