City Moment – Leaf Gatherer’s Daughter, Deer Park
The perfect Delhi instant.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
This afternoon, leaf collector Mahesh is making a round of the central Delhi park where he works, dragging his bicycle cart behind him. He occasionally stops, picks up the fallen leaves and tosses them into his cart. All of them are destined for the garbage.
But what’s this curious bundle, slumped in one corner of Mahesh’s cart?
On taking a closer look, it doesn’t look like a bundle.
It’s a child. She is sleeping in a slouched position, her head bent down on her knees.
“That’s Nandini, my daughter,” says Mahesh, casually shrugging his shoulders as if it were the most normal thing in the world to have a baby bundled up in a cart of leaves. “It’s her afternoon sleep time.”
Mahesh’s wife, Saraswati, is a leaf collector too, in the same park. Natives of Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh, they arrived in the city more than a year ago and have been in this job since about that time. The couple’s other child, the younger boy Ankit, is with his mother “somewhere over there,” Mahesh says, vaguely waving his arm towards a great tuft of trees.
The family has just had lunch — every day, they have it together on the park lawn. “We had roti and bhaaji, but I don’t know which bhaaji…,” says Mahesh, grinning widely. “I don’t cook food, my wife does.”
He explains that he and Saraswati divide the duties of looking after the children. “Ankit is very young and stays with his mother, while I look after Nandini.”
The little girl is a first standard student. “But her school is closed due to karuna (coronavirus).” As the girl has no access to online classes, she stays with her parents while they work. “Sometimes she plays with her bhayya, sometimes she plays alone…. and when she gets tired, she sleeps.”
Turning around to look at her, Mahesh affectionately taps his hand on Nandini’s head, muttering “she is very naughty when she is awake.”
The sleeping girl is barefoot.
A moment later, Mahesh tries to wake her up. Nandini doesn’t stir. Mahesh lifts her in his arms. The girl lets herself fall on his shoulder, eyes still closed. Mahesh cries to her, “Dekh machli (see, fish),” pointing to a flock of birds. Nandini continues sleeping. Mahesh carefully places her back in the cart and carries onwards. It’s a beautiful moment.