New Delhi: “My mother lost her job because of the lockdown. We were surviving on what my school Principal Dhyani sir has always given, as his personal gift to me, to encourage me to study. Principal sir is the father figure in my life. I would be nothing if not for him. I would be finished without him,” for Shivam, vice-principal Dhyani of the government senior secondary school, TrilokPuri is a Guru in the truest sense. A mentor who spotted Shivam’s gift of art and kept an eye on the boy whose life was full of challenges that could cripple the strongest man.
Shivam, uses one name and says he is 18-years-old. He has been raised by a single mother and she is the only one he owes any allegiance to. Meena, his mother, is also his topmost concern, as years of hardships have taken their toll on the 45-year-old woman’shealth, something she neglected, as her top priority was Shivam, and his education. “My admission to a school was a massive struggle. I did not have any identification documents,” but my mother managed to get me educated somehow. By the end of this academic year, Shivam will sit for his class 12th exam, and then hopes to study further. Shy and petite of form, he has the most expressive eyes, and is currently very upset with the spurt of acne on his face. “I am glad we all have to wear a mask now,” he laughs. His eyes are expressive, and reflect his emotions, twinkling when he shares the plans for his future, and darkening when he speaks of what makes him sad, “I have seen so much struggle in life that I feel I grew up too fast. ”
That lifelong struggle to survive, however, paled in comparison to the events that unfolded as the national lockdown was announced once the Covid-19 pandemic. Hyper observant Shivam saw, for the first time in his life, a human exodus, people escaping, from an invisible enemy that his own home city Delhi had turned into for lakhs of migrants. They were walking back to their villages, on the highway, a couple of kilometres from the shanty dwelling Shivam and his mother lived in. She kept him indoors, but he saw everything on the news he was glued to on his phone. “I was observing what was happening around me. I saw the news and all the images on my phone, which my mother had bought for me, on instalments a few years ago. These images shocked me. I saw a man carry his mother on his back. I saw his bleeding feet. So many migrants had bleeding feet. This was stuck in my head,” recalls Shivan who stayed awake, too disturbed to sleep that night.
He needed to express the conflict within. So he did, the only way he knew, “I sat up, took a pen and paper and began drawing. It was a red pen, it was all I had at home,” red, the colour of blood, had shown itself. “I drew the migrant’s blood-soaked footprint. Then I remembered the families I saw walking and drew the figures. I could feel their pain. I am poor, I have nothing, but they are worse off. They do not even have what I have. I could not bear it,” his voice shook at the memory.
His faith in art as an expression, and the conviction that it can help change things has remained steady. “My mother and I did not have anything ever, but these were small kids who were walking home on an empty stomach.” The ‘migrants footprint’, as this reporter, calls is the king of artwork that touches you instantly. The drawing was posted online by vice-principal BP Dhyani. Soon enough, it went viral. Senior journalists tweeted and re-tweeted it. Then Shivam’s own life story was shared. Soon enough everything changed, life as Shivam once knew it, has taken a turn for the better. “Everyone appreciated my artwork, I did not expect it. Dhyani Sir put it online and everyone heard my story too. People donated even for our rent. I was surprised.” Shivam remembers telling his mother that things were about to change and that he will take care of her now.
Best year of his life ever, he says. “My birthday is August 26 1999 I think, my mother told me once, though she has lost my birth certificate. I know I was born in Delhi,” he adds. The school papers say he is 18, so that is what is his official age. It does not matter to Shivam, it is the years that are yet to unfold that matter, “I want to buy her a house when I earn well,” he says that is his goal in life. Meena, his mother, has always had a hard life. Her own father was very strict and would hit her. “He did not educate her even when she wanted to study, her brother and sister were sent to school,” says Shivam. She was married off to Ashok, a much older man, a widower who had two sons. She loved them and took care of them. “He was alcoholic and would beat my mother, we lived near the Badarpur border. One day she left him to escape the beating and to protect me. She came back to her grandfather’s house across the city, in Trilokpuri. We soon heard that my father had died due to liver failure.”
