He’s 85 years old, losing his hearing and he can’t walk around too much. But Nirmal Banerjee is still going strong in the area that is close to his heart — public service, “in my own small way”. After his wife’s death five years ago, the retired government employee gave the upper floor of his two-storey house to the Eastern India Pensioner’s Association.
It now serves as the headquarters for the Association’s eastern region and Banerjee can be found bent over the table penning letters, be it at noon or midnight. Every Tuesday and Saturday, the elderly group meets at the New Alipore address to discuss each other’s problems, and ways of going about getting their dues from the Central government — whether it is gratuity, pension or health card — that former government employees have yet to receive.
“We are the parent body of around 60 affiliates in and around West Bengal, Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Tripura,” he explains. “So, we have a lot of people to help. We do what we can. For 40 years, I was an employee of the Central post and telegraph department. Now, I am fighting the Centre,” he smiles.
Born and brought up in Dhaka, the eldest of four brothers and six sisters had to shoulder the responsibility of his family during Partition. “Unfortunate incidents of chaos and hooliganism” prompted Banerjee to adopt West Bengal and Calcutta as his new home.
“My father had retired and my brothers were all minors at the time of Partition. I was the only earning member of the family. One day, some goons took over our house and threw us out. There was no law and order to speak of, and no police who could help us. My employers gave me the choice of moving to Calcutta, and as we were homeless, we did. Since then, I have struggled, and everything I have now is my own,” says the graduate from Dhaka University.
There have been a few things that have got the octogenarian down, including the murder of a brother. Despite being shunted around by the government from 1938, when he started his career, till Independence and even after, for his involvement in trade union activities, he remains unfazed. This only helped him to take his message to remote areas, he says.
“We might be old and infirm with one foot in the grave, but that doesn’t stop us from dreaming or planning. A lot of my education was sponsored by the government, through scholarships, the people’s taxes, because my father didn’t earn enough, So, I want to give something back to society, because I feel responsible. It’s my duty. Our Association’s dream is to use some funds for a project to help those below the poverty line. Maybe, some day…”