Kolkata: “I want to go to America,” says Arati Rai, as she sits hunched in her home — a 4×4 square feet of the Bidhan Sharani pavement covered by a tatty turquoise-coloured tarpaulin — and munches on a biscuit.
“I once lived in a big house with my parents and sister,” Rai, one of Kolkata’s estimated 81,000 beggars, says. “I even had a job.”
Today, she scrounges for newspapers and carefully scans the want ads in the classifieds section, looking for jobs. She is 60, her health is fading, yet she hopes for a return to those good times when she had a home, a family, a job, and a sense of self. Her shelter is close to the Thanthania Kalibari and from where she sits, she can see the idol of Kali inside the temple. A devotee on her way back from prayers drops a couple of coins in her cupped hands. Rai rubs the coins between her fingers, then stows them away in a red jewellery bag. “On a good day,” she says, her voice raised against the incessant honking of the cars and bikes negotiating the cramped street, “I make a hundred rupees, and I eat the bhog that is cooked in the temple, so I don’t want for food or money. I just want something to do.”
Six months ago, she had a bad fall and had to undergo knee surgery. Now, she can barely walk. “I cannot go anywhere now. So when I get bored sitting here, I lie down. And then, when I get bored lying down, I sit up. ” Sometimes she talks to herself; at other times she hums the tunes of Rabindra Sangeet she had learnt as a kid in her ancestral home in Bangladesh.
“Amar din gulo ar katena, (My days don’t seem to end),” she says.
“My days are just disappearing,” says Rama Roy, another beggar, whose spot is the pavement opposite another Kali temple, the Firinghi Kalibari, which is a mile away from where Rai sits.
“I eat, I sleep, I stay alive. That is all,” says Roy.
Roy’s husband was forced to sell their house in Bowbazar a few years ago, and the couple ended up on the street. He died soon after, leaving her penniless and homeless, her health failing from constant exposure to the elements, and with no option but to beg.
She recalls the delight she once took in little things – the taste of fish, the smell of a new sari. “I have no desires anymore,” she says.
Life on the pavement is lived at an existential level; a constant struggle for the smallest advantage. If Roy gets a coin or two from a passing devotee, her peers nearby are quick to show their resentment – but even so, she doesn’t have to put up with the abusive behavior that makes Arati Rai’s life hell.
Photo by Simantini Dey
“They throw things at me,” she says, of the beggars around her, “and once they even tried to beat me up.” She puts up with it all, though, for what choice does she have? “They get me tea and water. If I need medicine, they try to buy and bring. I obviously pay, but still.”
Rai and her fellow beggars battle for the attention of passersby and go to extreme lengths to undercut one another. But when, say, the neighborhood doctor tries to block one of them from his clinic, they band together to support ‘their people’; they stand up for Rai if anyone who is not a beggar mistreats her.
Among the beggars of the area, Rai is a misfit. “She thinks she is different. Above us all, ” says the beggar who sits next to Rai, his hand stroking the crutch beside him. A woman who sits across from Rai is far more cutting. “Just because she reads a newspaper every day doesn’t make her better. She will have to live and die here.”
Rai, however, still hopes. “What I need is a home. Just a room would do,” she says. The hardest thing about her life is to find a toilet. “I used the loos in the metro, but now I cannot walk that far. Sometimes, I pee in the manhole. But you cannot do that in front of everyone.”
Manju Pal, a part-time beggar whose spot is outside the Kolkata Medical College, shares Rai’s dream of a room of her own. “I will pay 500 rupees every month for my room,” says Pal, adding ruefully that she doesn’t have the money yet. She is staying with a friend, but fears that the arrangement won’t last. “My friend says, ‘My daughter may throw you out anytime’, but what I can do about that?” she says.
Pal was married off after she flunked her class 10 exams. That was almost four decades ago. Her husband died recently, and her in-laws forced her out of the house. Begging hurts her pride, so she doesn’t do it daily. “Only when the money is tight I ask for a few pennies, that isn’t begging, right?”
Rai, too, recoils when someone calls her a beggar. “Kauke bhikiri bolte aache?” (Are you supposed to address anyone as a beggar?) No one from my family has ever begged or lived on the street. They were all bhodro lok (educated gentlemen).”
That past is now dead; Rai’s only living relative is her sister and her two sons. They are, she says, better off – they have a home of their own, a home that has no place for Rai. “My sister and her sons don’t know that I live like this. I can never tell them. They will be so ashamed of me if they ever come to know.”
A kind-hearted passerby drops a coin in her hand. Arati Rai turns it over in her fingers, head bent low to hide welling tears. “When I was little, my mother told me to concentrate on my studies. And I did. I worked hard; my teachers praised me. And it has all come to this.”
(The writer wishes to thank the National Geographic Society and the Out of Eden Walk, whose 2018 Journalism Workshop supported the creation of this project.)