Islampur (Murshidabad), Feb. 20: At 16, Safikul Sheikh is the only breadwinner in his family. He has been, for the past two years. And he still manages to attend school every day.
Eight winters ago, his father had introduced him to the profession for which he was naturally equipped ' begging. His legs shrivelled below the knee since birth, Safikul came to Islampur bus stand in his father’s arms from their house at Suparigola village, 240 km from Calcutta.
Panjatan Sheikh, a daily labourer, had six mouths to feed at home and an income of not more than Rs 500 a month. He figured out that his crippled son could make easy money.
For three years, Safikul dragged himself up buses, tapped passengers with his little fingers and asked for help.
In the middle of his busy schedule ' changing buses and ensuring that he did not travel too far from Islampur ' he saw children like him go to school, many of them in their father’s arms.
He wished he could get out of his workday dress ' shorts and a tattered T-shirt ' and slip into a school uniform.
His brother Ramjan, two years younger but with both legs all right, went to the village school.
One day in 2001, Safikul rode a hand-pedalled tricycle that an NGO had given him to the local Malibari Primary School and sought admission.
The authorities were stunned. “He came alone and, speaking to him, we could make out his eagerness to study. We took him in,” said Samar Biswas, the headmaster.
Today, Safikul is in Class V of Amirabad High Madarsa in Raninagar and still begs, earning between Rs 50 and Rs 100 a day.
Before joining school, Safikul had assured his parents that he would continue to beg and contribute to the family. He had to. “My father did not like the idea of my going to school for fear that I would stop begging,” Safikul said.
He has no complaints against Panjatan. “We are very poor' he was forced to introduce me to begging, but as each day passed and I saw the children go to school I thought I must, too,” he said.
Safikul’s mother Mamata Bibi persuaded his father to allow him to study. “I saw my other son attend school'.” she said.
Initially, his father escorted him to the Islampur bus stand, 20 km from their house, and left for his own work. At day’s end, he picked him up from another bus stand.
The situation became difficult two years ago when Panjatan developed a heart problem and was unable to work any more. Safikul was firm, though, in his mind.
He got two of his sisters married in 2001 and 2003 with money raised mostly by begging. Along with Ramjan, who is in Class VII, he takes lessons from a private tutor who charges Rs 200 a month.
“My teachers appreciate my hard work and my mates love me and help with my studies,” Safikul said. He harbours a dream of making it to a government officer’s chair.
“Safikul is intelligent and asks his teachers relevant questions in class,” said Abu Bakkar, the headmaster of Amirabad High Madarsa.