By Meera Devi
For my daughter Nisha, the only thing that was of concern was her work. Not because she liked it particularly, or because it was something she had ever wanted to do, but because at the age of 18, she was the sole breadwinner for a family of nine: me, my husband and our seven children. She used to be a student at the big government school nearby. I had never studied, but I had really hoped that she would study and do some good work. My husband has not worked for nearly a decade — he drinks and is rarely aware of what the family needs — and I have been in and out of work. Two years ago, Nisha failed Class IX, stopped going to school and began working at the company whose office burned down in Mundka on May 13. She did not even have a Class X certificate. Our circumstances and my husband’s ways pushed her into work when she had barely finished childhood and at the age of 18, she was the one carrying the burden of our family’s struggles on her shoulders.
The children were always hungry, they were starving. My daughter, my bachchi, said that she would have to work. Our neighbour Yashoda used to work at the factory and knew that we were having a difficult time. She came up to me and asked me if Nisha would work, I said, “Haan, kaam kar legi (Yes, she will work).” Now Yashoda is dead and my daughter probably is, too.
She worked hard, bahut mehnat karti thi. She had started working for Rs 6,500 per month and last Diwali, it was increased to Rs 7,500 per month. She left home at 9.30 every morning and took a bus to the office which is around 4 km away. The day would end at 6 pm and she would usually be home by 7 pm. Sometimes she would work overtime as well. It was hard for her to take a day off, her supervisor would tell her that he would cut her pay for the day from her month’s salary. Even after she would come back from work tired, my husband would pick on her and goad her. But all of her work was not enough to provide for this family. We were still hungry.
Our lives are tough. Nisha would never talk to me about what it was that she really wanted to do. She was just concerned about getting to work and providing for the family. She was worried about her siblings. I think the question of liking her work or finding work that she liked was something that she has never been able to think about. Work was work, something that had to be done. Her best friend tells me that she wanted to enable us to get a better home than the dark, one-room home we all live in, where the babies, toddlers, teenagers, me and my husband all sleep. (One daughter is married and lives with her in-laws.) Nisha had told me that she was talking to Yashoda about maybe looking for work elsewhere, at a footwear company that would pay better and enable her to take leave once in a while.
I used to work too. Even for me, work was work. I worked in a nearby factory, making red roses out of cloth but it was always irregular. My 10-year-old is sickly; she is disabled, so it is hard to be away from home. Then I got pregnant with my eighth child last year. Six months ago, I stopped going to work. Now I am running from pillar to post to identify my child who supported me. I have given my blood for the DNA test, hoping that it will lead me to her body.
Meera Devi is the mother of Nisha Kumari, one of the 21 women who died or are presumed to be dead in the fire which gutted an office building in Mundka, Delhi, on May 13. Nisha is among those whose status is listed as “missing”, as her family has not been able to identify her body among the ones at the Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Hospital. As told to Sukrita Baruah.