Jyoti Kumari Paswan has lost count of the media interviews she’s had to tackle over the last week — from 9 am to late evening, almost every day. Then, there are the VVIP phone calls, including a video call from former Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi.
The story of the 15-year-old’s decision to buy a second-hand cycle with the Rs 2,000 that was left with the family, and pedal from Sikanderpur in Haryana’s Gurgaon to her home in Bihar’s Darbhanga to escape the lockdown distress, has touched many — from politicians to bureaucrats, business tycoons to NRIs.
More so, since she was taking her injured father along on the 1,200-km journey — they were lucky to get a ride on a truck for the last 70 km, says her father, an e-rickshaw driver who was stuck without work after a road accident.
Today, Jyoti and her father are under home quarantine in Sirhulli village, unnerved by the media glare, and thankful for the surge of support.
“It gets difficult sometimes… They ask the same questions. Jyoti gets exhausted. Imagine, we are supposed to be in quarantine since we reached on May 15,” says Mohan, the father.
“But people have been kind,” he adds.
The Bihar government will provide free schooling for Jyoti, and has started work on constructing a bathroom at her home. Former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has transferred Rs 1 lakh to her account. Anand Kumar, the founder of Patna-based Super 30 for underprivileged IIT aspirants, has offered to sponsor her higher education.
That’s not all. Union MoS Ashwini Kumar Choubey wants to nominate Jyoti as the country’s “health ambassador”. And Rabri Devi has promised to fund her education — and marriage, “when that day comes”.
There’s already a pending invite from the national cycling federation for trials in New Delhi. Jyoti was reluctant initially but now says “cycle race jeetna hai, kyunki mein kuch banna chahti hoon (I have to win the cycle race because I want to achieve something)”.
The federation’s chairman Onkar Singh says the offer remains open. “Jyoti is confused by the attention she’s receiving. Once the frenzy subsides, we will contact her. We would like to conduct trials and mould her into a top-level cyclist,” he says.
Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad posted on Twitter that he has spoken to Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju “for identifying her talent”.
But for now, Jyoti is excited to go to school. “I will resume my education once the lockdown ends. Due to financial constraints, I had stopped going to school two years ago,” she says.
Her father says the family is not planning to return to Sikanderpur, and Jyoti will attend the Pindaruch High School near her village, where she gained admission following the intervention of the district education officer.
The family says every day brings a surprise, and bank notifications have been pinging for a while now.
But help isn’t always in cash. “We didn’t have a bathroom. Seeing our plight, workers from the Bihar government came to construct one for us. It should be ready in a couple of days,” says Mohan.
But amidst the tumult, Darbhanga’s one-time MP and former India cricketer Kirti Azad points to the larger story.
“The fundamental issue is that there is this daily wage worker who is unemployed, penniless and in such a dire position that he would die of poverty. So his daughter, who is a minor, takes it upon herself to take her father back to the village in a cycle without realising the consequences of what might happen. This is what needs to be talked about,” he says.
Mohan acknowledges that the government should have looked after the interests of migrant workers like him while implementing the lockdown.
“We were in a desperate situation… without money for food or rent. Had it not been for my daughter’s courage, we would not have made it. I’m thankful to God that we had a cycle. During our journey, we saw several people on the road, even children, walking,” he says.
As for his daughter’s future, Mohan prefers to take it easy: “Abhi bachhi hai (She’s just a child now).”
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