Arup Sengupta carries his oxygen cylinder where he goes. Seven years ago, he had been detected with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Neither illness nor exhaustion stops this 70-year-old tuberculosis survivor from going to his second home Notun Jibon — a Kolkata-based NGO he founded to rehabilitate sex workers and their children.
“Notun Jibon means new life and I will continue to serve those in need and give them a chance at a new life until my last breath,” Arup tells me.
He started his organisation four years ago and today it supports and educates more than 40 children of sex workers in Kolkata and been instrumental in saving many women from abusive marriages.
Series of Tragic Events
Arup was born in 1952 in an affluent family. After a few happy years, tragedy struck. The year 1968 left him devastated — he lost his father, his mother turned to alcohol to cope, and his elder sister began working in dance bars to support the family.
As if this was not enough, Arup soon found out that he had tuberculosis.
“In 1968, when my neighbours got wind of my illness, I was thrown out of my locality. I see how COVID-19 patients are shunned today, and it certainly reminds me of that.”
With no family support, he found a roof at a shelter home.
“TB was claiming many lives. I remember all the TB patients would be cooped up in one room where I saw death up close. Every time a machine beeped, we knew we had lost another person.”
However, of the many unfortunate souls in that room, only two came out as survivors. One of them was Arup who regained his strength and health after two years of intensive care.
Notun Jibon — A New Life
Arup had lost everything. Yet, he had been given a second chance at life. He did odd jobs to fund his education playing guitar and drums in weddings and other occasions.
After completing his college studies, he worked in the corporate world in the FMCG and Human Capital management sectors for more than 45 plus years across Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru.
Four years ago when the time to retire from his professional life came, Arup chose to settle down in Kolkata. “I was returning to my home city after twenty years,” he says.
He saw a changed Kolkata.
“The city I left as a young boy had changed. I came back to poverty, apathy, and a general sense of disillusionment. No one should go to bed at night on a hungry stomach. When I meet my maker I need to have my answers ready and be able to look at him and tell him I did all I could to make a difference,” he says.
On 31 December 2016, with Rs 10,000, Arup stepped out to buy blankets, which he distributed that night. “With that Notun Jibon was born.”
In 2016, he registered it as a Trust. While the primary aim of the organisation was to teach underprivileged children, they have now expanded into creating a self-help group for women especially sex workers.
Working for the Underprivileged Women and Kids
The organisation employs eight women, referred to as the Nari Shakti team, all of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds and some are former sex workers.
They manage Notun Jibon and work in various roles like teachers, managers, and fundraisers.
Jhumki Banerjee, Secretary of Notun Jibon, says, “Arup da rescued me from an abusive marriage. I have known him for a little more than four years now. He is constantly working.” Jhumki looks after all the fieldwork and is also a trustee with the organisation.
Arup trusts the Nari Shakti team for the strength they have and the kind of work they do with the children and their rescued sisters. “Knowing that even after my death, the organisation will march forward in their able hands is very satisfying,” he says.
Besides these women, there are nine men who work with the organisation on a voluntary basis.
To concentrate on the children of the rescued sex workers, Arup started Sahaj Path, a sub-unit of Notun Jibon.
The children aged between 3 to 12 come every evening for classes and are given a mug of milk and a banana each. The volunteers then impart basic education to these kids — reading, writing and math.
Work During the Pandemic
The organisation provides a weekly ration package consisting of three kilos of rice, two kilos of potato, and half kilo dal, and mustard oil to the children who are not able to come to attend classes.
Every morning Arup, Jhumki, and another volunteer from the organisation set off in a car filled with ration and masks. “While life goes on in the villages despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it is ration and food that is scarce. We are filling that void,” he says. He has also ensured that the volunteers and members of the NGO get full salaries during this lockdown period.
So far Notun Jibon has provided ration to almost 400 sex workers.
“He is not one to care about where his next meal will come from,” Jhumki says, “If he has Rs 20 in his wallet, all he will do is keep Rs 5 to help him return home and give away everything else.”
And what about funding?
“I have managed to gather many well-wishers over the years. One post on social media and I see my friends coming forward to graciously support me. All my savings of 45 years have gone into this organisation.”
As we came to the end of our conversation, Arup told me, “I still have a few years of life left in me – and until then I must go on.”
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)