Mission Delhi – Simon Khatoon, Central Delhi
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The woman in white sooti (cotton) sari is walking erect, with a big sack on her head. She is carrying it with confidence, showing neither fear nor instability as she wades through the lanes of this central Delhi neighbourhood. Even more astonishing is that she is balancing it without the aid of her arms.
On being stopped and complimented for this skill, she smiles, but without shaking her head, which stays as still as statue. “I have been doing it for years at this time of the morning,” says Simon Khatoon modestly. In her 60s, she is heading home after filling up her sack with vegetables for the day. Each day, at dawn, she leaves her home and walks for about a mile to the vegetable mandi where “I never buy any tarkari (vegetables),” she clarifies. She instead picks up the vegetables that accidentally fall off from “trucks and lorries” as they are transferred by the labourers from the vehicles to the mandi stalls. The vegetables come from Azadpur subzi mandi, from where most of Delhi gets its greens.
“This way I don’t have to spend money, and nobody suffers any loss,” says the woman, explaining that most of the veggies she picks up from the ground tend to be rotten and thus unsaleable—“but I slice off the rotten parts and the rest of the saag-subzi tastes fine.”
Ms Khatoon lives with her son, and is the family’s only breadwinner. She works as a part-time housemaid and dishwasher in a few households. Her husband died years ago, she says. “We had come from Patna.”
Ms Khatoon’s sack shows an emperor-like figure holding a rose, beside a dish of steaming rice—the branding suggests it originally belonged to a basmati rice company.
At this hour the street is empty. The woman’s eyes scan 180 degrees, as if searching for anything. Responding to a query, she expresses her relief that all her daughters are married. “One lives in Khajuri, another in Shastri Park…,” she lists, referring to various Delhi neighbourhoods. It’s her son for whom, she says, she continues to work even in her advancing years. “He cannot see… so he stays at home all the time.”
Now, raising her eyes upwards, she mutters “today I got a bit of matar, a bit of tamatar and a lot of gobhi.” Her voice suggests satisfaction. She starts walking again, her head perfectly still.
[This is the 395th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
A woman with load