It was a rather hot and humid night in the summer of 1983 in a small village tucked away in the eastern fringes of Uttar Pradesh when a 23-year-old farmer decided to take the train out to Delhi — for good.
“Don’t worry! I will bring you over after I find my feet there,” he reassured his newly wed wife as the train chugged along, drowning her response in the metallic clunk.
The man recalling that muggy night thirty years later is 53 years old. It is only days after he has returned home to his village after cremating his daughter. He is still in mourning. The world knows him as the father of the “Delhi Braveheart” who succumbed to her injuries after a long battle following the violent gangrape which reverberated around the globe.
Back then, the man and wife had decided that he must leave the village for the city to build a better foundation for the family life they were starting.
“His parents had not let him study beyond matriculation and wanted him to carry on the family tradition — agriculture. With only two bighas of land in his share, there was not much hope. The couple felt their children would suffer if they didn’t make a move,” says Avdhesh Singh, an old family friend in the village.
They braved 30 years of culture shock, emotional traumas, pecuniary struggles as they brought up their children — a daughter, and two sons in the national capital.
They were finally close to realising their dream — their daughter was ready to take up a job — when six men in the bus, out looking for what was reported to be a “joyride”, shattered their lives.
On December 16, 2012, their daughter was brutally gangraped and the male friend accompanying her assaulted in a moving bus in South Delhi. The assault was so brutal that she died after having battled for life for two weeks.
At the centre of the story that shocked the world and woke the conscience of the nation is, of course, a young life brutally and senselessly cut short.
But it is, as much about a family, anonymous, in a small village, which moved out to give their children better and equal opportunities. It is about a mother and father in small-town India who believed in and pursued The Great Indian Middle Class Dream, and the shattering of this dream.
Since, the father has spoken about his daughter to the media, providing a heartbreaking sketch of a girl who was both fiercely independent and at the same time, caring and loving towards her family.
Now, his thoughts go, yet again, to her last days. “I would never have imagined that my carefree daughter would show such grit on the deathbed. She has given me hope,” he says.
The village, bordering Bihar, has a population of 1,100, mostly agricultural labourers. When he left the village, the population was only 350. Even now, as then, only about 30% of the population is working outside the village and most of those left for adjoining towns such as Buxar (Bihar) and Ballia. Fewer people go to big cities such as Allahabad, Varanasi and Gorakhpur.
Delhi still remains “very far off” for them. Girls have traditionally been discouraged to go to school. About half of them go to high school but not beyond, as they are married off. For most, learning how to read and write is the only priority. Some families have begun sending girls to colleges in and around Ballia, but the numbers are few.
If one discounts the patchwork done by the administration in the wake of VIPs coming in, patients are carried on cots to nearby towns. Power supply is inadequate. The village has a high school. But there’s no health centre. In the administrative parlance, it’s a “garha” (pit) area, practically meaning an extremely backward area.
“The family, like most villagers here, belongs to a caste which has always been agricultural labourers. The father’s two elders brothers have been in government service but his resilience to encourage his daughter to be independent made us look inwards,” says Heera, a village elder, who claimed to have seen the family closely.
Now, this village’s lost daughter whose story of dignity in hardships and determination to make a better future for herself and her family is resounding across the world, has become a role model for other girls in the village.
A cousin of the girl, 18, recalls: “Though didi didn’t come to the village frequently, we stayed in touch over the phone. The last time I spoke to her, she said I must study hard and become independent. She said once she landed a job, she will bring me over to Delhi and I will study under her guidance.” She adds that now, she is all the more determined to follow in her cousin’s footsteps.
In Delhi, in the last few years, the man and his wife had put together the fee money to see their daughter complete her course in physiotherapy from a Dehradun institute. She was in Delhi for an internship and was expected to land a job. “Ah! She was just a few months away from beginning a decent life...,” the father breaks down.
When the man had first moved out of the village, he shared a dingy room with an acquaintance in Delhi’s suburb Sahibabad and worked as a labourer in a nearby factory earning Rs. 220 a month.
He used to save some and send it home to his wife. After six months, he and the acquaintance moved to a place in Noida where he took up a job as a technician in a pressure cooker factory in Delhi’s Titarpur for a salary of Rs. 550 a month.
