Mohan Paswan made a living as a tuk-tuk driver in New Delhi. Every week he sent money back home to support his family. In January, he was hurt in a traffic accident. He needed someone to take care of him. His 15-year-old daughter jumped on a train to save the day.
Jyoti Kumari did her best to nurse her father back to health. Then the Covid-19 pandemic spread to India. Her father’s health was improving, but he could not work because of the lockdown. They were out of the frying pan and into the fire. Running out of money, they couldn’t pay for rent or food. They had to find a way to get home.
She said, “Papa, let’s go. Let’s use the last of our money to buy a bicycle and pedal home.” With their last $20, they bought a gearless bicycle and hit the road. At first, her father balked at their chances. Still suffering from his injuries, he was unable to pedal. In an amazing feat of strength, Jyoti pedaled the bike standing up the whole way home with her father sitting behind her on the seat for 1,200 km.
Jyoti and her father were not alone in their predicament. It is estimated that 100 million Indian workers lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Millions of migrant workers were stranded, often in big cities. With no income, food shortages, and trains shut down, millions of them were forced to walk home over long distances. Not all of them made it. There are tragic stories of people dying due to starvation and exhaustion as they tried to return to their hometowns.
Jyoti’s tale of strength to save her father received much praise. After seven days of pedaling standing up while carrying the weight of her father, they arrived home. News quickly spread. The Cycling Federation of India offered to fund her training to become a professional athlete. They have their eyes set on the 2024 and 2028 Olympics. Singh, the chairman of the Cycling Federation said, “that kind of courage — the guts she has — she has to be rewarded for that.”
While Jyoti’s ride was heroic, some say that people are using her story to romanticize poverty. Ivanka Trump recently tweeted that Jyoti’s journey was a “beautiful feat of endurance and love.” She was quickly called out on Twitter for having missed the real story. Trump’s critics believe the attention should be on the Indian government’s failure to support the stranded migrant workers during the lockdown. Social activist Kirthi Jayakumar says to NPR, “How many more Jyotis are out there? Are we thinking about why Jyoti had to make that journey at all?”