There’s no need to talk about unnecessary things,” Ramkumar tells his wife, Jhanki.
“Normal, husband-wife bickering,” says Jhanki, smiling awkwardly. But there is little that is normal about Ramkumar and Jhanki’s married life or life in general.
For more than 10 years now, Jhanki (she uses only this name) has been living in a shelter for the homeless in Lodhi Colony in New Delhi. Her husband, Ramkumar lives 14 kilometres away in a makeshift hut near the Prem Nagar bus stand in Delhi’s Tughlakabad area.
It’s not a marital arrangement of choice for this couple now in their sixties, but one they have been forced to accept and looks unlikely to change.
Jhanki and Ramkumar met in 1993 when she was a medical attendant at the Gujarmal Modi Hospital in Saket, New Delhi. “He [Ramkumar] had a nice, strong character,” she says, recalling what drew her to the man who had migrated from Uttar Pradesh’s Faizabad district (recently renamed Ayodhya district).
Her parents were opposed to her marriage as they belonged to a higher caste while Ramkumar did not. The family of eight—two brothers and four sisters— and her parents were then living in Shastri Park in Delhi.
“We got married in an Arya Samaj mandir and started living in a servants’ quarter on rent; we paid ₹400 as monthly rent,” she said. Ramkumar ran a tea stall in a parking lot near their home in R.K. Puram’s Sector 8. Their daughter Radha was born two years later, in 1995.
Shortly afterwards, Ramkumar began to get repeated threats from the municipal authorities to shift his stall out of the area. “His tea stall was removed many times by local authorities. They said he was encroaching on public space,” she says.
So in 1997, the couple and their infant daughter shifted to Faridabad’s Mewla Maharajpur area in Sector 31. Ramkumar worked as a kabadiwallah (scrap dealer) in industrial godowns in the area. They stayed in a single-room jhuggi (hutment), paying around ₹600 as monthly rent. Ramkumar’s earnings of roughly ₹2,000 a month kept them afloat.
In 2005, Ramkumar fell ill, coughing up blood and unable to do hard labour. He was treated at a government hospital in Faridabad, and switched to the less strenuous job of a watchman at the same factory. Two years later, his health further declined—his vision became blurry and his sugar levels went up. He lost his job, and the meagre income that supported them vanished overnight.
“There was no income. We couldn’t pay the rent. We moved to the footpath and started begging,” she says. A year later, Jhanki was arrested for begging under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, also known as the Delhi Prevention of Begging Act 1960, which states that ‘any police officer or other person authorised in this behalf may arrest without warrant any person who is found begging’.
Recalling the moment in 2008 when it happened, she says: “It was a Tuesday and I had gone to a temple in Connaught Place [in New Delhi] to collect alms. I was picked up [by the police] along with another elderly woman, and we were taken to the home for beggars in Sewa Kutir. For two rupees worth of begging.”