“About two years later, I moved to my uncle’s house at Indra Park in Palam Colony because Noida was far off from my work place. The year after, I finally brought my wife there,” says the man.
After the birth of their first child —following the heinous assault and her subsequent demise, she remains unnamed as per Indian law — in 1989, the couple needed a place of their own. In 1992, they had their first of the two sons and bought a 35-yard plot of land in Mahavir Enclave part II in Uttam Nagar for Rs. 7,000, built a room and started living there.
Now it’s a two-storey moderate house of four rooms. In 1997, their second son was born.
“My father”, says the man, “was illiterate and a small-time farmer,” but he himself “was good at many subjects,” particularly mathematics.
“This subject helped me get ‘good second division’ in high school,” he says.
His wife, a class VIII dropout, was also not allowed to study further by her parents.
“We were determined to encourage our children to pursue their dreams,” says the father, who started working as a loader at the Delhi airport three years ago and now earns Rs. 7,000 a month.
The three children studied together in a private school in Janakpuri up to class V. Like all parents, they tried to ensure their children were protected. The father would take them to school even when it was a 10-minute walk from home and the mother used to bring them back. Later, the children went to a government school in the same locality.
“Papa never learnt to ride even a bicycle. He always used public transport. We also did the same. We brothers cannot ride a motorbike till date. We don’t have one,” says the 20-year-old elder son, who had just finished his schooling when the tragedy struck.
Of their life in Delhi, he says: “We never roamed around the city. We never had the time... Papa worked hard. Ma did the household chores. After class IX, didi started tutoring students to fund her tuition fees. I started doing the same after completing my class IX.”
Before the girl joined class X, the family visited the village every summer. But then the studies took priority, and there was no time. The children, though, were aware that they were privileged to have parents who encouraged them to study.
“Didi’s friend in the village, Puja, was married before she could complete her studies,” says the brother of the girl fatally assaulted last month.
In Delhi where they were born and brought up, their parents spoke to each other in Bhojpuri , the language for the siblings was Hindi.
Unlike their 23-year-old daughter, who had developed a knack of dressing up and liked to spend some of the money she earned on new clothes, her parents never bothered with fashion, or clothes — neither could they afford them. The family avoided social functions, or the father would go alone leaving the children home with the mother, for they couldn’t be dressed properly.
When it became even more difficult for the family to make both ends meet, the mother started mortgaging her jewellry. But soon enough, their family gold also kept diminishing with pressure building for loan repayment by lenders.
“On several occasions, we felt we couldn’t sustain our life in Delhi and should go back to the village. Ma used to cry and say the family needs to stick around for the children’s future,” says the younger son aged 15.
In the village, an elderly acquaintance remarks on the change in the man he’d seen growing up: “When he was in school, he liked Amitabh Bachhan movies. He was also a very good bhajan (devotional songs) singer. But after he left the village in the early 1980s, he only worked and worked and worked.”
The family had small dreams. “About 70% of their land in the village had to be sold off to fund the children’s education. They wanted to buy that land back,” says an uncle of the victim. “Our house in Delhi is not decent. It’s known as a neighbourhood of migrants and labourers. We have wanted to own a better house in a more peaceful area such as Janakpuri,” the father himself said.
The girl’s dreams were also modest and achievable, for a young, bright, educated girl on the cusp of getting a job. She was planning to buy a Samsung smartphone. And dreamt of an Audi someday.
“Didi’s friend, who was also assaulted in the ill-fated bus, has always guided me in studies. They have been good friends for a while. He wanted to come to our home but since it’s not a decent one, we kept postponing the visit,” says the elder son.
“We have seen life in a city. For people like us it’s full of hardships. We know caste and creed hardly matters. Our parents have never been against love marriage. They always told didi to study hard, stand on her feet and then do whatever she wants to in life,” he says.
The family last came to the village a year ago. They had planned to come again this summer. But the visit got preponed in a most cruel manner.
Says the father: “I am a farmer by birth. I have sown new seeds — to see no other daughter undergoes the ordeal my daughter suffered. I know her spirit will guide the nation and new rape laws will be framed… I will wait till then,” he says. He then requests isolation to grieve.