“I like to travel a lot” – We have heard a lot of people say and these words fascinate most of us irrespective of our travel expeditions not going beyond our homes and work-places.
The two men I met were forced to travel a lot and they neither had home nor work.
It was the pompous occasion of Durga Puja in Kolkata and I found myself loitering about in the famous Mohammad Ali Park mela pulled by the extravagance like everyone else. There were numerous food stalls, toy shops and swings from the swirling giant wheels to chirpy merry-go-rounds. Everyone looked happy; everything looked ‘just fine’.
In the bright light and loud music that dominated the fair, was hidden Shyamal Biswas, a 45 year old frail yet staunch looking man, standing beside one of those giant wheels, whose story was unheard of.
This night Shyamal would earn his meal by selling tickets for the giant wheel around which everything looked too small. Taking optimism’s side, selling tickets might help him pay even for the next day’s meal, but the day after? Something even Shyamal has no clue about. What happens when the celebrations are over and everything goes quite again? When the pangs of hunger are loud enough to be felt but not heard?
Destiny stricken Shyamal is not sure where he would sleep after work, either on the pavements of the massively crowded Mahatma Gandhi Road or near one of those quiet yet open-for-public ghats.
Accepting such days as better ones, Shyamal talks of worse when he travels randomly via train, of course for food and shelter.
When luck inclines, Shyamal finds himself a daily-labour job. Emotions deeply embedded on his face, Shyamal recollects starting off as a worker in one of the jute factories in Kolkata but was later unemployed after the factory closed down. “They did not even bother to give us any compensation. Bade Sahab said he’ll get us new jobs but even that did not happen”, long forsaken frustration clear in his voice.
With his age slowly inching towards dusk, it is getting all the more difficult to find and survive work. Looking right through those blinding lights, contemplatively, “I think I shall end up in an old age home. I’ve heard it’s better there” said the option-less man.
While talking to Shyamal I was reminded of Shakib Mohammad whom I had met in Amravati Express while traveling from Bhubaneswar. There was an uncanny resemblance in the way life had treated both these virtual banjaras.
I was in the general compartment of this overly stuffed train and so was Shakib. While I was struggling to find some space to stand, little luckier was he to have found a seat for himself.
Looking at me struggling, since I mostly travel in reserved compartments, the amicable man waved at me and asked “Kolkata?” Before I could even nod properly, he shifted a bit and adjusted me on his seat.
Like Shyamal, Shakib is a daily wage earner as well. While Shyamal is a Bengali from India, Shakib had migrated from Bangladesh.
Hailing from the neighbourhood, this ill-fated man had crossed the borders to come to Kolkata in 2001 in search of work but lack of proper qualification forced him to settle for a very meager bread provider. A crime committed you say? Well, indeed.
“It was very difficult to begin with as I did not know anybody here”, said the man with no signs of sadness on his face, a lesson in itself.
Finding food was more important than finding work. Job security was not even in the laundry list. The city of joy was slowly turning into a bed of thorns for him. As the train gained speed the man went on with his tale that was not only inspiring but portrayed a stark difference between promises and realisations.
Today he works as a mason on daily wages under various construction firms and his job varies from working for multi-stories to road repairs.
However, there is something that separates this man from the rest, something that this light wallet has that most affluents don’t.
Shakib, as mentioned earlier has no place to live, nor does he have a permanent city to dwell in, he keeps travelling wherever work calls. The differentiating factor however, is his compassion for the needy. One can imagine how much would a mason on daily wages earn especially with an abundance of people who could do the same job with equal ease. This man saves a significant ounce of his already thin income and spends it on poor homeless street urchins every single day.
“I can relate to them on many levels, I am myself virtually homeless and I know how bad it feels” said the exceptionally good Samaritan. He buys biscuits and food items for these society-abandons. The quantity could be more he wishes, however with his modest earnings he is happy he atleast does his bit for them. “I derive my energy and happiness from their excited and content faces” is what this beaming man had to say.
Kolkata took 11 hours to come but awe had its presence throughout.
These men still linger in the whereabouts of my ramblings whenever life has lemons to offer. And travelling? We’d sure like to know someone who can surpass them.