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Retirement, love, ambition, refuge: What a night shelter in Delhi provides women

GenderAnd Development: There is more to the lives of homeless women than the pitiful middle class gaze

Written by Sharad Akavoor | New Delhi |
Updated: June 28, 2017 10:52:35 am
GenderAnd Development: What living in a Delhi night shelter means for women

Sitting on the floor for she does not want to dirty the mattress, Dhanyabai holds her leg and narrates her trouble. She had apparently entered the premises of the night shelter with wet feet after coming back from the toilet; and the caretaker had scolded her for that. “At this age, I have severe problems in my knee, and if they tell me to get up again and clean, how do I do it?” complains the 62-year-old.

Dhanyabai is one of the several women residents of the family night shelter at Sarai Kale Khan near the Nizamuddin Railway Station in Delhi. It is one of the 262 night shelters across the city – 150 of which are under the aegis of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB). In a city that has constantly dealt with the issue of homelessness, the Sarai Kale Khan night shelter looks to offer women like Dhanyabai the security of an accommodation.

The Sarai Kale Khan night shelter is run by SPYM, an NGO which runs several similar shelters across the capital. Last year, a new mohalla clinic was set up in the premises here and employees of both DUSIB and SPYM conduct regular health checkups. The caretakers claim that the shelter has the capacity to hold up to 100 people at a given time but sometimes the number goes upto 200 people.

During summers, for various reasons, not a lot of people choose to stay in night shelters. “But once winter arrives, we go out in teams and urge people to stay indoors. Women are usually convinced by the fact that the shelter offers a permanent accommodation for them and their children. So on a normal day you would mostly see women here,” says Anju Rani, one of the caretakers at the Sarai Kale Khan night shelter which has been run by SPYM for the last four years.

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It is the peak of summer heat. A few children are playing cricket inside the compound, while others are being escorted back indoors by their mothers. Back inside, there isn’t much respite from the scorching sun, as Dhanyabai takes one end of her saffron saree and dabs her forehead. “I could complain about the people here but at the end of the day this is where I have found peace,” says Dhanyabai. The 62-year-old has been staying at the night shelter for close to four years. She stays with her 80-year-old husband Ratan Singh, to whom she was married at a very young age in Chhattisgarh’s Dhatrangi village. She, however, struggles to remember when.

“Everything happened so many years ago, and so much has happened. I just devote all my time to God,” says Dhanyabai while holding prayer beads in her hand. Following their early marriage, Dhanyabai’s husband Ratan Singh got married again, this time to her own sister. “At that time I was too young and I could not object to my father regarding my marriage nor my husband’s second marriage. He would have wanted a family for himself,” explains Dhanyabai with Ratan Singh seated by her side.

In his marriage to Dhanyabai’s sister, Ratan Singh went on to have five children. But following her death, Dhanyabai says she took care of them like her own. “I ensured that they were not left without the care of a mother and took responsibility of their upbringing,” she says. But her heart was set on a different direction. After years of staying in her village, she and her husband left their home and belongings in Dhatrangi and set out on pilgrimages to various Hindu shrines across north India. “In most of these places, I would stay at railway stations for almost a month. After my stay I would simply catch a train and move on,” she says. She believes that her journey to places like Amarnath, Kedarnath, Badrinath and Kashi has now led her to a life of peaceful ‘retirement’ in Delhi, where she came 15 years ago.

Dhanyabai also talks about her Dhatrangi, her village in Raipur district in Chhattisgarh. “All my children are settled and handling the farm land in the village now. I have no worries about them. Only thing I now care for is to build a temple on the land where there used to be one,” she says. She claims that five years ago, a temple dedicated to Hindu goddess Durga was destroyed, supposedly by rivals who she says didn’t want it there. “I have spent nearly one lakh rupees in the court proceedings following the demolition of the temple. I even wrote to Raman Singh (Chhattisgarh chief minister) about it. But nothing came out of it,” she adds. She last visited the village in February, this year.

Her devotion to her spirituality continues in Delhi. She wakes up early every day to catch a 7 am train from Nizamuddin railway station to visit a temple in Lodhi Road. She comes back by 3 in the afternoon and spends the rest of the day in the shelter. She manages her expenses by asking for alms and survives on the food offered from temples. “I only look to devote myself to God now. I have no wordly pleasures. All I want now is a peaceful and happy life with my husband; whatever God has in store for me,” she adds.


