Tapeshwar, they say around here in Hapur’s Braj Ghat, is now almost as famous as the Ganga. Ask anyone about him and they point you to the Omkaar Rajeshwar Swami Vidya Mandir near which he sits on a pavement, with a bed, some clothes, a bicycle, and Babita.
They call them Somu and Nehalata, the couple played by Kamal Haasan and Sridevi in Sadma, the 1980s movie that tells the story of a school teacher who falls in love with a woman who has the mind of a seven-year-old. What makes their story the stuff of movies is the journey Tapeshwar made — almost 200 km on his cycle — to find and bring back Babita after she went missing.
Tapeshwar says they met by chance. Originally from Arnia in Bihar, he lost his parents to a fire when just eight. “I lived a lonely life on the roads. Then, around a decade ago, I married a Nepali woman and had two children with her. But she left me for someone else and took away the children too. Kismat brought me to Braj Ghat, where I found my world in Babita.”
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That was three years ago. Mentally challenged, Babita is believed to have been abandoned by her family and somehow made her way to Braj Ghat, around 40 km from Hapur.
People in Braj Ghat who know the couple say Babita hardly speaks to anyone besides Tapeshwar, and that he feeds her, bathes her and looks after her. Tapeshwar says he makes around Rs 50-100 a day, collecting coins that people throw into the Ganga as an offering. On good days, he makes up to Rs 250.
Sandhya, who is a regular visitor to a nearby tea shop, says, “Babita appears to be from a good family. She can write both Hindi and English, and sometimes also recites shlokas in Sanskrit. Often she reads aloud from a newspaper for Tapeshwar.” According to her, Tapeshwar often plays songs on his cellphone for Babita, though she hardly pays any heed to the music.
Then, one day in February or March, Babita went missing. Tapeshwar believes she was taken away by a “pimp”, who lured her with sweets while she sat outside the Omkaar Rajeshwar Swami Vidya Mandir, hoping as usual to get leftovers from the mid-day meal.
Tapeshwar first approached the Braj Ghat police chowki. When the police failed to find any clues for a week, Tapeshwar decided to look for Babita himself.
He doesn’t remember the day in March when he got up at sunrise and cycled — first to Hapur and then to Meerut and Delhi — looking for Babita at brothels and red-light areas, and approaching the police at nearby stations.
Satish Pandey, Circle Officer of the Garhmukteshwar area of Hapur, says they tried to help him. “But Tapeshwar didn’t even have a photo of Babita to show us. Yet, we interrogated many local people and got a sketch done.”
The Meerut police too set up teams to find Babita, but with little luck.
Having looked for Babita in March and April, Tapeshwar returned home. He resumed his search in June and continued till September. Again, he made many short trips to Meerut and Hapur, and claims police didn’t help much.
Tapeshwar says he spent several sleepless nights thinking about what Babita may be going through. Every time he ventured out on his hunt, he would ensure he carried a set of clothes for her.
“She soils herself. Who would have cleaned her? When I found her, she was covered in bruises. Her skin was black with dirt. Ab nehla-dhula ke saaf kiya hai to dekho kaise rang nikhar aaya hai (I have bathed her, cleaned her. See how beautiful she looks now).”
Finally, in November, he got lucky. “A boy from these parts, Sonu, was visiting his aunt in Haldwani. Sonu called up Tapeshwar on his mobile and informed him that Babita was seen sitting outside a bus-station. Tapeshwar immediately left for Haldwani,” says Pramod Chauhan, who owns a cement shop in front of the pavement where Tapeshwar and Babita live.
On November 8, Tapeshwar finally found Babita and they returned home four days later.
Sanjay Singh, who is at the tea shop, says, “Sonu had a clash with Tapeshwar after he brought Babita home. Tapeshwar had announced a reward of Rs 1.21 lakh to anyone who found Babita. Why did Tapeshwar announce a reward if he had no money? And for what? She is crazy anyway.”
Phoolwati, a daily wage labourer who lives in a lane next to the school, admonishes Singh. “Kaise baat karte ho? Jitna woh khyal rakhta hai, koi rakh nahin sakta. Tumhari biwi gum gai na, tum na jaaoge cycle se dhoondne (How can you talk like this? The way Tapeshwar cares for Babita, nobody can do it. If your wife had got lost, you wouldn’t have gone on a cycle looking for her).”
Babita speaks little through all this. But when Phoolwati tries to touch the green bangles on her hand, she suddenly speaks, “Inhone dilai thi jab yehan bazaar laga tha. Inhone pehna di to maine pahen li. Ab achchi lagin to pahen li (Tapeshwar got these for me when there was a market here. He put them on, so I wore them. I liked them).”
Seeing people gathered around their pavement, she instructs Tapeshwar: “Chaai banao. Log ghar aaye hain.”
Tapeshwar laughs, saying “her manners” show Babita comes from a good background. “She must have met with some accident. Otherwise, who would leave a woman like her?”
What if someday Babita’s family comes to take her away? “I will let her go. For her good. I don’t have anything to give her,” Tapeshwar says, taking a deep breath.
To the talk, including by the police, that the two are not married, he says, “I will love her always. Our relationship doesn’t need a label.”
Then, looking into Babita’s eyes, he asks, “Arre, aaj roti nahin pakegi kya (Won’t we make food today)?”. She smiles, “You make.”
“I can die for her smile,” Tapeshwar beams back.