Though it was a shock, Shivam and his mother now had to deal with her own father who was also an alcoholic and would also beat his daughter. “She left her father’s house and rented a room for us. She then took up a job as a cleaner. I can’t even imagine how much she struggled to bring me up. I started realising it as I grew up. We have slept hungry. We have been homeless and lived under a tree for a while,” he says. She was however always insistent that he go to school somehow. “She did not want me to be denied an education like she was. I had to study on my own. I started schooling around 2009. I was 12-years old I think, when joined class one. The others in the class were little kids. I did feel strange, even the chairs and tables were small. But the day I started attending school, was the happiest one in my life thus far. I did not know anything before, and after I started attending school I began to work hard and learn fast. I had great teachers even in primary school. When I got my school bag and books I was deliriously happy.” Shivam’s eyes twinkle at the happy memories.
He recalls being scared because he did not know anything. But soon enough he was keen to stay in school all day. “I made many friends, the little kids. I was famous in that school soon. Guess how? Because I could draw and paint,” he remembers another mentor at the government primary school. “Principal Rampal sir recognised my talent, one day he saw me drawing in my book and asked me to draw on the blackboard. I drew Shivji and Hanumanji, and the entire class started clapping.”
His mother got a good job as a cleaner in an export house in Noida. But soon she got very unwell, due to stress induced by sheer poverty and she lost her job. “So we began painting plaster of Paris statues at home. I did the fine painting, and earned more than her, Rs 1,500 when I was 14-years old,” he recalls. But the toxic paint fumes made Shivam sick “I fainted once and we had to quit that job. We had no money to pay rent. No one helped us. My mother left me with my grandmother and went to work somewhere.”
He never looked back and joined his current school in class six. He remembers studying by himself because he could not afford tuition. He also practised drawing. Passing exams one by one, scraping through maths. In class nine, Shivam also took up a part time job as a cleaner, “I went to work in the morning, then school in the evening, and I would walk to that Noida office at 6 AM. I swept and mopped the floors at two offices. Principal Dhyani saw that on some days I would miss school because I had to do my mother’s work on the days she was unwell, to save her job. Sir called me and asked me to quit my job and said he will pay me the salary I earned. Since then he has been giving me Rs 2,000 and has told me to focus on my studies. That money helped pay for our food and mother’s medicine.”
However, the mother and son still had rent to pay, and had borrowed money to pay for Meena’s medicines. After the lockdown things had hit rock bottom for them. Thankfully Shivam’s talent, and the support of scores of citizens who have donated cash and offered more help, has given them a second chance at life. “My mother is so happy now, she would dance if she was stronger. She started crying when she heard that people gave me money and she is scared of evil eye,” Shivam says. She wants to pay all the rent due first then, “buy food and medicines.”
“Even my clothes were given by my uncle. I like good clothes but I do not want to think about this now. I will not even get married till I am very successful. I want to be an artist, a professional one. But even if I get a job in a call centre I will take it up. I need to earn for my mother. I would love to be an artist, or be a painting teacher. Principal sir is also suggesting fine arts. But he wants me to do well in class 12,” he has big dreams but knows the road ahead is long, and can be bumpy still, “I need to learn a lot about art, learn about colours, learn the technicality of art, I have to work hard, I know. I have lost time because of the lockdown.” he says his immediate goal is to pass class 12 and he cannot wait for school to reopen soon, “a real classroom is more satisfying than studying online. I do not mind even coming to school on Sunday. I do not have books yet because I had no money. I was studying online and even on YouTube. I will get books soon.”
He also needs a PAN card soon, he says, so he can open an account where he will save his, “earnings as an artist.” If all goes well, he may soon sell the ‘migrant’s footprint,’ to a collector soon, and save the money for the future, “I want to take English speaking lessons and also learn more about computers.” These he feels will help him earn well enough to buy a house for his mother, “I do not want her to struggle ever again. I even have a mental photo of our house. It will have a small garden, and nice room, and a verandah with a tulsi plant, and a temple for my mother. I want an open house. I love gardening.”
“I still can’t believe what is happening to me now. I could not have imagined it. I saw the love and support that came on twitter. So many offered to help. This is my chance. God has given me this opportunity, even when the times are so bad. The world is opening up for me, and I will work hard. I just had a small dream. Now I will fulfil all of that.”
Shivam also wants to pay forward, perhaps volunteer to teach dance, and art. “Dance is my other love. I want to teach fitness dance, that is also one of my goals. People enjoy it, and it pays well. I will also learn it. I have many plans,” he says. Above everything, he hopes that the migrants have reached their homes safe.