The days were humid and restless…in Kolkata. I had spent a few days, but somehow, the humidity was beyond my tolerance.
Still I have not been spending my whole day in the AC room. The stream of sweat was oozing out of every pore of my body and constant intake of liquid was a must. In the quest of searching joy in Kolkata, I met with Rampravesh. He was standing with his cart (which runs on man power and two wheels). For me perhaps, it was more like a game of carts where your character pulls the cart to the finishing line. But for him it was no game, it was his livelihood. Even in the game, the distance ends on the finishing line, but here the distance was perhaps life-long.
“ये हम अपने नहीं करता साहब। बीवी है, बच्चा है, क्या करेगा? पेट तो भरना ही है साहेब।..” (I do it for the life of my wife and children.)
His eyes were piercing my heart. He was 43 years old, 5.4 perhaps, weatish brown, lean…I could count the bones of his ribs. I remember, centuries ago, the age of slaves, they were brutalized and tortured to an extent which is perhaps hard to write and imagine. I stood in 22nd century with this poor guy from Bihar. He was serving not less than a slave here. He was literally carrying people sitting in the cart for mere few rupees.
Just before I could make my way into the crowd and get lost, a woman came and sat on the cart, at least thrice the weight of the man. She ordered him to move the cart and negotiated with him for the fare as well.
Often it seems unfair and cruelty but the question is that if really seems so, what do we do to change this? We protest for rising prices of petrol, rising fare of railways and so on but what about these people? It is evident that if they would not work for a day, they would have to sleep empty-stomach along with their family.
In 2006, the government ordered a ban on such carts but provided no full proof compensation in return. A case was filed on behalf of these cart-pullers, which is still going on in the court. They all contribute an amount from their earnings (which is already minimal) towards this.
I had planned to go elsewhere today and having some delicious food but somehow, I remained there, with those meager, poor but independent people.
‘Biswas’, an another cart-puller, told me that once the government decided to replace all the carts with rickshaw but corruption’s hands gripped the plan so tightly that it choked. The rickshaws were taken by local contractors and shopkeepers, using fake names and bribing the officials. Today all those rickshaws are running on roads and money is going straight in their pockets.
‘Why don’t you sell this cart and purchase a second hand rickshaw?’
‘That’s because this cart is not mine. This belongs to a local merchant and whatever I earn, 80% goes to him.’
I was a bit amazed and disappointed. Plans after plans and committee after committee, yet they cannot roll out a single scheme to help such people. The tax we pay is spent like water on the name of these poor people, but still their condition is unchanged.
‘Biswas’ had a wife, three children and his mother. They live in slums near ‘Jaan Bazaar’. He told me that he wanted to send his children to school but he had not enough money to do so. His elder son, who is of 10, works in a Dhaba and daughter, who is 9, woks as domestic help in the house of same merchant from whom he got this cart. The youngest daughter is of 5 years old and stays at home to help her mother.
He talked about his concern regarding the marriage of his girls (who were not even teen yet). I could see lines on his forehead depended while talking about his girls. He told me with hesitation on his face that sometimes he drinks a lot to forget about his condition but as soon as he gets back into sense, same things keep on haunting him.
He told me that his condition was much better than out stationed cart-pullers. They don’t have a home to sleep in. They sleep on the pavements at night. They cannot afford a house. And they are supposed to send some money back to their village.
This man, ‘Biswas’, who lost his father due to tuberculosis, who had his mother on the verge of death, whose wife doesn’t love him (he thinks) anymore, whose daughter serves as domestic help and whose son worked in a Dhaba, had a big heart to invite me in his so called house for some tea and snacks.
I politely refused his invitation and told him that I need to go to a friend’s marriage. I walked away from there and after walking a fair bit of distance, looked back. He was still looking at me with a big smile on his face. As soon as he realized that I was looking back, he stated to wave his hand with a great enthusiasm.
His life was full of struggles and answerless question but yet he had the courage to carry a smile on his face. May be they do not want the hundred crore rupees plans for their rejuvenation but a few words of inspiration and love.
I kept on walking on the pavement for I don’t know how long. Finally, I stopped near another group of cart-pullers, they were laughing and singing. The sweat jumped from all over my body and I heard a chant of a Hindi poem in my ears.