The Man Lying in Kolkata Street

The Man Lying in Kolkata Street by a Friend of BCN

Part 1. Yesterday I saw something that I have never seen before in real life. I think everyone has seen photos of victims from Auschwitz and Dachau, emaciated bodies of what used to be human beings. Victims of fanatical hatred and callous indifference. Yesterday I had two important meetings to do with my work here. To be hospitable, I went to the local shop to buy refreshments for my guests, time was pressing, I got there and started to walk to the shop. Suddenly I saw a man lying down in the street.

On the floor was some straw, on the straw was a skeletal figure of a man, I was not sure if he was alive or dead. I looked closer, he was covered in flies and excrement, his eyes and nostrils and mouth were covered in some kind of filth. Of course I was shocked, I know this is Kolkata, I know things like this happen, not just here but around the world. I spoke to a few people about what could be done for this man; everyone said he was mad (insane/crazy), as if that was the reason for his plight. I have to admit I was found wanting, I really did not know what to do. Everyone was oblivious of him. I went back home, I had turned my back on a human being in dire distress.

Later that night I spoke of my guilt to my cousin P. She suggested that I at least give him some water, why I hadn’t thought of that I don’t know? However it was too late to go back. But the next day I went back, I took a bottle of water and some spare clothes; I went with M, my fiancée. I tried to help, I gave him some water, and some food, but what was needed was professional help. I went to one policeman down the road about 50 yards away, he was not interested, and someone told me about another police station. I got an auto rickshaw to where I had been told it was, but that turned out to be false information, I came back on the bus, trying to find where the police station was. I walked some distance to a third place, at last I found the police station, I reported what was happening, they told me to go to another police station somewhere else. I hired an auto rickshaw to get my phone which I had left at home, and from there to set off for the other police station. The rickshaw driver said the man was a habitual drunk; he had been taken to the police station before, but just kept coming back to that spot. I still didn’t know what to do? I bought some more water, and some food. I gave it to the man, who started to talk to me, obviously I didn’t understand, I called M. to interpret, but she didn’t understand his speech either at first, then she understood, he was asking for beer/alcohol. That’s when I lost interest. I offered the clothes but he refused them. When he was speaking I noticed his teeth, they were white and perfectly clean and even, most perplexing. Lastly I went back to the original police station; they told me that the police at the other station had informed someone higher up. This is Kolkata, not for the faint hearted.

Part 2. A few days passed, I had made the mistake of believing what the police had said, I went back to find the man gone. But on asking some locals about where he was, I was pointed in a direction up the road a bit, there seemed to be a small fire. I went there and found the man crouching in front of a very small fire. How he got there I didn’t know, whether he had started the fire himself I didn’t know. I went to a local food shop, and bought some water and food for him. Walking in back I saw the fire had spread and the man was alight in three places. I ran and used the water to put him out. It was dark at night I couldn’t see the extent of his injuries but they didn’t seem serious. This man needed help, once again I felt lost. I went again to the local traffic police watchroom; the policeman came with me, told me the man was mad (insane/crazy), once again it seemed that if you are mad, it excuses the authorities from doing anything.

The policeman phoned someone; once again I was told that someone would come. I made the same mistake I believed what I had been told, never again. I went home but was still uneasy. I called a friend, TG, (of BCN) a man I had been working with for two years in the Sundarbans.

TG, M., and I went to Kabardanga, we found the man, he was in a crouching position trying to warm his hands over a fire that had gone out. I asked my friend TG what could be done, he suggested somehow we take him to the Sisters of Charity (Mother Teresa’s ministry) at Kalighat.

The question was how to get him there, a taxi wouldn’t take him, so we had to get an ambulance. Luckily one of my friends Mr M. owned a pharmacy and other business outlets close by. TG called Mrs M., who dispatched an ambulance to us. On arriving the first thing was to get the man into the ambulance, he was very reluctant, he had been speaking to my fiancée and told her he was in jail and “the police had drained his blood”, and he wouldn’t go to the police station. She assured him we were taking him to hospital. He also said to her “we all looked like Mahatma Gandhi, but that I looked like his father”.

Anyway we strapped him to a stretcher and put him in the small ambulance; we three climbed in beside him and were off. This was an amazing and crazy drive through down town Kolkata, with lights flashing, and sirens blaring, we went through red lights, the wrong way down one way streets, cut across traffic lanes, and somehow got to our destination in one piece.

On reaching Kalighat we had to slow down. This was the area of the oldest Hindu temple in Kolkata, dedicated to Kali the Destroyer. All around us were brightly lit street stalls selling images of the goddess, and other trinkets. The place thronged with Hindu pilgrims, many in bare feet. The air was thick with incense, and noise. There were beggars asking alms, people settling down on mattresses in the street, dogs waiting at food stalls for scraps, and police with machine guns everywhere.

We found the Sisters of Charity house, it was locked, TG rang the bell and we waited. Eventually two men came to the shuttered doorway, they asked what we wanted, we told them we had a man in the ambulance that needed to be looked after. This they said was impossible, the only way they could admit anyone was if we had an FIR, which is a first incident report, made out in front of the police and stamped by them.

TG, M. and I went to the local police station. There was a man in civvies there, who asked what we wanted, we explained. Luckily I had some documents in my bag which added some credence to what we were saying.

TG wrote out a letter explaining who we were, and how we had come upon this man, and what efforts had been made on his behalf. Nearly an hour later our FIR was duly stamped by the police. I just thought to myself I am glad that this wasn’t a real emergency, I mean the man was dying, but there wasn’t any blood, probably because the police “had drained it”.

We went back to the ambulance and Sisters of Charity house, the ambulance driver was shouting at us, saying he had to be away, he said he was just going to leave the man on the steps and go. TG persuaded him to stay for 5 minutes extra.

When we got to the charity home, there were two nuns looking out of the barred gate, but little charity. They said they couldn’t take him despite the FIR. We pleaded with the nuns, the nuns advised we take him to BangurHospital and at the same time the ambulance driver said he had to be off. I told him through TG I would pay him extra if he would just take us to BangurHospital, which was on his way home anyway. Luckily he agreed.

Once again blue lights flashing and siren blaring we set of. I should say that on the way to the police station I had bought two coarse woolen blankets to keep the man warm, he was half naked and the temperature can drop considerably in winter like 55 Fahrenheit at night from daytime temperature of 84F.

On reaching the hospital I approached a doctor and after a lengthy process the man was admitted to the hospital. TG and I had to act as porters and place him on a trolley and take him up to the ward.

On entering the male ward we were confronted with a scene reminiscent of M.A.S.H., but without the blood. We were told to take him to the end of the ward, but no bed was available. Finally an orderly went to a bed where an old man was lying, a pool of urine on the floor beside him, moving the man to one side we were told to place our man on the bed. What could we do? We lifted the blankets and placed the man on half the bed.

Whatever the shortcomings of situation, he was better of there than in the street.  

GCT, Kolkata, India 2013-Dec-14