Girl carries dad home in epic bike ride

Schoolgirl Jyoti Kumari, who cycled 1,200km from Sikandarpur in Haryana to Darbhanga in Bihar carrying her injured father home, will appear for Cycling Federation of India (CFI) trials once the nationwide lockdown ends. But first she wants to finish schooling.

"I wish to complete my studies first. I also feel physically weak after such a long, arduous journey," the 15-year-old told The Hindu from her house in Sirhulli village. She reached home after an eight-day journey - with her father sitting on the rear carrier of her bicycle - on May 16.

"Earlier, I could not continue my school education because of my family problems and I was occupied with domestic work. But now I wish to complete my matriculation first."

Her father, Mr Mohan Paswan, 45, told the Press Trust of India: "We will surely send her for the trials after the lockdown is lifted. She got enrolled in Class 9 recently. At the moment, we want her to complete her matriculation."

After her father was left jobless and penniless because of the extended Covid-19 lockdown in India, Jyoti was forced to ferry the migrant worker and auto-rickshaw driver home. He was unable to walk properly after surgery on his left knee following an accident.

"The accident (in January) left me bedridden for months," Mr Paswan told Firstpost.

"I was also taking medication. Since we had no money left and we had already taken loans from people we knew, we were left with no option but to return home to Bihar."

Jyoti, who used to regularly cycle 5km to reach her school in Sirhulli, came up with a plan.

When she saw migrant workers leaving for their home towns on foot (with no train or bus available), she asked her father for whatever little money he had left and bought a second-hand bicycle.

Jyoti paid the vendor Rs500 and promised to pay the remaining Rs500 after they returned, reported Firstpost.

"The person who sold us the cycle saw that we were in a bad condition and agreed to sell it on loan," she said.

"If my father could walk, we wouldn't have had to buy this cycle."

Hesitant and afraid of what might happen on the way, Mr Paswan had initially refused to take up his daughter's offer. "We didn't know how to pay the rent (for the two-room apartment in Sikandarpur). We hadn't eaten a proper meal in weeks," he said.

"When it got too difficult for us to manage and the landlord asked us to vacate the flat, my daughter said she will take care of me and carry me home on a cycle. Even though I didn't want to put her through so much trouble, I knew we would have died of starvation if we didn't do something."

Jyoti said: "My father wasn't okay with this arrangement because he thought I might die on the way. I had to convince him.

"I knew if we somehow reached our village, we wouldn't have to starve. We would, at least, get two square meals."

Jyoti and her father started from Sikandarpur late at night because they feared the police. They carried just clothes and cheap snacks.

Along the way, they had trouble finding food and shelter and Jyoti was tired after the first few days.

"Initially, we found it really difficult," she said. "We didn't have enough food with us, I wasn't getting enough sleep. But after some days we started finding kind people on the road who offered us biscuits, fruits and water.

"We were very afraid, we didn't know what might happen on the road. But when we saw many people like us on the road, that gave us hope and we didn't feel alone."

Mr Paswan said they survived with the help of "several well-wishers".

"We were lucky. Jyoti pedalled for eight days, making brief stops at Palwal, Agra and Mathura. At some places, we would get a proper meal, sometimes just biscuits, but we managed," he said.

Jyoti cycled around 150km daily. Whenever she was exhausted, she would stop and wash her face and start cycling again.

"For days, my only goal was to get my injured father home," she said. "I didn't think about anything else and that kept me going."

Her mother, Phulo Devi, a childcare worker in the village, cried tears of joy when father and daughter finally reached home.

"I honestly didn't think they would make it," said Phulo Devi. "It was such a long and difficult journey."

As the story went viral, the CFI took note of Jyoti's incredible feat and said it was "extremely impressed".

"It's no mean feat for a 15-year-old to pedal with her father for eight days at a stretch over more than 1,200km. It shows her endurance level," CFI chairman Onkar Singh said.

"We want to test it."

The CFI reached out to Jyoti, saying it wanted to give her a trial in New Delhi and that it would bear all expenses.

"Once she is out of quarantine, we will bring her to Delhi to conduct trials, where we will ascertain if she can be groomed into a serious cyclist," said Mr Singh.

"And then it's up to her whether she wants to pursue a career in cycling. We can even transfer her to Patna or any other centre that's closer to her village. Ultimately, she has to make the choice."

As the news spread, politicians and government officials in Bihar offered to support Jyoti and family.

Lok Janshakti Party's president Chirag Paswan said: "I will sponsor her education in any stream she thinks best for her."

The district magistrate of Darbhanga helped Jyoti enrol in Class 9 at the Pindaruch High School in Darbhanga and gave her a new bicycle, school uniform and shoes.

According to her family, Mr Akhilesh Yadav, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister, has promised Rs1 lakh and Mr Pappu Yadav of Bihar's Jan Adhikar Party Rs20,000 in financial assistance.

"I'm really proud of what my daughter did," said Mr Paswan. "But I don't want to be in this situation ever again. I want my daughter to get educated and ensure that she never feels as helpless as I did before leaving for home without money or work."

Jyoti has also found her goal: "Now I want to study and make a name for myself in sports."

The New York Times reported Jyoti's story of being invited for a cycling trial as that of a "lionhearted girl… inspiring a nation".

US President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump also praised the Bihar girl's effort in a tweet, describing it as a "beautiful feat of endurance & love".

But Ms Trump's praise drew criticism in India for being insensitive to the plight of impoverished migrant workers struggling in a lockdown.

Opposition political figures, as well as some commentators, said Jyoti's desperate journey home because of a crippling transport shutdown was hardly something to celebrate.

"Her poverty & desperation are being glorified as if Jyoti cycled 1,200km for the thrill of it. Government failed her, that's hardly something to trumpet as an achievement," Mr Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, tweeted .

Jyoti declined to be drawn into the controversy, saying: "I am very happy with the appreciation I am getting from all corners.

"I didn't know who Ivanka was (at first), but after her tweet some media persons told me about her. I would certainly like to meet her.

"So many people have visited me in the last few days. Every day there are journalists who line up to interview me."

Reuters, Indo-Asian News Service

"We were very afraid, we didn't know what might happen on the road. But when we saw many people like us on the road, that gave us hope and we didn't feel alone."

- Jyoti Kumari and her father, Mohan Paswan, with the bicycle on which they rode 1,200km