Hers is an extraordinary tale of triumph against insurmountable odds and institutional apathy. Riding an old bicycle with her injured father perched precariously on its rear, a doughty 15-year-old pedalled to her native place in Bihar in just eight days to pull off a rescue mission that has got the world talking. Described by The New York Times as ‘lion-hearted’, Jyoti Kumari, a resident of Sirhulli village under Singhwara block of Darbhanga district, and her feat have become emblematic of the crisis the lockdown has engendered for migrant workers and the lengths to which they have to strive for the comfort of home.
Ever since she returned to her village earlier this month, people from all walks of life—from government officials and politicians to volunteers of charity organisations—have been making a beeline for her house, offering all kinds of support, including monetary help. The Cycling Federation of India also invited her for a trial. Jyoti, however, has rebuffed the offer. She first wants to complete her studies, which she had to leave after Class VIII due to her family’s financial condition. “I want to pass the matriculation examination now,” she says.
Impressed with her heroic feat, the district education officials have already enrolled her in Class IX at a nearby high school and also given her a new bicycle. Her father, Mohan Paswan, says that she may take part in cycling trials in the future, but at the moment, education is his daughter’s priority.
Jyoti, of course, had not expected fanfare, reward, adulation or accolades when she set out for an arduous journey along with her father on May 10. All she wanted to do was take him home to mitigate his mental and physical suffering. “My father was quite apprehensive about my plan to return home on a bicycle during the lockdown, but I reassured him that I would bring him back to the village,” she says.
Jyoti, along with her mother and brother-in-law, had gone to Gurgaon in January this year after her father, an e-rickshaw driver, sustained grievous injuries on his knee in an accident. While her mother, an anganwadi worker, and brother-in-law returned home in February, Jyoti had to stay back to look after her father. But it was getting increasingly difficult for the father-duo daughter to survive, especially during the lockdown. “After the lockdown was extended, my landlord asked me to clear the rent, but I had run short of money,” Paswan says. “I did not know how to return home because there was no train or bus available at the time. But Jyoti suggested we could return together on a bicycle.”
After convincing her father to ride pillion, Jyoti bought a second-hand bicycle and started her journey on May 10. Pedalling furiously for hours for eight consecutive days, at times getting help from a tractor or a lorry driver, she finally accomplished her mission to bring her father home on May 17. “We stopped at a few places to take short breaks,” she says. “Many people helped us with food and other things during the journey.”
Hailed as a modern-day Shravan Kumar, the mythological figure known for literally shouldering the burden of his parents in their old age, Jyoti received a grand welcome on arriving at her village. Her father, who had to leave for Gurgaon because of the dearth of opportunities in his flood-prone village, has now been offered jobs by some good Samaritans. Once he recuperates, he may not have to return to Gurgaon in search of a livelihood. And he will owe it all to his tenacious daughter.