While journeying in a local train from Sealdah to Dhakuria, one person in the throng caught my eye. It was a young hawker selling chocolates. Hawkers’ braving surging crowds is nothing new, but what drew my attention was the walking stick sticking out of the back pocket of his jeans. He tried his best to work without it – not bumping into things and walking as straight as the train would allow him.
When I spoke to him, he told me that his name was Jamal. Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire's protagonist, who shares the same name, has nothing on him. He giggled when I told him about his namesake and said, “Good, so I am already famous!”
Jamal Hassan, is a 22-year-old hawker, who is one of the four visually challenged hawkers in the Sealdah local trains. He came to Ghatshila from a small village of Jharkhand around two years ago to start his life as a hawker.
Jamal says, “I have completed class 10, but could not continue to study because my parents need help taking care of the family. We are three siblings and I am the eldest. I have two sisters, so there is a lot of pressure on me to contribute. I did not want to beg from anyone so my uncle who is also a hawker brought me to Kolkata and I was the first blind one here to start selling chocolates.”
He makes around 40 trips per day and earns Rs 300-350 per day. Jamal’s uncle provides him with the chocolate boxes to sell. Jamal explains, “I had dificulties when I first got here. I would hurt myself while boarding a train or lose my way and walk far off on the many lines from Sealdah. My uncle helped me get familiar. Now I hear the train horns, feel the vibrations, count steps and find my way.”
His fellow hawker Arun is a steadfast friend who keeps an eye on Jamal. “Jamal is my friend, we often travel together and I like to help him. I count money or chocolates. It is not a burden because I have my own earnings too. I have two other friends who are also visually challenged. We are all friends who watch each other's backs,” he says.
Jamal can tell the denomination of notes by its feel and counts his own earnings at the end of the day. His uncle double checks the amount. He is happy to say, “Though I have never seen anything, it is a new feeling to be independent. Every morning I wake up knowing that on my own, I will earn more money for me and my family.”
When asked for a photo, he struck by sudden self-consciousness. “This is the first time someone has asked me for a photo. I feel like an important person,” he jokes.
Jamal’s life is a struggle with each day, but his satisfaction and love for his independence shows that physical impairment doesn't have to be a deterrent or a stigma.
Jamal with his box of chocolates