Putul Das, 35, is seen every day at a prominent spot in Hindustan Park in south Kolkata’s Gariahat area selling flowers. On Sunday, Mother’s Day, she had to make a second trip to Mullick Ghat flower market in Howrah because she ran out flowers. She was not aware of Mother’s Day, nor the demand it would make on her flowers, which is particularly ironic.
Her flowers have a distinction. They are not fancy, which is a little surprising in this affluent south Kolkata locality overflowing with cafés. You don’t see the lilies, the daisies or even the gypsies, even the last now coming in at two varieties at Lake Market nearby: “bairer” (from outside Kolkata, more expensive) and “ekhankar” (local).
What Das sells is mostly “ekhankar”: chandramallika (chrysanthemum), rajanigandha (somehow its English name tuberose seems to turn it into a different flower, so strong is its association with Bengaliness) or morogjhunti, the usual red and a lovely pale pink variety (morogjhunti is celosia, another English name seems off the mark here). The only slightly exotic-looking flower that Das sells is the bird of paradise, of which there seems to be no well-known Bengali name.
She wraps these flowers not in decorative foliage, but in small heads of branches from the kamini tree or the long slanted leaves of the kolaboti plant. They look beautiful.
Das is a single mother, working hard to build a life for her son. She lives alone in a rented room in Kasba in south Kolkata. Every day, she gets up at 2.40am, gets ready in 20 minutes and leaves by 3am, walking all the way to Gariahat to catch the bus for the Mullick Ghat market. It is a lonely walk, but she has got used to it. She has been doing it for about a decade.
“I sometimes follow a friendly-looking group also on its way to Howrah. But even if no one is around I feel safe. The darkness does not matter anymore,” she says.
Much of her life has been long, lonely journeys. Her entire life has been a long, lonely journey.
Das grew up in Belda in what is now Paschim Medinipur district and got married to a person chosen by her family. She passed the Higher Secondary examination later. She went to Mumbai after her marriage, where her husband lived with his family. The experience of her marriage left her traumatised. In 2005, she came back to her parents’ home in Belda with her son, then a few months old.
“My parents were always supportive of me,” says Das. After her father’s death, her mother began to live with Das’s son in Belda, in a small house Das’s father had built and Das has repaired. “My mother is everything,” says Das. But theirs was a joint family, and after having lived in her parents’ home for about five years since her return from Mumbai, circumstances became unbearable for Das. When her son was in Class IV, Das just left one day.
“I left in my nightie and a gamchha and took the train to Howrah,” says Das. “My son was left with my mother from then.”
This was a journey that made all the difference. An older friend in Panchanantala near Dhakuria in south Kolkata, who worked as a maid, was like a lifeline. “She told me ‘Why will you work in other people’s homes as a maid? You are educated.’ She bought me a basket of grapes and some flowers and settled me on the pavement in front of the CESC office near Ballygunge Phari.” Das was there for about five or six months.
“But I was very young and the men made my life miserable.”
So her friend helped her to shift to the pavement in front of Gariahat Spencer’s.
“I was not allowed to settle there either and moved to a spot in front of Dakat Kali Mandir below the kadam tree.” By this time she was selling only flowers. But she moved again and evicted by the police, she finally came to Hindustan Park.
She found in writer Nabaneeta Deb Sen, who passed away in 2019, great kindness and affection, she says. “Here too some people threaten to evict me, but I am here.” Das sits just below Deb Sen’s house, Bhalo Basa, and for Das, Deb Sen remains a presence above. “
Didi loved chanpa phool (champak),” she says. “I always got it for her.”
“This is only a very little part of my story. There is so much more,” she says. “After my father’s death, I brought my mother and son to Kasba. Later I repaired the house in Belda with my income from my flower business.”
Every day after reaching Howrah she buys about 30kg to 40kg of flowers, more during winter. She has someone to help her load the flowers on a bus till Gariahat, where another person waits to help her to offload them and reach them to where she sits.
By 7am, she is here and stays on till afternoon, going back home for lunch, and is back by early evening, staying on till 9 or 9.30 in the evening. She cooks for herself.
“Sometimes I sleep for one hour a day.”
She has kept a journal of her journey, which her son has read. Toilets are a problem. She either uses a Sulabh Shauchalaya or, when allowed, the servants’ toilet in one of the neighbouring houses, leaving the flowers unattended. “But they are safe,” she says. Despite everything, she feels protected by this environment.
She lives for her son. “I would speak to him every day on phone when I came away. He is good in studies. In Medinipur, we get good students,” she says.
“He wants to be an automobile engineer. I have promised to support him. So I have to work.”
When the task looks immense, or the future precarious, she sometimes thinks of what she does not have. She feels like getting in touch with her husband. But she looks around and stops herself.
“I look up and I see that I am free. Ami azad. Even if I am a humble flower-seller,” she says, as some of Kolkata’s best-heeled pass by.
The fact that she sells flowers helps. “I love chanpa phool too. When I can’t buy them, I pick up one up from below a tree on the way to this place and put it in my hair,” she says, smiling softly.