Outside Bhikaji Cama Place, 38-year-old Sharda stands and looks at the road and the high-rise buildings around her. It’s almost as if she owns them.
Then she points at the flyover in front of her and calls it home. You turn and look around for a small shanty or at least a tarpaulin hut. But your eyes don’t see what she sees.
There’s no shanty. There’s no tarpaulin hut. You don’t see anything, but the mother of five sees her home.
“Main yahin pe paida hui thi. Mere bachche bhi yahin paida hue (I was born here and so were my children),” she says to drive the point home.
Sharda is one of the many homeless who are born on the streets, live on the streets and die on the city’s streets.
Sharda sells balloons and flowers under the flyover. Ahead of Republic Day and Independence Day, she adds the national flag to the wares that she peddles.
She looks at the flyover that she calls her home and says, “My husband, my brother and I built this flyover with our hands. We have also worked to build some of these big buildings behind us.”
Sharda married Gopal 16 years ago. While the marriage took place in their ancestral village in Tonk, Rajasthan, they held a small party on the streets after the marriage.
“Whenever someone gets married here all of us get together to celebrate,” she says.
Celebration is usually a small get together with folk songs, food and alcohol in the dead of the night.
“Before I got married I used to live in my ancestral house in the village. But when I came to the city as a new bride I felt very awkward sleeping in the open with so many people next to me and no walls in between. There was no privacy at all,” she says.
Sharda gave birth to four of her five children at the very place where she was born—on the streets of Bhikaji Cama Place. “The women helped me deliver. We usually find a place in a nearby park or behind trees for such things,” she says as she looks at her reflection in a small mirror she keeps with her.
Sharda remembers the Delhi of the ’80s clearly.
“I clearly remember when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. When the riots happened, we saw people being burnt on the roads. We used to hide in the buildings when violence broke out,” she reminisces.
For the city’s countless homeless, life on the streets carries on as usual with births and deaths and new relationships, only sans walls and a roof.
“People die here and children are born here, in front of our eyes. Nothing is hidden. We know who is fighting with whom and why,” says Kamla, 55, whose was one of the first families to settle in Okhla next to the railway track, where there is now a flyover.
More than 50 homeless families have been living here for nearly 40 years now. Most of the men work as daily wage labourers while the women work as rag pickers.
Anita (33), born under the flyover, does not comprehend when asked if she would prefer some seclusion from the hundreds of neighbours she has.
“Our house is separate,” she says as she points to the 3-meter distance between her sleeping mat and that of her ‘next-door neighbour’.
She talks about how the police has been called many times by those living in nearby areas when fights break out among them.
“People think something big has happened but it is usually a small argument. The police are called for no reason,” she says as a train chugs by in the background.
Despite the lack of a house, the homeless have built their homes around the streets without hypocrisy, with the dance of life full of joy, sorrow, intimacy and struggles being played out in the open for all to see.