Walking through the huge Mullick Ghat flower market on the banks of the Hooghly River is fun. It’s the largest flower market in Asia where all sorts of wonderful, predominantly yellow and orange flowers, are sold. The cacophony of colours and smells that assaults and soothes the senses are amazing.
Further on and behind a wall is the railway line and a shanty town where the poorest Dalit people live in makeshift plastic sheet homes. It’s not a safe place and many are killed each year.
We struck up conversations with people. This woman whose husband had dementia said “Hello” and was happy for me to take her photo. We thanked her with smiles and moved slowly on.
Later we came across a man operating a pedal wheelchair and, after we explained what we are doing, said he was willing to tell us his story.
“My name was Bijay” he said and went on “The Government gave me a house in the village where my family lived in Bihar state but no money to live off. I had no food or money for clothes, so I came to Kolkata”. This was a common story which we heard many times as we moved slowly along the railway lines chatting to people. Then Bijay told us his lovely romantic tale. When he was begging he met a young blind woman also begging “The rest” he said grinning “is a love story”.
“Can we meet her?” we asked. “Yes” he said and off he hand peddled. Bijay returned a few minutes later with his wife. Her name was Anita. She was about 8 years old when someone threw a mixture of sand and cement in her eyes and she was blinded. Straight away she said, “Bi Jay is the most important person in my life and I’m lucky to have him as my husband”. Simply the way they ‘looked’ at each other confirmed they were in love.
We went back to their shanty plastic home by the railway track and it turned out that Anita’s mother and father were the couple we had met earlier. We went back to meet the family many times with Anna over the following ten months and came to realise that this family of four, three of whom were disabled, were part of a wider inter-dependent community who lived on the side of the tracks. They teetered on the edge of survival yet supported each other.
Update: November 2017
Anna, Kaushik and I were sitting with Jyoti’s family in November 2017 when we spotted Bijay hand peddling quickly up the road towards us. The usual smile and broad grin were gone, replaced by a look of utter despair. He pleaded “Can you come and look at Anita”? “Of course” we said and followed him to their home by the railway track. Anita was in bad state both physically and mentally. Bijay explained how, in August, Anita was sleeping by the track when she was hit by a train. Her skull was fractured, three ribs were broken, and her hip was damaged causing walking to be a problem – she had survived but only just.
She lay slumped just inside the family’s diminutive home of plastic and poles struggling to carry out even the basic of her daily routine like washing in the Ganges or asking for alms near the market. Bijay, Anita and her mother were all anxious, dejected, and unable to find sufficient nourishment to sustain themselves. Bijay badly affected, utterly lost, and didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, Anita’s sister who lived further along the track, came to their rescue and was providing a small daily rice meal. The Hope Foundation Hospital agreed to examine Anita. They found her injuries mostly healed. However, the trauma had emotionally scarred her, and blood analysis showed significant malnutrition and anaemia. We bought three months supply of multivitamins containing vitamin C and iron for Anita and asked her sister to increase her food intake.
The whole family was in a bad way. Anita was blind and had experienced a major accident; Bijay had cerebral palsy; Anita’s mother was old and her heart was weak; and her father suffered from advanced dementia. Anna had noticed three other people nearby were also blind and after Kaushik asked a few questions we came to realise that whole community living nearby were struggling to survive and not able to offer much more support to Anita.
Just before we left for the UK we took one final photograph of Bijay and Anita close to where they lived. We opted for a quiet space away from the tracks and out of public gaze. The image conveys their darkening mood and reflects our feeling of hopelessness. They had heard rumours that the police were about to raid the track community. Such attacks are usually followed bulldozers flattening their homes sent by the City Council who want them to move elsewhere and off railway property.
A couple of days after we returned home we received word that the bulldozers had moved in and that Bijay and Anita were homeless. We are not sure if we will see them again.
Update: May 2018
It had been a difficult six months for Anita and Bijay. They had resurrected their plastic shelter on the railway track and when Kaushik found them they were in the process of rebuilding their lives. Physically there were signs of improvement in Anita thanks for intervention by Kaushik. Her wounds had healed leaving a massive scar on her skull and forehead. There were positive signs – her hair was growing, and she was putting on weight again. However, it was clear that she was only slowly emerging from deep depression. Bijay was struggling himself and not being as supportive as he could have been. He has his own disability and struggles to contend with. Anita’s four sisters, her mother and father (who has dementia) and cousins continued to be the bedrock for Anita and Bijay and their intervention kept them both alive and helped them to rebuild their lives. Anita likes to look her best and always dresses well. We decided to buy her a nice outfit to boost her self-confidence and found a relaxing outfit for Bijay too. Slowly, very slowly, Anita began to smile again. We can only hope they will emerge damaged but stronger from their ordeal.