The fortune of Choice | Milaap

The fortune of Choice

I kickstarted my field visits with some of the villages in 24 Paraganas and I was unsated with my visits. Yes! You heard that right. I was not alarmed by the poverty, not amazed by the beauty nor was I gobstruck by the people and their lifestyle and culture. You must have already judged me to be an apathetic person, right? Well, actually I am not. I began to feel uninspired after my first visit because: I come from a small town my self. I'm from Kharagpur which although is considered an urban town still has a lot of thriving villages scattered in it. I have a village right next to my locality so hut houses, fields, poverty, their stories, the beauty was nothing new to me. I had seen it all but without perspective. And I did struggle to feel inspired.

Kali Mandir

I needed inspiration and not a negotiation and hence, I set out with my camera to Kalighat with no agenda in mind but with the hope of finding inspiration. Kalighat is a place in Kolkata which is famous for its Kali Temple. Kalighat is regarded as one of the 52 Shakti Peethas of India (where the various parts of Sati's, Shiv's wife, body is said to have fallen, in the course of Shiva's Rudra Tandava.) Kalighat represents the site where the toes of the right foot of Shakti or Sati fell. Legend has it that a devotee discovered a luminant ray of light coming from the Bhagirathi river bed, and upon investigating its source, they came upon a piece of stone carved in the form of a human toe.

Kalighat is also a place where some uniquely small businesses thrive, or maybe not but that place has got a charm of its own. The walk from the main road to the mandir is about 600 meters and on either side of the road is a bustling bazaar which stretches right up till the mandir. What makes these shops stand out is the brassware and the conch shells and the colourful threads and sarees and sindoor shops. The brass shops particularly give the place an Arabian mystical ethos and I love it! The mandir has a number of pilgrims who sleep outside the temple and even cook outside. They bring with them sheep and goats for animal sacrifice and some even start their own business while they embark on their pilgrimage. I randomly got talking to some of the pilgrims of whom two caught my attention. One was from Punjab who was basically a grandmother and was very content with what life had to offer her and was here to thank Maa Kali by offering a goat. She has her own agriculture business in Punjab. She has three sons and two daughters and many grandchildren. The other person who caught my attention among the pilgrims was a lady from Jaiselmer. She had gorgeous eyes!

The pilgrims
Still being discontent with the lack of content I kept moving around with the hope of finding something. My eyes then stumbled upon a sindoor shop. It had Red and Orange sindoor and I was always very curious about what the colours signified. So, I got talking to the lady who ran the shop. She said that the orange one was used for Bajrangbali and the red for Kaali Ma. As the bells of the mandir continued to ring aloud and priests engrossed in their chants and the smell of camphor filled the air I continued my conversation with Rina Devi Paswan. She was very welcoming and pleasant. I sometimes feel that having the camera in my hand makes things so easy because a lot of people are willing to talk. A lot of them want to tell their story, or maybe they just want to vent to a stranger. So Rina is a single mother who got married when she was just 12 and had her first child when she was just 15. Her husband left her when she was only one month pregnant. The death of her mother four years ago was the most tragic event of her life. She says, “what Kaali Ma is to the people here, my mother was that to me.” Her father is a taxi driver and her son, a class 12 pass out works as a Swiggy delivery boy.

Rina and her sindoor shop
On asking her if she liked Kaalighat she said “I don’t like anything about this place but I have to come here for my business otherwise how will we survive. My home is here. I live here on the road, can you see that tent with sheets and plastics, that is my house. The only thing that I keep asking from God is a house. A shelter is very important and we have none. The police keep telling us to shift but where will we go, we don’t have enough money to pay rent also. I regret having not studied, maybe education would have helped me in today’s world but it's too late now. I don't mind now. I am happy because I have no choice. This business is entirely run by me, I set everything up from scratch. Somedays if its God's grace, I earn Rs 500 and some days none but that has become a routine now. I need to be strong for my family and work very hard because I know tough days and money doesn’t last forever, but being a person of spine gets you a long way. My life is about daily survival. That's my one and only aim. Nothing else is important,” smiled Rina with eyes that were full of sacrifice and sadness yet forced its self to be strong and fierce.

The market at night

People buying brass

Brassware shops

I then stumbled upon the Brassware shop to click pictures, after getting a shot or two, I continued walking but I soon returned to that very shop for Jeetu Naskar. Amidst middle-aged men and woman, Jeetu looked the youngest. He looked very different (in a good way) and was not really interested in my camera. He looked like a college going guy of Kolkata who was well …tied up by family pressure to run the business? This is what I thought initially. When I approached him, he didn’t really want to open up but he gradually did. He worked here as an employee and was paid Rs 300 a month. He kept smiling but did not look happy. He could speak broken English. He was not willing to talk about his family, something made me feel like he was embarrassed about something so I did not want to probe more.

Jeetu Naskar flaunts his tattoo

I asked him about his aspirations and he said “ I have none! I have stopped thinking about what I want to do for my self”, he sounded very dejected. “Money is everything today. Your dreams and aspirations bow down to money. I am the eldest son and have three siblings, my sister is married and my other two brothers are still in school. If I keep thinking about my self who will fend for them. He refused to talk about his parents but he just told me that his parents are there at home, smiled and looked down. I asked him if he had any hobbies and he said he could sing and play the guitar. “I bought a guitar for my self last year and I love singing. I can play all other musical instruments but I haven't touched my guitar in the last six months. I miss it very badly. I don’t get the time nowadays.” He then took out his phone and showed me a video of him singing. His voice was amazing but circumstances have just made him bury his dreams. I told him that it was important to have dreams because just like good days, bad days don’t last too. He smiled and said he will give singing and auditions a thought. He even had a tattoo of Lord Ganesh on his hand. When I asked him about it, he said it was a birthday gift from his friend who makes tattoos but he said he doesn’t believe in God. Ganesh’s tattoo was the safest as his mother would shout at him less for getting one otherwise.

Kids on the street

A woman poses for me

Another woman poses!

The ones without the fortune of choice

It was 8:45 p.m. and I had to head home and it just made me realize how fortunate I am that I could argue with my parents for some ‘time’ to find my aspirations. There are people in the world who are denied that luxury. Choosing yourself first is a luxury not many people get and keeping everything smug in your heart is a very bad idea but when life happens so many of us stop living for ourselves. We then live just to survive.