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Despairing but proud, he will not take money for no work By Supratik Sengupta

PTI | Kolkata | Updated: 25-05-2020 17:43 IST | Created: 25-05-2020 17:43 IST
Despairing but proud, he will not take money for no work By Supratik Sengupta

Santosh Shaw doesnt make even Rs 50 a day these days pedalling his cycle rickshaw through a warren of lanes on the eastern fringes of Kolkata during the lockdown but will not accept Rs 100 for no work. Life was never easy for the 45-year-old native of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. The continued lockdown and cyclone that battered West Bengal last Wednesday only made it harder.

But his unmistakable pride of labour is evident whenever he pedals his machine to reach customers to their destination, his sinewy calves eager to bulge out of his skin, as he navigates the lanes of Kamarhati-Agarpara-Belgharia area with speed that defies his conspicuously frail frame. Shah, who lives in a shanty in Naya Bustee area of Agarpara with his wife and 12-year-old son, is a worried man as cyclone Amphan has blown off the asbestos roof over his home.

"For the last four days a plastic sheet and bamboo scaffolding have made up for the lost roof. But for how long? What will happen if there is another toofan (storm)? First the lockdown and then this. Life wasnt so bad even three months back," he told this PTI correspondent, still managing a faint smile. This correspondent has seen Santosh for years but never cared to ask him his name. It was a nodding acquaintance as some say.

With the lockdown came time aplenty and we chatted. "Dada, these are very, very difficult times. Before the lockdown we could manage in our humble ways, earning Rs 300-400 even Rs 500 on a good day. I could earn an extra buck during rain, helping people like you.

But things have changed during the lockdown. I was once hit with a baton by a policeman. Guards at residential complexes chase me away. I dont have fever. Poor people dont even catch fever...they die of hunger, he said, turning away his face in one swift motion and clumsily wiping his face with his callused right hand, perhaps trying to stop tears from rolling down his sunken cheeks. Police high-handedness has eased a bit over the past fortnight, he said, and suddenly slid his hand down the pocket of the shorts he wore and turned it inside out. Three Rs 10 coins and a few smaller changes were all it contained.

This is what the toofan has done to me, he said, clutching the coins, his fingers trembling. But he rebuffed all attempts by this reporter to give him money.

I am not a beggar. You tell me if I have to take you anywhere.... Shyambazar, Barrackpore, Sodpur wherever you ask me, and then pay me my due," said Santosh, pushing back this correspondents hand holding a Rs 100 note. I dont want it, he said resolutely. Santosh, who lives next to his two brothers and their families, claimed they have not received even "an ounce" of the promised 5 kg quota of rice and daal from the government in the past two months.

"About a month back I got 10 kg of rice, potato and soap from some people (NGO) at Belgharia-Rathtala. My wife would cook meals and we ate well for some days. Now I buy groceries only on days when I earn Rs Rs 200 which is quite rare, he said and asked wistfully, Will things never be the same dada?" "My son used to study at Kathalbagan Free Primary School in class four. But the school is closed due to lockdown. I am not sure if he can resume studies again, he said. When asked why doesnt he seek a job in jute mills that have opened, he said plying rickshaw is the only trade he has known. Come rain or sunshine, medical emergencies or festivals, this is what I do.

On whether the thought of returning home to Gorakhpur crossed his mind given the hardships he was facing in Kolkata, he fell silent briefly then said he never wanted that. "We have been born and brought up here. I speak Bengali as fluently as I speak Hindi and even broken Urdu. We talk in both Hindi and Bengali at home. I used to consider Kolkata my home. I can do menial jobs but returning to my village will mean I have to learn farming, he said.

He, however, said he was not too sure whether he will continue to live in Kolkata or go back. The city of joy was where Santosh Shaw had hoped he will live and die. But sucked into a vortex of despair, for the man who navigated the chaotic lanes of Kolkata with consummate ease, finding the right way out is proving tough.




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