In the winter of 2012, Asha Devi, 47, left Mumbai for her native village in Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district with her ailing husband, Rajendra Prasad Gautam, and seven children. Whatever little the couple had saved from their meagre earnings while working as mason and labourer at construction sites over the years, was soon exhausted on Gautam’s healthcare. They did manage to build a hut on a small plot of land given by Gautam’s brothers at Bari Ahiroli village. But barely four months after their return, Gautam lost the battle against tuberculosis, leaving her to face life’s struggles alone.
In the ensuing years, Devi withstood many upheavals, clinging to hope. She did menial jobs and toiled away at village farms all through the day, while her eldest daughter, Renu, who was only 13 then, looked after the kids at home. But in spite of her back-breaking labour, the Dalit family continued to live in penury. Four years ago, a botched cataract surgery at a charity medical camp left her blind in both eyes. In 2019, one of her daughters, aged 23, died of hypothermia.