Mission Delhi – Rajinder, Central Delhi
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He is hundreds of miles away from home, and tends to keep his troubles to himself instead of adding anxieties to his family. For instance, when he accidentally hurt his left foot a few weeks ago while riding his rickshaw (despite the coronavirus-triggered lockdown), Rajinder didn’t utter a word about the “mild pain” to his wife, who lives in faraway Kolkata.
Anyways, he does not have easy means to reach out to her.
“I have no mobile,” he says, rolling up his expressive eyes. They look so full of life and motion that they could be a separate person altogether.
Rajinder is perched on the passenger seat of his rickshaw in a central Delhi market lane. He’s waiting for customers. It is still early in the morning.
In his late 40s, he is wearing a T-shirt and check shorts “that I bought before the lockdown.” He points out that he will get a new set of daily wear only after wearing out the present one.
The rickshaw puller has no fixed address in the city, though he has been living here for 17 years. He sleeps in a nearby Ren Basera, a shelter for the homeless.
“Why spend money on room rent when I’m alone here,” he argues, taking out an orange mask tucked away within the secret crevices of his rickshaw’s roof. Tying it with a practiced ease about his face, he explains that he came so far from his own city to better support his large family. “I have six daughters and no son, so I have to work doubly hard.” He admits Kolkata itself is a bustling metropolis with a variety of work options “but in Delhi you make more money… and you must remember I have six daughters.”
On request. Rajinder lists their names, and utters them out in a single breath as if chanting a mantra: “Pooja, Rupa, Tanu, Soni, Bipasha, Natasha.”
He mentions that his wife’s name is Champa Devi.
Rajinder now shows the hurt foot. For a better view, he places it on the rider’s padded seat and leisurely rubs his fingers over the heel. There are no scars. Every night at the shelter he massages his affected foot with “mom ki tel.”
While chatting, he admits candidly that he would be sometimes out on the streets with his rickshaw during the lockdown. “I’m sorry to have broken the rules… I would be finished with money, and forced to find a few rides.” Otherwise, he says, he would spend those days cooped up inside the homeless shelter.
Now he asks for his interlocutor’s mobile phone. “I try to talk to my wife by borrowing phone from customers or (friendly) shopkeepers… they always give it for me to make a brief call.”
The person on the other end picks up the phone almost at once, and Rajinder chats for a minute in an accent that is difficult to comprehend.
A short while later, he gets the day’s first customers.
[This is the 327th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
Father of six daughters