An Underdog Who Owns the Delhi Streets

Decades after polio was eradicated in most of the world, one tragically paralyzed Indian man manages to build a life for himself and even support a family 700 miles away.

An Underdog Who Owns the Delhi Streets

BK got polio when he was five years old and was paralyzed in both arms and his right leg. Here, he walks along a narrow lane in Paharganj, New Delhi, where he begs and lives.
BK got polio when he was five years old and was paralyzed in both arms and his right leg. Here, he walks along a narrow lane in Paharganj, New Delhi, where he begs and lives.

His name is Bipin Kumar, but he prefers to be called BK. When he was five years old he contracted polio, a disease that attacks the nervous system. As a result, both of BK’s arms and his right leg are paralyzed. Now in his mid-twenties, he spends his days walking around Paharganj, a crowded tourist area in the center of New Delhi, India, where he lives. He begs to earn a living, but rarely talks to people on the street; instead he just smiles, says “namaste” – hello – and waits for people to give him coins or bills.

A woman gives BK a ten-rupee note, which he holds onto as best he can.
A woman gives BK a ten-rupee note, which he holds onto as best he can.
BK travels through New Delhi each day by metro, despite his physical disability.
BK travels through New Delhi each day by metro, despite his physical disability.
Someone referred to BK as “the never-ending smile boy” on the first day I met him. Here, he smiles while watching a Sikh festival in New Delhi.
Someone referred to BK as “the never-ending smile boy” on the first day I met him. Here, he smiles while watching a Sikh festival in New Delhi.
BK unties his laces before going into the small room where he lives with ten other men.

BK unties his laces before going into the small room where he lives with ten other men.

BK smokes out a train window while traveling from New Delhi to his hometown, Jhauwa Bahiyar, more than 700 miles away.
BK smokes out a train window while traveling from New Delhi to his hometown, Jhauwa Bahiyar, more than 700 miles away.

Once or twice a year, BK goes back to his hometown, Jhauwa Bahiyar, a small village in Bihar, one of the poorest states of India. It’s a 30-hour train ride to reach his family, who depend on the alms BK collects some 700 miles away in New Delhi. On a recent visit to his family, while bathing in a seemingly impossible way (supporting his hand with his foot, which holds the soap to wash his hair), he spoke a sentence that, to me, defines his life, and how he decided to make the best of it: “Yes, I have a problem, but there is no problem with that.”

BK surrounded by family and friends in his hometown.
BK surrounded by family and friends in his hometown.
A detail of BK’s hand as he waits for food in a café.
A detail of BK’s hand as he waits for food in a café.
BK cannot hold a fork, so he improvises by lowering his mouth to the plate to eat his favorite food, noodles.
BK cannot hold a fork, so he improvises by lowering his mouth to the plate to eat his favorite food, noodles.
On an early morning, BK shows people from his village how he is able to write in English with his feet.
On an early morning, BK shows people from his village how he is able to write in English with his feet.
BK takes a bath with help from his mother at a public water well in his hometown.
BK takes a bath with help from his mother at a public water well in his hometown.
BK takes a rest with a friend at a relative’s house in Jhauwa Bahiyar.
BK takes a rest with a friend at a relative’s house in Jhauwa Bahiyar.
Back in New Delhi, a friend holds a mobile phone for BK while he talks to his mother.
Back in New Delhi, a friend holds a mobile phone for BK while he talks to his mother.
BK walks home through the crowded Pahargani streets in New Delhi.
BK walks home through the crowded Pahargani streets in New Delhi.