These lines, immortalised by Munshi Premchand in his timeless classic, Budhi Kaki caught my attention as a young school student decades back. The poignance of those lines, tempered by the agonising mental imagery of a desperately hungry old lady scrabbling for food in the rubbish heap of her own house were burnt into my mind by Pande Sir’s passionate eloquence. I have carried that awful visual in my head since then, and consequently a fear of such a thing happening in real life. Unfortunately, the older I grow, the clearer it is to me that Munshi Premchand’s story was not a work of fiction. If he did not actually see it happening, he must have sensed that it was going to happen.
On Sunday, 15 April, Bengali New Years day, some of us visited two homes run by an NGO called Friends of Kolkata’s Elderly. Started in 2003 as an initiative to distribute food parcels to the homeless people living on Sealdah Railway platforms, FOKE now runs two homes and several outreach programmes in the city.
These homes are the residence of 35 homeless old ladies or Dida’s ( and three homeless men or Dadu’s as well). They have been brought here from places across the city, from charitable hospitals, roadsides and railway stations. Their families have either abandoned them or lost them- choosing to ignore or forget about their very existence. Kind people, usually rickshawallahs or beggars have shared their food with them and escorted them to a safer place, perhaps a police station or a shelter.
They may have wandered away from home and were unable to find their way back, or perhaps they were chased out of their homes, or they moved out after being assaulted and victimized for their property- every kind of horror story possible exists within those walls. And yet, they had all dressed up for us in their pretty new Saris and were waiting to welcome us and spend a few happy hours together- such is the resilience of life.
The idyllic village of Madhubati is just a short drive away from Kolkata. We had my ebullient cousin Arvind for company and so it was a musical journey in the truest sense of the word. We were a small motley group- Arvind, myself, our cousin Raji and our friend, mentor and guide, Dr Abhijit Dam. Animated discussions on spirituality and the duality of life made that drive memorable in itself.
The home in Madhubati village has been donated by a generous family. It houses 15 ladies, three gentlemen and four staff. The first floor has been converted into a small accommodation for visiting volunteers. All of them were waiting for us with cheerful welcoming smiles. We chatted. Some of the ladies had made jewellery for us and gifted them to us with all the pride of self achievement possible. Lovely, a 75 year young lady, dressed in a stylish black salwar kameez showed us her knitting- she has been knitting sweaters and scarves for all the staff in the home. Her last memory is of being in an ashram in Hardwar- she has no recall of how she arrived in Kolkata and does not remember where her home is. She however discussed the lanes and byelanes of Delhi with me knowledgeably, she remembers that her parents house was in Janakpuri. Others sang for us, one effervescent young lady, who was obviously a foodie regaled us with details of recipes she had customised to suit her own palate. Another showed me her bed, invited me to sit on it and tell her about myself. I couldn’t speak because the tears wouldn’t stop- I could not hold back my emotions.
The residents lead a regimented life here and quite naturally their day revolves around mealtimes. They spend their afternoons teaching local children, in a makeshift school on their porch! Their evenings are spent watching TV and then they chat amongst themselves until it is bedtime. One lady explained to me that she stayed up even after bedtime, just so that the staff who had to work late to clean up would not feel lonely and left out.
After a sumptuous homemade lunch, we moved on to the other home in Thakurpukur. This one was bang in the middle of a congested locality, but felt like a haven of peace. Here too we were greeted by gentle welcoming smiles and wonderful warmth. One of the benefactors of this home is a young lad named Sunny. Still in his mid twenties, Sunny is one of those exceptional people who are sent to this world to spread love. He brought with him a bus load of people- young, old and middle aged to visit and spread good cheer on the Bengali New Year day. They brought with them a harmonium and thus the tone for the evening was set. Music, dance, chai samosa and smiles all round.
For me, the highlight of the evening was this lady. She beckoned to me and whispered something in my ear. The music was loud, people were clapping and swaying and it took a few seconds for what she said to register. When it did, I dissolved into tears once again. For she said, thank you for today. Tomorrow, when all of you are gone and I will be alone again, I will think of you all and smile. Please do come again.
Is that too much to ask folks? That we visit them, share some love and banter with them, maybe take them something nice to eat? What will it cost us? A few hours, the cost of petrol and a few hundred rupees maybe? Come then- make a difference to somebody’s life, you will feel better for it.
These sweet old ladies do not want to speak ill of their loved ones even after all this, and so their memories fail them when they speak of those loved ones. All their children, siblings and relatives are apparently wonderful people who have good jobs and lotsof money and if they are not caring for their mothers or aunts or sisters, it is only because they have no time or ability to do so. Does that sound familiar?
This simple unassuming lady is Sanghita Mondal, the life force behind Foke. It is her dedication and leadership that has led to the setting up of these homes, and more importantly her spirit that ensures that the homes remain a haven of love and care. Sanghita spreads joy and cheer wherever she goes- we need more people like her today.
This post was first published on “Tales of India“.