I wade through fallen mud walls in a small colony in the hinterland of Durgapur. The mighty Damodar River flows at a stone’s throw from the place and is disciplined by a derelict barrage. It is 11am in my watch and the tropical sun is already beating down on us with all its fury. The dingy alley in front of me is littered with debris and flies and mosquitoes call the open gutters their home.
I have to get used to the stench that follows me everywhere. This place is a far cry from the usual scenes of my city. I have decided to spend the day with two gentlemen in their mid thirties. Rangan and Soumyadeep are true sons of this red soil, but they could have easily settled abroad by dint of their stellar resumes. But what do they do instead? They decide to start a one-of-a-kind charitable organisation!
The concept of crowd funding isn’t new. But for my city it is certainly unique.
Why, even for Bengal it is still rare! The social media is abuzz with crowd funding organisations pooling money from donors for the needy. But a careful scrutiny reveals that none of these organisations are based out of Bengal. This is a problem. Lockdowns in two consecutive years have broken the backs of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis. Help is needed and there is no time to procrastinate. We are not the UK that the government will pay £3000 a month in COVID relief to traders devastated by lockdowns! We are neither the USA that an unemployed man will receive a $1400 cheque without breaking sweat! We have to make do with patriotism. So, Rangan and Soumyadeep decided to do something that other’s won’t. They quickly assembled a team of volunteers and founded Smile and Hope, SmiHo in short. The objective: to crowd fund drowning families across Bengal and beyond. In no time they began scouring the backwaters of Durgapur for the doomed.
When I first met them at their office they were already swamped with work. “It bears down upon our hearts not to be able to respond to every cry of help” they nodded. “You are bleeding money, aren’t you?” I asked. “Yes! But we are managing with people’s help. Do you want to see what we see every day?” And here I stand in front of the most squalid alleyway I have ever seen in my life. The alley ends at the doorstep of a shanty hut. One Mrs. Bina Rani Biswas comes out smiling with black teeth. She carries all the insignia of a married Hindu woman but hasn’t heard from her husband since her daughter’s birth. Bina is one of those thousands of housemaids who have kept my city clean over the ages. Without them our households would fall apart. Yet they dwindle in the cities’ twilight zones.
Inside the house I meet Bina’s daughter Maya, a frail young woman of 25. She lumbers across the room and settles on a rickety chair. Bina proceeds to pull out her daughter’s medical records from an old iron closet. With the records in her hand Bina begins narrating her journey through hell as Maya hangs her head in silent misery. Maya used to be a housemaid liker her mother. They had been doing well as recently as 2019. In fact, the mother daughter duo had saved up enough for Maya’s marriage. But tragedy struck in 2020. On a chilly January morning last year Maya had trouble getting off the bed. They had taken it for a muscle cramp at first. But things took a turn for the worse over the next few days and Maya began to feel a searing pain down her left side. Intermittent bouts of paralysis followed soon. Someone took them to a neuro-clinic and Maya was diagnosed with a progressively deteriorating neural disorder. Medicines and procedures were prescribed and she was told that housework could kill her. Despite her fervent objections, Maya was put out of work and Bina decided to continue in her place at some of the households. Part of the family income was lost but they were still limping along. But then the pandemic came and along with it despair. As households began closing doors on Bina, Maya’s treatment cost began soaring.
One year thence the mighty Damodar still runs grudgingly down its course. Maya and Bina still cling on to their flimsy existence and the city goes to bed every night nonchalant of countless such unfolding tragedies. Maya’s treatment cost has eroded the family’s savings and she doesn’t dream of marriage anymore. I can see guilt in her eyes. It is a crime to be poor and sick in our country! Her body has begun to respond to the treatment but Bina is jobless.
They look at us withsilent gazes but I cannot look them in the eye. All their lives these two gritty women have fought with insurmountable odds. They know that if help doesn’t come soon they will die of starvation and disease. Yet, their eyes don’t moisten even for once. I know I can never be as brave as them. Bina wishes they die together of starvation instead of her passing away before Maya. “What will happen to my daughter after me?”
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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