Unlike Dhanyabai, for many women staying in the night shelter, is not particularly, a matter of choice.

For 30-year-old Rekha Singh, the night shelter has become a refuge from the troubles she and her husband have faced. Holding her youngest child in her hand, she is reluctant to talk about her life. “I cannot tell my story to everyone. People here tell me not to speak to others because I don’t want people to know that my husband and I live here,” Rekha says adding that except for her family, no one knows she is living at the Sarai Kale Khan night shelter.

Rekha is a mother of three children – aged eight, six and the youngest two. She has been living here with her husband Avinash, a construction worker, and her children for the last two years. She was five when her mother took her and her siblings along and came to Delhi from a village in Andhra Pradesh, after her father passed away. Her mother married again and lives with her husband in Seemapuri.

She is skeptical about speaking about the reasons she came to the night shelter but says that it helps her husband and her to manage through with their troubles.

“A few years ago we had taken some loan amount from some people we knew. Some people started spreading rumours that we had run away with the money with no intention to pay back. We approached those who accused us; they were people with whom we had very good relations. But the damage had already been done. My mother and husband feared for our lives even at one point and we had to get away from the mess,” Rekha says adding that they keep saving up enough to pay back what they owe.

“I don’t want to be in trouble with anyone. We promised to pay back and we will,” she says. Rekha doesn’t work, saying that she stays at home taking care of her family. Her husband Avinash manages to earn between Rs 200 to 300 a day, which she says is enough to get them by every day. Her two older children study at a government school nearby. “It is not much of a problem managing things at home now. I sometimes think if I could have worked somewhere as labour too, but someone has to take care of the kids as well,” she says adding that most of the time many contractors don’t hire people who live in night shelters.

Ambition for the children

Rekha’s sentiment is echoed by her friend Kusum, who is standing nearby.

“Many of these contractors for some reason just ignore us. They instead hire people they know; it is easier for them,” says the 36-year-old mother of three. Like Rekha, Kusum’s reasons to live in the night shelter were much more of a necessity.

“I used to live underneath the flyover nearby with my family until three years ago. This place offered shelter, but it was never home,” says Kusum. She came to Delhi from Sagar in Madhya Pradesh. The financial situation of the family in Delhi was such that she had to send her three children – Deepak (16), Anju (15) and Jyoti (11) – to live with her brother back in her hometown. “I know if they lived here they would not lead a good life. It is not a good environment for them. Everyday, I see drunkards making a ruckus here. Back home, I at least know that they are with family getting a good education,” she says. She manages to speak to them over phone once in two months if not every month.

“I don’t find the strength to work in the heat at times. I have to manage with whatever savings I have,” she says. Her husband Mangal works as a construction worker. He earns close to Rs 300 every day, adding that he spends his savings in gambling and liquor. “I do wish at times that I could go back to my village; but finding work is more important. I find no joy in living like this. I just keep hoping for better things everyday,” she adds.

Love marriage

For women in the nigh shelter, getting work is an issue. Twenty-seven-year-old Ayesha Khan, who is a mother of four children, came to the Sarai Kale Khan night shelter four years ago. She came to Delhi from Sagar in Madhya Pradesh after she married her husband Satish, 12 years ago.

“Ours was a love marriage. And since Satish was a Hindu and I am a Muslim, our parents were not happy and we decided to elope,” she says. She hasn’t spoken to her family ever since and she and her husband have managed things on their own all this while. One of the reasons for coming here was an expectation to find work somewhere but the contractors never hire from here. Ayesha has to often beg near the Nizamuddin railway station to make ends meet.

Satish, who works as a labourer, earns close to Rs 500 a day, an amount, she says is sometimes sufficient to get by but finding work daily is not easy. “I wish things were better for us; at times I think about family back home as well.”

As the sun sets for the day, things start getting busier. The children go back inside after the day’s play and the men come back from their work. The women here hope to see better days, much like the other hundreds of thousands homeless across Delhi. But as the day comes to an end, it is only the signal of yet another day of getting through life’s routines.

Some names have been changed to protect identity.

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