City of joy
By Rupak de Chowdhuri
It’s festive time in Kolkata, with the Durga festival celebrated across the city, before Diwali celebrations fill the city with light. Kolkata has been called the “City of Joy,” a title which was immortalized in a book by Dominique Lapierre. It tells the story of the poorest of the poor who still somehow find hope and joy in life. Little did I know I was about to come face-to-face with such a story.
I hunt for pictures every day. One day, I was looking for pictures when an old friend told me to go to a place where I was guaranteed to find a good story. Because of my curious nature, I started to walk in search of the story I’d been told about in the middle of Kolkata. I started searching among the food stalls because I wouldn’t believe it until I saw them myself.
At last I found them. And I stood stunned, like other customers in front of the food stall. I watched for half an hour.
The next day I came back and started talking to other people at the food stall. The other workers said they were a happy family once. They lived nearby for forty years. A few years ago, they moved to a village about 45 minutes away by train. I went home but I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I didn’t sleep at all that night.
Early the next morning, I went to the railway station to wait for them, I knew they came to Kolkata on the same train every day. I waited for a long time and at last I saw them come out of the crowded local train.
I walked with them. I started to take pictures of them walking. She walked through the crowded station and through the vegetable market, as she does every day. The owner of the roadside food stall where she works gives her money to pick up vegetables to bring to the stall in the mornings. Carrying a heavy load of vegetables in a sack on top of her head, 60-year-old Kalyani Das never once let go of the hand of her husband of 50 years, Pachugopal Das.
She told me she always held his hand to keep him from running away. She said that over the last seven years, 65-year-old Pachugopal had developed a mental disorder. They have been unable to diagnose it because they are too poor to see a doctor regularly or to purchase medicine – Kalyani earns just 50 Indian Rupees a day (US$1.05) for her work at the stall. Kalyani said they had four sons and a daughter, all of whom abandoned them, and without their support she and her husband had to move out of Kolkata and to a village.
He has a tendency to run away if he isn’t being watched closely. With no carers at home and unable to stop working, Kalyani uses a metal chain to control his behavior.
As Pachugopal squatted on a cardboard sheet on the pavement near the stall where she works, she tied one end of the chain around his ankle, and the other end around a metal grill and secured it with padlocks. She then started her day’s work. At the end of the day, she had her one daily meal and fed her husband, unchained him and led him by the hand back to the train station to return to their village.
I visited them at home. There I saw Pachugopal lying on the floor as his wife did the household chores. He sometimes sang songs. He would ask for food and tea occasionally. Sometimes he would call out “Madhu!”, the name of his daughter. Kalyani kept him chained to a wall at home, so that he didn’t run away. Sometimes, she said, he tries to hit her. He had once even tried to kill her, she told me.
I spent a lot of time talking to Kalyani, who said she wanted to treat her husband but she would never have the money. She said she prays to God every day for his death, so that both of them can be relieved from their suffering. She said if there was any organization that knew how to take care of him, she would let him go and visit him regularly. If he were to die, it would be her that would do the ritual Hindu final rites for her husband.
I became very sad as I heard story.
On another day, I met Kalyani and Pachugopal at their village to follow them on their daily train journey. Kalyani had told me how she had to keep him chained during the journey – in full view of all the other commuters – so that he didn’t run away and jump out of the doors of the moving train.
Daily commuters who catch the same train seemed oblivious to it. Others who didn’t take the train every day were curious. They asked me questions like, can you help them with your photos? Can you make some organization, the government or some NGO come forward to take care of this man so he can spend the rest of his days well?
When I finished shooting this story, what I took away was that many of us are lucky to have a good job – work and a normal life. Who knows about the future? If someone you love ends up like Pachugopal and you have no control over their behavior, how would you react? Would you still take care of them, by whatever method possible? Would you still take care of them if you were among the poorest of the poor, if you knew no one was there to help you, and you had no way of paying for proper help?
I hope, like in the novel “City of Joy,” the story has a good ending. I hope some day, some good will come to Kalyani and Pachugopal’s life.