Pooja started working the day she completed her higher secondary. “I had no option but to earn. The entire family of seven was dependant on my mother. She works as a cook in Nizamuddin.”
Nizamuddin is at a distance of 27 kms from Bhalaswa, a resettlement colony in north-west Delhi where Pooja lives. “She earns Rs 9000 a month. It is simply not enough to feed a family of seven let alone paying for each of our education. I didn’t want my little siblings to stop going to school. As the eldest daughter, I wanted them to have the basic education I had.” Pooja explains.
On asking what her father did, she takes us back to the days when her family lived in a makeshift settlement (locally known as a ‘juggi’) in Nizamuddin. The family lived the longest there ever since Pooja’s grandparents moved to the city from Uttar Pradesh, in search of work. “I don’t remember my grandparents at all. They passed away when my father was young. When they died, he was in the sixth standard. He quit school and started looking after my grandparent’s vegetable stall in the locality. He married early and continued with the family business till we were asked to leave our home one day,” she narrates.
A flyover was coming up and residents of Nizamuddin’s squatter colonies were given a piece of land for Rs. 7000 in Bhalaswa. “It looked like an attractive offer at first. To have some land of our own for such a little price. We had some savings to pay from. Father was optimistic that he can continue his business even in Bhalaswa. Just before we left Nizamuddin, father had begun making and selling papad and it was quite a successful venture. He would make the papad in the morning and sell at India Gate in the evenings. Business would pick up during late evenings and he would return home late in the night.”
With the family moving to Bhalaswa, Pooja’s father had to abandon the papad business. The distance was a deterrent.
“We had no idea of Bhalaswa. Initially, we were just happy to own a piece of land at such a low cost. The conditions were appalling. There was a huge dumping ground nearby, and the entire area was this vast, marshy, land. But we had no place to go back. We were doomed to live here.” Pooja was in the third standard when the family moved to Bhalaswa.
Although she could barely make sense of the new development in her life, the first thing she acutely missed was a play space. Meanwhile, Her father struggled to find work. He tried running a vegetable stall with his wife’s help. It failed. Their savings ran out.
The family of eight was on the brink of a serious crisis.This is when her mother started working in Nizamuddin. She would cook in people’s homes and manage to put together some money to feed her children. Frustrated by repeated failures, Pooja’s father took to tobacco and gambling. When Pooja completed her 12th standard, her father left the family and disappeared.
“My elder brother had just finished secondary school. There were no jobs for him. It is here when Santosh bhaiya told me about this vacancy at Magic Bus,” she recalls.
It was not this crisis that brought Pooja to Magic Bus. Their association dates back almost six years ago when Magic Bus began working with children of Bhalaswa. It was a difficult area – a resettlement colony of migrants facing some of the harshest conditions of living. Children were exposed to an unhygienic environment and lack of basic necessities like clean, drinking water and a space to play and learn. As families struggled to make ends meet, children would be pulled out of school and sent to do odd jobs.
“I am grateful to my parents to have never taken me or my siblings off school. We struggled but my mother was very clear never to compromise on our education,” she says. Pooja became one of the earliest girls to be selected as a youth leader in her community.
“Initially, it didn’t mean anything. I thought it to be an opportunity to get out of my home and do something new. I loved teaching children. When I went through the Magic Bus training and curriculum, I was plumbed. There were so many things in it even I didn’t know. I was worried I would never be able to teach children. I was so grateful to have Santosh bhaiya guiding me through the entire process.” For Pooja, her proudest moment as a youth leader was when she would lead a group of girls from a minority community in her neighbourhood who would never be allowed to step out of their homes otherwise.
“Ask a girl in Bhalaswa what freedom means? They would say, to be able to see the world outside their little homes, to be able to make friends without being asked questions about their character. Magic Bus gave us this sense of freedom. And purpose.” Pooja points out.
Before long, mindsets were shifting at the home front too. “My parents were conservative. While growing up, my sisters and I were not encouraged to interact with people outside our relatives. It was mostly safety that my parents were worried of. After I decided to become a Community Youth Leader and lead a bunch of children, both boys and girls, their reservations gave way. They saw how well-respected I was in the community because of my work,” Pooja explains.
“When I see myself now, I am surprised at how confident I have become,” she breaks into a smile. Four years ago when Pooja got an opportunity to work at Magic Bus, she was thrilled and relieved.
“Relieved that the family wouldn’t have to go hungry and thrilled because it was Magic Bus – it was like working with people I know and cared for,” she explains. However, she did not get to be the Youth Mentor of Bhalaswa. Instead, she was supposed to take charge of Timarpur, 10 kms away from her community. “I was ready for the challenge,” she says, giving away a certain firmness in her voice, a character she feels guided her through the difficult times in her life.
In the last four years, Pooja has worked with 750 children and mentored more than 27 youth leaders in Timarpur. She has also completed her Bachelors in Social Work and has enrolled in a Masters course with IGNOU.
She pays for her education and also contributes to the family income. Her father has returned. But few months ago, his right leg had to be amputated because of gangrene. Pooja and her brother Madan, who works as a Centre Coordinator in Magic Bus’ Livelihoods Centre, stood by their mother during this entire phase. They continue to do so.
Pooja plans to build her career as a development professional. “If you have lived the life of an underprivileged, how can you not work for and with them?” her parting answer is an inspiration in itself.