NEW DELHI – She was a 15-year-old with a simple mission: bring dad home.
Jyoti Kumari and her dad had almost no money, no transport, and their village was halfway across India.
And her father, a migrant worker without work, was injured and could barely walk.
So Jyoti said to his dad: Let me take you home. He thought the idea was crazy but agreed to it. She then jumped on a $ 20 purple bike bought with the last of her savings. With her father lying on the back, she trampled from the outskirts of New Delhi to their hometown, 700 miles away.
Over the past two months during India’s coronavirus lockup, millions of migrant workers and their families have been pouring out of India’s cities, desperate and penniless, as they try to return to their native villages where they can rely on family networks to survive.
Many have not. Some have been crushed by trains; others are driven by trucks. Some have simply collapsed as they tangled down a long, hot highway, dead from exhaustion.
But in the midst of all this pain and sorrow a story of devotion and uprightness now arises. The Indian press has taken advantage of this emotional story and gossip about Jyoti the “lion-hearted.”
And a few days ago the story got even better.
When she was resting in her village Jyoti got a call from Cycling Federation of India. Convinced that she had the right stuff, Onkar Singh, the chairman of the federation, asked her to New Delhi for a test with the national team.
“She has great talent,” Singh said.
Reached by phone on Friday in her village of Sirhulli, in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, Jyoti said with a scraping voice barely over a whisper, for she still sounds exhausted: “I’m excited, I really want to go.”
As India struggles with the corona virus and the serious measures to contain it, the situation of the country’s migrant workers has become a crisis within a crisis.
But when the lockdown discovered their chances of getting a job, they feared running out of money and food and began long, treacherous trips back to their hometowns.
Scientists estimate that tens of millions are on the way, the largest migration of people across the subcontinent since India’s and Pakistan’s partition in 1947.
When it becomes a matter of survival, said Priya Deshingkar, professor of migration and development at the University of Sussex, migrant workers will “try to go home, because that’s where their real social safety net lies.”
That is exactly why Jyoti hit the road.
Her father, Mohan Paswan, a rickshaw driver from a lower part of India’s caste system, was injured in a traffic accident in January and ran out of money even before the lockdown. He was among the legions of migrant workers who performed hard jobs in the shadows of Gurugram, a satellite city in New Delhi and home to corridors of shining glass towers and many millionaires.
Jyoti came out from their village in Bihar to take care of Mr. Paswan. She had left school a year ago because the family did not have enough money. It got even worse after the lockdown, with their landlord threatening to kick them out and then turn off their electricity.
When Jyoti made the escape plan, her father shook his head.
“I said, ‘Look, daughter, it’s not four or five miles that you’re going to pull me from here. It’s 12-, 13-hundred kilometers. How are we going? “He said in a video broadcast by the BBC’s Hindi service.
The two bought a simple girl bike for about $ 20. On May 8, they left, Jyoti at the board, dad sitting on the pillow. Jyoti was pretty confident on a bike and had been riding a lot in his village.
Many days they had some food. They slept at gas stations. They lived by strange generosity. Jyoti said that in addition to a short lift on a truck, she pedaled almost 100 miles a day. That was not easy. Her father is big and he carries a bag.
As they moved down the long roads under the sun, many people teased them and said it was ridiculous for a girl to trample while her father sat on his back.
“Dad would be upset when he heard such things, but I told him not to worry because people didn’t know he was hurt,” Jyoti told an interviewer at The Wire, an Indian publication. (In recent days she has done many interviews).
After arriving at her village last weekend, her father went into a quarantine center – many states in India have tried to bind migrant workers returning from the cities to prevent the corona virus from reaching deep into the countryside. How well it works is unclear.
When the shutdown is relaxed, infections increase rapidly. India has reported about 120,000, its curve is one of the steepest among large countries. Many health experts believe that the real numbers are even higher but hidden because of India’s relatively low levels of testing.
Jyoti’s mother convinced the village elders to quarantine her at home. She was exhausted and soon besieged by reporters.
A few days later, on Thursday morning, she received The Call.
The Cycling Federation of India, which looks for young talent and sends the best to international competitions, including the Olympics, tracked her down through a journalist. Mr Singh, the chairman, said he had been moved by how far she was trampling a heavy person on her back.
“And luggage,” Mr. Singh was quick to add.
The union plans to bring her to New Delhi via “something comfortable, like an AC train,” he said, referring to the air-conditioned service. She will then do a series of bike tests.
As for how much she actually saved from the help she got from trucks, Mr. Acknowledged. Singh that perhaps the story had become a little stretched, completely understandable in times like these.
But one thing was not in doubt, Singh said.
“She has guts.”
Jeffrey Gettleman reported from New Delhi and Suhasini Raj from Lucknow, India. Hari Kumar contributed with reporting from New Delhi.