Monday, December 11, 2006

From Bihar to Kolkata: The Mahato saga

Ajanta Chakraborty | TNN

Kolkata: Till now, it’s been a cosy, if not happy, family on the pavements of Calcutta Technical School on Dharamtolla.

Basudeb Mahato and his two sons with their three ‘‘rented’’ rickshaws ‘‘parked’’ on the sidewalk may not have painted a pretty picture of Darwinian struggle. ‘‘But we are still here, alive and working and sending money home,’’ sighs Mahato.

‘‘The government’s ban will not only throw us out of work — and probably out of this place (pavements),’’ he says, sure that the rickshaw ban will send them packing to Samastipur in Bihar ‘‘to starve’’. It’s mid-afternoon. The 65-year-old human horse (as the West call them) is negotiating his 11th and final fare of the day with an obese woman and her equally chubby son. After they agree on Rs 20, the two passengers climb aboard.

‘‘Sit here and I will be back in 10 minutes,’’ Mahato says as he positions himself between the rickshaw’s shafts, assuming the yoke as he has every day for the past 25 years.

Ten minutes later, he lights a bidi and looks at it fondly, ‘‘Before I became a rickshaw-wallah, I used to run my own bidimanufacturing business. Now that my business is gone, I don’t know what I’ll do in Samastipur. I have some land, though. But can hardly earn a living with it.’’ But won’t that be better than being a pavement dweller? No way. Mahato is happy to live aasman ke neeche . ‘‘Except for the rain and occasions when police drive us out of here. It’s difficult finding another place. But the ordeal is over in a day or two,’’ says Mahato. He still remembers the day he was rendered ‘‘homeless’’ two years ago when the owner sold off the crumbly building on Colin Street.

Mahato’s balancesheet goes like this: Between the two generations, the Mahatos have been sending a modest packet of Rs 10,000 to Rajo Devi, mother of Basudeb’s nine children.

The three rickshaws have each been rented from one Md Tahir at Mehndi Bagan Road for Rs 20 a day. ‘‘Each of our daily incomes range between Rs 150 and Rs 200. From this, Rs 20 must go to the rickshaw-owner. We have no establishment cost and our lunch and dinner are from roadside eateries.”

The menu comprises daal and roti or bhaat. Machhli-bhat), the typical Bihari palate is a luxury they indulge in off and on. “Kalkatta sasta hain. Yahaan garib aadmi ka achhi khasi guzara ho jata hair (Kolkata is a cheap city. The poor can eke a fairly good living here).”

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