Life without a roof: of Sufi Begum and her children

March 9th, 2008 - 2:44 pm ICT by admin  

(Feature)
By Kavita Bajeli-Datt
New Delhi, March 9 (IANS) She came into the world under an open sky. Now, 37 years later, nothing has changed for Sufi Begum - one of Delhi’s 10,000 homeless women - who gave birth to her seventh child here this month, again in the open. Brought up on charity and food offered at Delhi’s Nizamuddin Dargah monument, Begum was also born in the same area. She and her three children - the other four are dead - are homeless, with just a tarpaulin over their head for shelter.

Littered with dirt, the area where she lives is just behind the dargah and smells like an open drain. Rickshaw-pullers park their vehicles there at night and sleep on them, while devotees who come from far off places pile on their garbage there.

She is married to a man who turns up once in a blue moon.

But Begum’s hardships have not broken her spirit. “He (god) has brought me to this world. He will take care of me. I don’t beg. People are nice enough to give me clothes, food and money,” Begum told IANS.

Near her “home” is a grey and mouldy-looking tented shelter for the homeless. Divided into two sections - for men and women - it has 60-odd people living inside and sleeping on tables covered with red carpets at night. But this too is a winter refuge that will be removed soon.

While the Delhi government has provided the tent, the shelter is run by Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA) - an NGO that works for homeless people and pavement dwellers - and manages 26 such places.

Begum too was earlier living in the tent but after a fight with others, she pitched her tarpaulin nearby and shifted out with her children. It was here that she gave birth with the help of two local women.

Wearing a red salwar and kurta, Begum seems strong for a woman who has given birth as recently as March 5. Perhaps it’s an inner strength that comes from fending off drunken men and druggies who have in the past tried to molest her.

“Night is the most dangerous time. Drunken men and some high on drugs try to molest me. Every night it is a fight for survival. I have to be strong. Otherwise, where will a homeless women like me live with her children?” she said.

Like her, 18-year-old Haseena fears the night. “Yesterday, four men entered the tent and threatened my mother that they would kidnap me.” Her mother has gone into hiding.

“I don’t know where she is now or when she is coming back. What will happen to me?” she asked.

Her red, swollen eyes speak a story of shattered dreams. Born into a poor family in Hyderabad, she asked her parents to get her married so that life could change for the better.

She came with her mother to the Dargah for blessings and stayed in the tented shelter. Haseena was married off to a man, but the same night he ran away with the woman who had introduced them.

“I wanted to marry because I thought I would get away from poverty. Is it wrong to think of comfort, food and a roof over my head?” asked Haseena.

Then there is 90-year-old Renu Jadav. Born in Kolkata, she came to live with her eldest daughter in the capital. But after a fight, she walked out and came to live in the tent.

“I have nothing else to do but beg for alms. I have been doing that for the past three years. I have no other means, I am not strong enough to work.”

Toilets are a big problem as the women are illegally asked to shell out Rs.2 for each visit to facilities provided by the government. Often these women go without bathing.

They are all dreading the summer when their only shelter will be taken away. Most will take refuge under trees.

Abhiyan director Paramjeet Kaur agreed that for homeless people, summer is more harsh than winter. “The state has to plan something. We all know about deaths caused by heat strokes during summers.”

As the seasons come and go, little changes for the homeless women.

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