Mission Delhi – Muhammad Salim, Mathura Road

One of the one per cent in 13 million.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

He is holding onto the rear bumper of a fast moving auto, the wheels of his low-floor improvised wooden trolley making a clattering noise on the potholed street. The auto is turning left towards Oberoi Hotel flyover. Letting it go, he is steering the trolley across Mathura Road, maneuvering it by hands. The cars and scooters are not slowing down to give him way. A blueline bus misses him just in time.

How much of the world the 18-year-old Muhamamd Salim would have seen if the polio had not destroyed his legs? Three days ago he boarded Dakshin Express from Jhansi, his hometown in Uttar Pradesh state, got down at Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station and made his way to Nizamuddin Basti, the 14th century Delhi village – all on his trolley. He has been sleeping on the Basti’s principal street, at a spot where pedestrians tend to urinate.

“I’ll return to Jhansi in a week,” says Mr Salim in his raspy voice. Looking like a street Romeo in his shiny brown shirt, he has a water bottle tucked into his jeans pocket. He has no money. “I get subzi-roti in the Dargah,” he says referring to the famous sufi shrine in the neighbourhood. What he had for the breakfast? “Chai,” he says.

As Mr Salim’s trolley rattles along the Mathura Road pavement, he says, “I’ve come here for sight-seeing.”

Is it fun?

“Fun?” he asks. “I’ve to crawl like an insect… you call this life?”

Then what it is?

“I must earn,” he says. “If I could run a guthka stall or get a hand-ridden rickshaw…”

In Jhansi, Mr Salim’s father pulls a rickshaw. Can’t he get a disabled-friendly rickshaw there? “I have six sisters and three brothers back home and I want to live alone,” he says.

What’s nice about sleeping on stinky footpaths here?

“In Jhansi, there is nothing,” Mr Salim says impatiently. “In Delhi, nobody ever goes hungry. I’m planning to come here for good. I want to make another beginning.”

[This is the first portrait of the Mission Delhi project]

Is this life?

Hey, careful

Give him way

Is life beautiful?