On the internet I came across a photograph of an elderly woman begging near a temple. She looked partially sighted or blind and her face intrigued me. It said ‘I have lived and experienced a full and demanding life’. I found her during my first visit in January 2017 sitting outside the Dakshineswar Kali Temple which is situated on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River in Kolkata. Her name is Sabu Jan Bibi.
I was keen to hear her story but initially she was not keen to tell it. She gave up her story slowly. Through Kaushik our interpreter, I explained our work. She agreed that I could take photographs. I took two quickly and thanked her before moving off. I didn’t want invade her space too much and took Kaushik’s advice to come back another day.
I returned to the Temple with Anna and Kaushik in March 2017 and made contact again. As before Sabu Jan Bibi replied in short sentences to our questions but this time she appeared to be more at ease. Also, as before, the woman next to her added short explanations, and the story emerged like a complex jigsaw coming together.
At the age of 10 years of age Sabu Jan Bibi contracted smallpox which led to blindness. Her father was a stone mason who employed a number of men. He approached a twenty four year old man, an apprentice working for him, with a question and a proposition: “What about your future . . . you don’t have anybody? I have a daughter and after me there will be no-one to care for her so would you marry her . . . you’ll be happy.” And so at 12 years of age Sabu Jan Bibi was married and at sixteen had the first of ten children. Of the ten children, she had eight boys and two girls, but only two sons and two daughters remain alive. Both daughters have children but both are widowed, very poor, and unable to support their mother. One son left Kolkata and is also unable to support her. She lives with her other son who lost his left foot when he fell from scaffolding whilst working as a labourer. Recently he broke his leg in an accident and is unable to work. Sabu Jan Bibi lives with him but needs to ask for alms at the temple each day to support herself and to contribute to the family. When she was young she had many friends and family members but they died or do not live near.
Sabu Jan Bibi’s life follows the same weekly routine as it has for the past thirty years. At weekends she is taken from the home of her son by a distant relative to ask for alms. Her day starts at 6 am when she leaves home to take the 25 minute walk to the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. The pilgrims provide her with rice and coins sufficient for to live off and then she returns home. During weekdays Sabu Jan Bibi arrives at the temple at 11 am and stays there until late afternoon. She can only undertake this routine with the support of her distant relative or a member of her local community.
She sits with many others, near the entrance to the temple, in the same place, for hours and hours. This is her role in life and central to her daily routine. A small amount of rice, an evening roti, a little water, and occasionally some clothes, are all she needs to exist. Sabu Jan Bibi has no government support because, she says, “I never learnt to read or write and no-one to help me with the administrative problems of an application.”
Sabu Jan Bibi told us she is about 75 years old but she may be older. I thought that her face was a fixed mask behind which her thoughts and experiences were rarely communicated. Kashik, our interpreter, told her a joke in the hope of making her laugh. There was a hint of a smile which quickly gave way to her usual sombre disposition. I asked what made her happy and she replied “There is no happiness in my life now . . . I’ve had enough of this life and want to leave it now . . . I’ve given up hope.” Sabu Jan Bibi went on to tell me that two months ago her eldest son who was born with a walking disability died and this made her very sad.
After the second meeting we followed Sabu Jan Bibi home and were greeted by ‘gatekeepers’ to her communal home. Being an Islamic community an Iman came to meet us and ask us questions. When we explained who we were and what we were doing he said we were welcome. I felt the community were supporting Sabu Jan Bibi and keeping her safe. This was reassuring since this is a period in India’s history when grandmothers and grandfathers are increasingly being abandoned.
We followed Sabu Jan Bibi through narrow alleyways to her son’s home and her room which was small and chaotic. A lively and inquisitive crowd had developed and so we took a group photograph and left. I asked Sabu Jan Bibi if we could visit her again in a few months time. She replied “If I’m alive”. I hope so since it’s rare to meet such a resilient and dignified character.
Anna, Kaushik and I caught up with Sabu Jan Bibi again in November. Life was pretty much the same as before. As before, when asked “How are you” she answered darkly “I’ve had enough . . . . it’ time to go.” But she knows she can’t ‘go’ yet. Sabu Jan Bibi remains the backbone of her family since she supports them and they, with the help of the community, help her. Her youngest son, who was born with a physical disability, who died last year is still on her mind is causing immeasurable sadness. She talked about their closeness “because we both had a physical disability and were always close. Whenever I cooked I would be connected to him by a piece of string to keep him safe.” The sadness of losing him lingered.
Sabu Jan Bibi’s quiet dignity and elegance, were always apparent we took her portrait. When the sun was low in the sky there were times when her eyes reflected the light and shone like diamonds. Of course, I could never tell her that, but for those brief moments she was a particularly striking figure.
It’s clear that her family needs her. The two remaining sons both had accidents leaving them disabled and unable to work regularly. One son pulled a rickshaw part-time and the other carried rubbish to the dump. Both struggling in life and drank to excess. The family, the community, and Sabu Jan Bibi lived in a symbiotic relationship each drawing on and contributing as needed merely to exist.
She walked to the temple seek alms less often now. Although the walk took 30 minutes she needed to rest every 10 minutes or so before moving on again. Sabu Jan Bibi was spending more time sitting quietly at home now and her roof still leaked badly causing problems, especially during the monsoon.