Senior citizens Subhadro Bonnerjea and (right) Amit Kumar Banerjee with cheques collected for the family of home guard Jhantu Ram Das, who had touched their lives in some way or the other. Pictures by Sanat Kr Sinha
|"He (home guard Jhantu Ram Das) had become like a son to us, a member of the family. This is our turn to give back the love he showered on us."
Dilip Kumar Chatterjee
Retired IAS officer
One by one, dozens of elderly visitors trudged into Lake police station on a rainy morning, wading through a waterlogged lane to ask one question: “How did our Jhantu die?”
Jhantu Ram Das was a home guard by profession but a son to hundreds of elderly people whose biological children live far from them.
Their love and trust in Jhantu had prompted them to make a special request to the police brass that stalled his transfer to Jadavpur police station in 2011. Little did any of them know that no such special request would be enough to stop him from leaving them for good on August 23 after a cardiac arrest. Jhantu was just 32.
Jhantu’s phone number had been at the top of the speed dial list of many an elderly person who needed a patient ear or a hand to hold.
In a heartfelt show of gratitude, these aged and ailing people living alone — and many of them meeting one another for the first time — had turned up at the police station on August 28 to return the love they had for Jhantu by raising money for his widow and four-year-old son who suffers from speech and hearing impairment.
Jhantu had been appointed to work for the Pronam wing at Lake police station. Pronam is a joint initiative by Calcutta police and The Bengal, an NGO run by Sundeep Bhutoria, and was set up in 2009 to provide assistance and engage with senior citizens living alone.
“I’ve always heard good things and praises about Jhantu. He was not working for the sake of working, he was emotionally attached to the elderly members,” Bhutoria, secretary-general of The Bengal, told Metro. “No wonder that they themselves took the initiative to put forth this gesture and collect Rs 35,000 for his family. This has happened for the first time in the history of Pronam.”
From retired IAS officers to senior company executives, an army of elderly people close to Jhantu had been going from door to door over the last two weeks collecting donations from those who knew him and had benefited from his benevolence in some way or the other.
Be it negotiating the crowds during Durga Puja, finding the right seats at the Republic Day parade or simply walking to the nearby polling booth, Jhantu was an ever-willing companion to these elderly people.
“News of Jhantu’s death had spread like wildfire in the Lake police station area. Few of us knew one another but here we are now, united in grief and working as a team to help his family out,” said Amit Banerjee, 65, who lives in Selimpur. “I had last met Jhantu just the day before he passed away. This was at the police station.”
The group of elders had initiated the donation drive with the aim of raising at least Rs 10,000, but ended up with Rs 35,000. The willingness to make a contribution made those collecting donations realise how close Jhantu had been with nearly all the people he came in contact with over the last four years.
“Since few of us knew one another, we weren’t sure about the response we would get from the other elderly residents. But people as old as 90 soon started calling up on their own and offering help for Jhantu,” said Subhadro Bonnerjea, 63, who has been spearheading the campaign.
Bonnerjea, like most of the other elderly people who knew Jhantu closely, lives alone with his wife. The couple’s son, an executive with a private company, is settled in Mumbai.
Bijaya Ghosh, 64, a widow who lives alone in Lake Gardens, volunteered to go around in her area and raise money. Dilip Kumar Chatterjee, a retired IAS officer who had served as director-general of the Sports Authority of India, took it upon himself to communicate with senior police officers to get Jhantu’s widow a job as soon as possible.
Those too frail or ailing to attend a meeting held on September 1 at Bonnerjea’s house pledged their support over the phone.
“He had become like a son to us, a member of the family. As far as we are concerned, he was more important to us than the officer-in-charge (of the police station). This is our turn to give back the love he showered on us,” said former bureaucrat Chatterjee, who lives on Southern Avenue with wife Ila, a retired Indian Revenue Service officer.
Not just the elderly, even officers at Lake police station remember Jhantu fondly. “His death is a great loss for the police. He was loved by all his seniors because of his gentle nature,” said a senior officer at Lake police station.
The person most surprised by the outpouring of love for Jhantu is his wife Susmita. “I had absolutely no clue that so many people would stand by me. He never discussed his work at home,” said Susmita, who lives at Sangrampur near Diamond Harbour with her son and elderly in-laws. “It was very emotional for me to suddenly learn that so many people loved him as their own.”
The money collected will be handed over to her at a memorial service organised on Sunday at Bonnerjea’s residence in Dhakuria.
“My most enduring memory of Jhantu is of that day last December when he was on duty at the Jodhpur Park crossing. He spotted me wearing a Nehru coat from far and came running up to me to tell me that I had wrongly buttoned up my coat,” Bonnerjea recalled.
With Durga Puja round the corner, memories of Jhantu in khaki, riding his bicycle to deliver special entry passes to his elderly friends, will surely haunt many.
“I guess I will just be watching Puja from my verandah this year,” Chatterjee said.
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