He was 19 years old when he first saw a girl accidentally fall into the Mutha river near Dengle Bridge in Pune. Without a care for his life, he jumped into the river to save her.
Speaking to the Pune Mirror, Rajesh Damodar Kachi, or ‘Raju’ as he is known, says, “After I saved the girl, her family came to my house to thank me. The joy in the survivor’s eyes and the blessings showered by her kin was my reward. I cannot describe how wonderful that feeling was. From that day onwards, I decided to keep saving people’s lives.”
So for the last 22 years, this man who runs a humble bhurji-pav stall in Old Tofkhana, Shivajinagar, has saved over 250 people from drowning. Apart from this, he has helped fish out 600 bodies from the Mula-Mutha rivers due to suicides or accidental deaths.
This 49-year-old Punekar has selflessly done all of the above without ever expecting cash or bravery awards.
He rightfully earned the moniker of ‘Raju The Saviour’ after Mahesh Kumar Sartape, the then sub-inspector of Shivajinagar Police Station who is now a police inspector in Mumbai, made a 23-minute documentary on him.
Shot in a year, the documentary ‘Raju The Life Saviour’ has won over 15 national and international awards in 15 short-film festivals. You can watch it on YouTube here. It made Raju a Pune Hero and brought him several awards and felicitations.
Every time a case of drowning surfaces, people and even the Pune Police reach out to Raju for help in the rescue operations.
He doesn’t restrict his job to just bringing the victims out of the water, but also takes them to the nearest Sassoon General Hospital and gets in touch with their families.
“My shop is right opposite the Dengle Bridge. And so, every time he is called or learn about someone drowning, I immediately leave my shop and rush to offer help. I get calls from people residing along the river — in areas near the Omkareshwar Temple, Sangamwadi, Dengle Bridge and Railway Bridge — if they spot someone drowning. Most of the time, the condition of the survivor is not stable, and he or she has to undergo surgery and be kept under observation. Very often, I have waited for a couple days till the person is stable, before leaving. This gives peace to my heart,” he told Pune Mirror.
Raju’s work isn’t bound to drowning emergencies but includes all kinds of crises.
When heavy rains marred the city in 1997 and 2004, the man valiantly swam across the flooded waters, helping families in the vicinity of the river move their belongings from their submerged homes. He also helped the physically-challenged, senior citizens and children move to safer grounds.
One of the prime reasons for his good breath control and stamina, he says, is the fact that he doesn’t smoke or chew tobacco, or consume alcohol. Instead, he swims and exercises regularly.
“My family wholeheartedly supports me and appreciates my noble work,” he adds. His family includes his wife Kalpana, daughter Sonali and sons Aakash and Ashish.
Saving lives cannot be an easy task when sometimes it is the rescuer’s own life on the line.
This was about half a decade ago when he was trying to save an 80-year-old woman who fell into the Mutha river from the Shivaji Bridge. She hugged him so tight, holding his arms in panic, that it was difficult for him to swim and pull her out of the river.
“It took a struggle of 15 long minutes to save her,” he told the publication.
Of the many dead bodies he has fished out of the rivers, most of them are decomposed beyond repair. But his will to volunteer and help the Pune Police has helped solve several cases.
“I remember a few instances when I had to remove severely decomposed dead bodies. I couldn’t even eat for a couple of days, but that didn’t stop me,” he adds.
He sums up the motivation behind his relentless-lifesaving efforts saying, “I want to continue saving lives as long as I can. I can imagine the pain a family goes through after the death of their loved ones. Some of my friends say I am crazy and should focus on my shop and family instead. But I don’t mind that.”
He signs off, “Everyone has a hero inside them. They just need to identify that quality and come forward to help.”
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)