Kaushalya Devi could just be the loneliest old woman in the country.
Every day at dusk, the 87-year-old sticks a sheet of blank paper, painstakingly and neatly folded, in the window of her crumbling house in Jaladi village, 20km from Shahpur town in Kangra. At dawn, the first thing she does is remove it. Her neighbours then get to know that she has survived the night.
It is not an easy life in Jaladi. Nestled in the lower reaches of the Himalayas, the days are doubly hard for Kaushalya, a widow who lives alone. Through the bitter cold that autumn nights have already heralded, the piece of paper has become her signal that she has made it to another day. It’s a poignant habit that makes the whole village sad, but also alerts them if all is well with her or not.
“If she has removed the paper from the window at dawn, we know she has survived,” said Darshan Singh, a neighbour. His family is among six in the neighbourhood that keeps an eye on the paper. “We occasionally call her daughter from Chamba when Kaushalya falls seriously ill,” he added.
Kaushalya lost her husband, a daily wage labourer, about eight years ago. Her 47-year-old son, Budhi Singh, left home about three years later and has not been seen since. She passes most of her time alone in her house with its slate tiles and cracked walls. Weakened with age, she said in a frail voice, “All I worry about is my son. I keep inquiring about him from passers-by.”
The practice of using the blank sheet of paper folded into a rectangle as a signal for life or death was started after Kaushalya fell ill one day and was unable to even reach out to her nearest neighbours. It was only by chance that one of them happened to drop by and found out about her condition.
Sanjay Sharma, a social worker had in early August shared her helplessness in a social media post. He had also mentioned the ritual with the blank sheet of paper. The post was widely shared almost immediately. “I am hoping that the attention she got will help her get some financial support,” he said.
It may just have. In Mumbai, the post caught the attention of filmmaker Vivek Mohan, who now plans to make a short film on her. “The film has been titled ‘The Bus Stop’. It will be shot in Mumbai and will be based on Kaushalya’s story. What amazed me was that all she wants is a dignified death. ,” said Mohan, winner of a National Award for the critically acclaimed documentary “Malana — In Search Of…” in 1998.