Mission Delhi – Shailesh Kumar, Central Delhi
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He is sitting beside his packets of masks. His masked face is plopped on his knees, as if he were trying to escape from the world around him.
“How can I be happy?” asks Shailesh Kumar, a hawker of face masks, here in a central Delhi lane. He talks of press photographers and TV cameramen directing their cameras at him as he and other fellow men queue up to get free food from charity organisations. “They show us as beggars… we are not beggars, but these times have made us helpless.” He is referring to the pandemic and the consequent lockdown.
Mr Kumar originally used to sell “school copies and general knowledge text books.” But now there’s hardly anyone on the streets to buy them, he says, prompting him to switch to masks. “I get the supply once a week from a wholesaler in Gandhi Nagar market.” He spends the day silently walking within the same localities, never crying out like street hawkers usually do. “How can you cry out when you are in a mask… right now I was sitting because I was tired.”
In the evening, Mr Kumar returns to the place where he sleeps—a ren basera, shelter for the homeless. “There, I have a bed and a chaadar.” The shelter also provides him with daily meals—“Sometimes they give dal chawal, sometimes subzi chawal.” In fact, he never strays far from the ren basera during his day-long wandering.
In his early 40s, Mr Kumar arrived in Delhi from his village in Nawada, Bihar, seven years ago. “Nothing’s left for me in the village. Mummy’s gone. Father sold off our small agricultural land.” He could have been a labourer in the district, he mutters, “but I cannot exert my body, I have been having breathing difficulties since childhood.”
He notes that “by my age, people already have children… but I did not marry because my life…” He doesn’t finish the sentence.
Mr Kumar resumes speaking after some time. “I’ve no friends in Delhi. Not even in the ren basera. Residents of the ren basera don’t trust reach other. I’m alone.”
He gazes at the empty street. “I will now get up.”
At night, he will keep the bag he is carrying under his head, like a pillow, “so that it remains safe with me.”
[This is the 409th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
The mask seller