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Sheet of warmth in the night

Shantanu Bhattacharjee on his blanket-donation drive at Deshapriya Park. Picture by Aranya Sen

The night is dark, foggy and cold, the time is 11 pm, the temperature is close to 13 degrees Celsius. The pavement-dwellers at Deshapriya Park are huddled under plastic covers and thin, torn sheets, sometimes with stray dogs. That is until the ‘kambalwallahs’ arrive in two cars, laden with about 500 new blankets. Then, there is pandemonium. Shouts of “dactarbabu, amay ekta kambal din” greets the man behind the mission, Dr Shantanu Bhattacharjee, and his team of volunteers, including younger son Pritorith. One woman smiles: “We knew they would come, so we waited.”

Some say they had given the blankets they had received last year — from the same source, on the same spot — to their families in the village. Others were fast asleep, wrapped in the cover Bhattacharjee had draped on them years ago. A few start quarrelling over the precious gifts. One young man in oversized trousers and a ripped shirt, who had been left out, pursues the cars for about 10 minutes, on foot, to the next destination, and is rewarded with one.

At other locations, the team just covers the sleeping with a blanket, wakes them gently to make sure they know about their new possession so that someone else doesn’t grab it, and then disappears into the darkness. At Lake Kali Bari, where the four-hour-long blanket tour begins, one old woman is asleep on the pavement, on a thick blanket. She looks up and groggily tells the doctor: “You gave it to me last year.”

Every year, for the past 20 years, on the night of January 4, his birthday, Bhattacharjee has been embarking on this journey, often with his children and always with some volunteers who help out. The stops include Gariahat, Burrabazar, Outram Ghat, with Dakshineswar being the final destination around 3 in the morning. “The trick is to drop the blanket and then make a quick getaway, because if one of them gets hold of you, then everyone wants one. It gets quite bad when they start fighting. This often happens at Deshapriya Park, where there are a lot of pavement-dwellers, and at Dakshineswar, where the widows are very poor.”

This is just one of the activities of the Bengal Rural Welfare Society, which has two hospitals in Calcutta, providing healthcare for those who can afford to pay. The money from the hospitals is then channelled into self-help and economic-empowerment projects in 22 villages of South 24-Parganas, and 14 villages on the Bengal-Jharkhand border. For now, though, it’s back to work on the pavements of Calcutta.

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