India imposed a strict COVID-19 lockdown last year, and tens of millions of poor day laborers lost their jobs. In a massive exodus from megacities, migrant workers sought safety in their native villages. One of the most harrowing stories to emerge from those months was that of 17-year-old Jyoti Kumari, whose father drove a tuk-tuk in New Delhi and was recovering from an injury. Kumari had come to care for him. Running out of food and money, she used her last $20 to buy a hot-pink bicycle — and cycled more than 700 miles across the country in a week with her father riding on the back of the bike. NPR wrote about her after her feat made her a national hero, drawing praise, promises of reward and an offer to train for the Olympics. So how did her life change?
When Jyoti Kumari takes a walk in her small village of Sirhulli in eastern India, everyone on the street recognizes her. She is known as the "cycle girl," she says.
Kumari's epic bike ride last year grabbed headlines across the globe. Villagers swarmed her home as she spoke to TV reporters. Politicians showed up to congratulate her and pose for photos. Ivanka Trump tweeted about her.
But more than a year later, the fame hasn't really helped her poor, lower-caste family escape their difficult reality, and Kumari's life is still marked by uncertainty and tragedy.
Kumari's father died of a cardiac arrest in May — one year after she saved his life by biking for seven consecutive days under lockdown on a relatively empty stomach.
"To see him die suddenly like this after I brought him safely from such a great distance last year, I feel very sad," says Kumari.
Her mother is also unwell and runs out of breath with minor physical activity. But the family doesn't have money to take her to a bigger town for a checkup, says Kumari's brother-in-law Mukesh Kumar Paswan, who used to work as an X-ray technician but lost his job last year because of the pandemic and has been unable to find work since. He now feels responsible for taking care of the family of eight, which includes Kumari's younger siblings and his newborn baby.
"We don't know what to do now," he says.
The cash rewards that Kumari received last year from political parties and companies initially helped the family weather the pandemic. Kumari says they used the money to build a bigger house with a toilet and a water connection. Some of the money was also used to pay off debt, she says.
In January, Kumari was awarded the National Children's Award by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a civilian honor recognizing bravery, which includes a medal and a financial prize of 1 lakh rupees, or about $1,300. "She might seem like any other girl of her age, but the courage and strength that she displayed ... cannot be described in words," the award organizers said.
"But the funds are now drying up," says Paswan. "No one in the family has a job, so we are facing a lot of financial issues."
And not all the promises of help were fulfilled, says Kumari.
"We had been promised land and jobs," she says. "Those were only words."
Indian politician Priyanka Gandhi, from the opposition Congress party, has said she will take care of Kumari's education expenses and spoke to her after her father's death.
"If Jyoti can complete her education and do something worthwhile for her career, that's all we want for her future," says Paswan.
But her future is uncertain. Kumari's school is closed because of the pandemic, and she goes to the house of one of her teachers for private lessons. She has an offer from the Cycling Federation of India to try out for the national team and potentially represent India at the Olympics, but she's keen to finish her studies first. She says she's weak in academics because she missed school for months when she left her village to be with her father and nurse him back to health after his road accident.
Kumari says memories of her father, especially moments from their grueling journey, keep coming back to her. She says she also misses how he would try to discipline her and tell her not to go wandering around the village when she was younger. When she won the prime minister's award, Kumari says, he was proud and boasted about her to everyone he met.
"He would say: 'Look at what a great thing my daughter did — look at the awards she's getting,' " says Kumari. "I miss him a lot."
The only solace is that he was able to bask in his daughter's glory, if only for a short time.
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