Frail, lonely and wearing tattered clothes, 62-year-old Rasheeda was as inconspicuous as any other alms seeker who gathered under the Dabeerpura Bridge every afternoon for lunch. She would take a seat under the bridge sharp at 12.30, quietly eat the meal that was served and leave in a jiffy. Wearing a grey shirt and a pale green skirt, Rasheeda never forgot to wrap a red shawl around her neck, quite unlike that of any other homeless person who found shelter in the streets of Hyderabad. Any attempt to strike a conversation with the old woman only left her panicked. In the past five months, not once had Rasheeda missed the afternoon meals served by Azhar and his NGO under the Dabeerpura Bridge every afternoon.
Rasheeda became something of an enigma for many who gathered at Azharâs free meals programme every afternoon. For two months, Rasheeda kept away from Azharâs glances and queries until one day she told him that she wanted to meet her sister in Assam.
âIt came as a surprise. We had understood that Rasheeda was slowly getting acquainted with the hundreds who came in for lunch every day, but her request to meet her sibling who lived in Assam came as a revelation,â Azhar told TNM. Syed Osman Azhar Maqsusi has been feeding the poor, homeless and needy in Hyderabad since 2012 under the Dabeerpura Bridge with his apt slogan âhunger has no religionâ.
Though Rasheeda told Azhar that her sister Hasna Begum lived in Assam, she could neither remember the district nor the place to which the latter belonged. Since Rasheeda was also not in the best of her mental health, Azhar waited till she could give them the faintest clue about her family.
After a few days, Rasheeda told Azhar that her sister lived in Golaghat, a small village in Assam. Not even sure whether Rasheeda was just dropping names from her imagination, Azhar asked his co-worker Habib Ekram in Assam to trace Rasheedaâs family in Golaghat. Azhar also sent a photo of Rasheeda with Ekram.
Speaking to TNM, Ekram recalls his journey from Guwahati to Golaghat, to reunite a woman he had never before seen in his life, with her family.
âI did not know where I was going or how would I ask for the address of a woman who we were not even sure lived in Golaghat. I first went to the Golaghat police station, but the cops were of no help. I toured around in most parts of the village with the 62-year-oldâs photo, with an unflinching belief in fate as my only aide,â Ekram says.
After two months of touring and spreading the word, Ekram got his first clue from a villager in Golaghat who had a faint memory of Rasheeda. âThe man identified Rasheeda as someone who lived in the village long ago but could not place her in his memory. But those words were enough to revive my hopes that had faltered owing to my unsuccessful attempts to reunite Rasheeda with her family,â Ekram says.
Back in Hyderabad, Azhar made it a routine to ask Rasheeda about the different places and villages in Assam. âI told her the names of almost every other village in the state. Though initially she could not divulge much, she once mentioned about Dhekiajuli and needless to say, Ekram travelled to Dhekiajuli the very next day,âAzhar says.
Almost 300 km away from Golaghat, Ekram reached the village of Dhekiajuli the very next morning. âAs routine, I first approached the Dhekiajuli police for help. But unlike the cops in Golaghat, Dhekiajuli police got me in touch with a resident in the village and also advised me to be careful as Dhekiajuli villagers were notorious for their hostility towards outsiders,â Ekram recalls.
But the copsâ words did not hold true. As soon as he landed in the tiny village of Dhekiajuli, Ekram knew he was only a step away from finding Rasheedaâs family. âAfter reaching the village, I did not have to wait long to meet Hasna Begum as Rasheedaâs photo created a ripple among the villagers. From people recalling her as a spirited lady to a few others explaining to me her tragic past, I had finally managed to bring Rasheeda to where she belonged after 30 long years.â
Rasheedaâs sister and her two brothers were overjoyed to have their sister back. âHasna Begum told me that Rasheeda had left the village 30 years back and ever since it was only a perpetual wait for their sister to return. The two brothers are very sick and Hasna Begum has also been leading a lonely life after her husband passed away a few years back,â Ekram says.
But there was still something amiss. Ekram could not quite understand what had prompted Rasheeda to first mention Golaghat though she had lived in Dhekiajuli for most part of her life.
Talking about Golaghat, Hasna Begum told Ekram that Rasheeda, who was a post-graduate in Hindi, was married off to a man who belonged to Golaghat in 1986. âBut her husband abandoned her after a few years into the marriage and further adding to the tragedy, her only child passed away a few years later. Rasheeda soon lost her mental stability and left Golaghat,â Ekram says.
Azhar made arrangements for Hasna Begum, her nephew and Ekram to reach Hyderabad and on July 20 the trio reached the city.
âContrary to our expectations, Rasheeda identified Hasna at a glance. The two sisters hugged, cried for a while. Now, they are on their way back to Assam, Rasheeda still clutching Hasnaâs fists tightly like a child.â
As for Azhar and Ekram, it has been a long journey of hope, despair and disappointment. âWe see hundreds of helpless, poor abandoned people on the streets every day. And we also know what happens to each one of them after they die an unglorified death on the roads. We have only helped a lady return to her roots, to help her rest in peace where she once belonged to,â Azhar says.