Nitaidas Mukherjee in front of an ambulance his organisation operates. (Sayantan Ghosh)
One-time businessman Nitaidas Mukherjee drives his ambulance through Calcutta for more than 100km a day and keeps nocturnal vigil 25 nights a month. Nitai switched professions to ‘live with a cause’ a quarter of a century ago, so the obvious question is: what drives him?
Nitai’s inflection point rewinds to when he was 10. A Rabindra Sarobar afternoon. Friends playing football. Unknown child sprawled with raging fever. Nitai mobilising an impromptu Rs 4.25 from passers-by. The Menoka chaiwallah offering her son’s shirt. The unknown boy taken by Nitai and friends to a doctor.
When these proceedings were relayed excitedly to the principled Mukherjee patriarch on SR Das Road, a family meeting was hurriedly convened: ‘We will go out for dinner to celebrate’. The youngest member of the family had passed the test.
So when an older Nitai assumed the maintenance responsibility of a souped-up ambulance in the Mudiali locality and forged an alliance with a local hospital for regular assignments, there was no surprise. This is what the family expected of him anyway.
Thereafter, a free pavement medical unit was launched outside BandBox Dry Cleaners on SP Mukherjee Road. Within the first month, the number of under-privileged day patients crossed 100. Within weeks, Nitai spread the word among street dwellers, entered into an informal referential arrangement with Tollygunge police station and engaged with a Gariahat ATM guard to give him a missed call if he encountered needy patients.
For his part, Nitai retired to sleep just inside the collapsible gate of his building so that he could dash into his adjacent vehicle even as he struggled with his shirt buttons while responding to a telephoned emergency.
The word viralled. A doctor (Dr Rajesh Agarwal) who heard of ‘this Nitai fellow’ ventured to dig into his collection and provide medicines free. When medical representatives of large pharmaceutical companies heard of this ‘odbhut’ street-based initiative, they pooled their capsules.
Soon enough, Nitai stretched the concept. Surely this service would be more effective if he ‘collaborated’ with Tollygunge police station: the police would provide logistical support, his team would provide medical intervention. Neat fit. So he went nervously to the OC with a proposal: during the impending Kali Puja (this must have been 1990), let me sleep in an ambulance inside the police station’s parking lot so that in the event of an emergency, the police could potentially be in a position to administer rescue-cum-medical support without delay.
The police must have thought what a dreamy fellow, but what’s the harm since it won’t cost us anything, so let him sleep inside his own vehicle and wait for when we might want him. Then kismet took over: the Charu Market puja pandal caught fire during the big night. Nitai’s team swooped; lives were saved; the injured received minor injuries. A couple of days later, the Tollygunge OC called: ‘Nitaibabu, can you do this for us full time?’
Gradually Nitai graduated into a meticulous roads scholar and complete solutions provider (first responder, co-ordinator and rehabilitator). He distributed 5,000 bilingual visiting cards to pavement dwellers (with mapped directions to his residence on the reverse side) should they witness a road mishap; he periodically re-introduced himself to street sleepers to a point that 100 per cent of south Calcutta pavement dwellers (his estimate) could recognise him by face. He now possesses a library of experience with the ability to decode on sight the body language of those wandering the night streets into ‘abandoned’ or ‘suspicious’ or ‘distressed’.
The result is a ‘collection’ of memorable wins: an inebriated college professor on Park Street was honourably returned home, a cowering 70-year-old in Hazra Road was restored to his Behala residence within three days of going missing, a fleeing lady was rescued after her husband attempted to strangle her in a deserted Brigade Parade Ground after midnight and a 13-year-old girl, who intended to go from Krishnagar to Salt Lake to see a friend but lost her way to Puddapukur at 1am, was escorted home.
What started out as a boy getting a six-year-old to a doctor’s chamber with less than Rs 5 in a sweaty palm is now heading HIVE (India), plugged in to SOS calls radioing in from 65 police stations across a 210sq km footprint. What started out as an initiative to provide free medicines on a narrow pavement has now extended to picking dead bodies off streets, driving the dying to hospital, rescuing trafficked children and women, providing relief to those affected by fires and getting the abandoned/disoriented/lost back home (‘success rate 65 per cent’).
What started as a single individual’s obsession is now a professional exercise catalysed by four vehicles and a team of 15. What commenced as a hobby lubricated by day salaries is now a 24x7 profession funded by Hope Foundation (Ireland) and other NGOs of the city.
Not bad for a man who was driven by the unjargonised vision of ‘No one should be allowed to die on the streets of Calcutta.’
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