How Instant Stardom Changed the Life of India’s ‘Bicycle Girl’

15-year-old Jyoti Paswan Biked 700 Miles to Take Her Injured Father Back Home. Her life has not been the same after that.
September 29, 2020, 4:28am
jyoti paswan, darbhanga, bicycle, bihar, COVID-19
Jyoti Paswan (in pink) with her family in Sirhulli village in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. Photo obtained by VICE News.

At local eateries on the highway, they give precise directions to what they now refer to as Cycle Gadh (translated into ‘the home of cycle’). They also call it Jyoti's village. Sirhulli village in Darbhanga district of the eastern Indian state of Bihar, was once an obscure place from where most men and women migrate to big cities to work. Things changed after Jyoti Paswan, a 15-year-old girl cycled 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) with her injured father riding pillion from Gurugram, a satellite town of New Delhi, to her house in Sirhulli village, during the nationwide lockdown.

Jyoti’s story hit national and international headlines with Ivanka Trump describing her efforts as a “beautiful feat of endurance and love.” 

All the eight cycles parked in the shed that once used to be the kitchen when the family had a one-room tenement have been gifted to Jyoti by local leaders, NGOs and others who came to this little village after news of her cycling feat got out. She wasn't able to complete her quarantine and a state minister came in with a large crowd at her house on May 26. 

In three months, their lives changed drastically. Now, all the media has left the ground. 

“I used to love the attention,” Jyoti told VICE news. “The village was full of people back then.”

Mohan Paswan, her father, who worked in Gurugram as a rickshaw driver had injured herself in an accident in January and Jyoti had traveled along with her mother and brother-in-law to take care of her father. 

When COVID-19 lockdown was imposed from March 25, it became difficult for them as they were to run out of money. One night in May, they decided to leave for Bihar with a group of other workers. Jyoti said she bought a cycle from someone in the neighbourhood for INR 1000 (USD 16). 

And now, with her newfound celebrity status, everything is falling in place for the family. 

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Jyoti Paswan in her village in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. The tiny hamlet has become a landmark after incessant media coverage.

Paswan hails from the lower caste in a state where caste dynamics play an important role in politics. The duo were approached by Bhim Army, a Dalit rights organisation, and are now its members.

In Sirhulli, large scale migration to cities is a reality. At the local temple, a bunch of migrants were lying in the corridors. Having lost their jobs in urban centres, they are now struggling to survive. They are not sure if their employers want them back.

Mohan Paswan walked around the village with a certain clout. He said others were jealous of him and his new status.

Jitendra Kumar, 26, who used to work in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, said he had lost all hope. “They [media] came here because of Jyoti. Nobody bothered about us,” he said.

As per the Ministry of Labour and Employment data, around 10 million migrant workers returned to their home states during the lockdown with 15,00,612 to Bihar. 

“The leaders said they will give me a job and they will give me land,” Mohan Paswan told VICE News. “The money we got won't last forever.” The family has built a pucca house with four rooms and a toilet.

Jyoti, who was also approached by the Cycling Federation of India, practises in the village and said once the lockdown restrictions are completely lifted, she might consider going to Delhi to train at their invitation. 

Jyoti has received around INR 120,000 (USD 1625) from local politicians. One of the former chief ministers has promised to bear the expense of her wedding and education. 

A man in the US has even offered to adopt her since he has no daughter and sends her money every month to buy food of her choice, said Jyoti.
“I speak with him sometimes, He keeps inviting me to the US,” she said. 

“I didn’t go back to the fields to work again,” said Jyoti’s mother, Phulo Devi. “Our life is not the same." Phulo Devi used to work on farms and at construction sites and made INR 180 (USD 2.4) per day as a daily wage labourer in order to pay off the loan of INR one lakh (USD 1354) that they had taken from micro-finance institutions to fund the medical bills of Mohan Paswan, who still limps around.

Jjyoti has signed two films, based on the theme of reverse migration. Shine Krishna, a filmmaker, came to Bihar to spend time with the family and has already given the signing amount. But Vinod Kapri, the other filmmaker, is waiting for the father to choose between the two filmmakers. 

“Jyoti is the symbol of courage. As a filmmaker I wanted to understand what compelled her to take this decision,” said Kapri. 

The rooms in the house are yet to be painted and Mohan Paswan is a little upset that the media is no longer coming to the village as they used to. 

The family flipped through albums full of pictures from those days when everyone came to visit them.

Jyoti, a quiet girl, wants to do something with her life. In her room, she was busy going through her English textbook.
“I want to speak English,” she said. 

Ganesh Ram, 30, was standing across the house. He is a migrant worker who has been stuck in the village since the lockdown.
“If the lockdown benefitted someone, it is them. Jyoti made our village famous but that's all,” he said. 

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