“You reach the corner of the bridge and ask around for me. Someone will guide you to my home,” Rajesh Kachi confidently informs me over the phone.
To no surprise, a stranger guided me to his two-room house in the slum of Tofkhana area in Shivajinagar, Pune. “This is my home,” he says as he showed me his house that has a leaky roof and some awards that lay surrounding the 100 square foot area.
A street food vendor by profession, the 50-year-old earns a living by selling egg bhurji about 200 metres from his home.
Across the road from his food kiosk is river Mutha where he recalls swimming in his childhood days. He has a closer connection with the river and is fondly called Mutha cha Raja (king of River Mutha). His moniker comes from saving hundreds of lives over the past three decades by preventing people from drowning or trying to take their lives in the river, which has earned him fame, if not a fortune, in the city.
A Hero Without A Cape
Rajesh is a school dropout and could never pursue his education owing to the family’s poor financial condition. “My parents passed away when I was young. I quit school after Class 8 and was raised by my grandmother. She used to farm along the riverbed, and I spent my childhood swimming in the river,” he tells The Better India.
But little did he know that his swimming skills would make him an inspiration for many.
“I was 19 years old when I saw a girl drowning in the river. I jumped in the water and saved her life. I took the girl to her family to learn that she was being married off without her will, which pushed her attempt suicide. Her parents were thankful to me and made me emotional,” he says, adding, “That is when I pledged that I would not let anyone die on my watch.”
Since then, Rajesh saved the lives of individuals whenever he saw people drowning or in despair. “Most of the cases were during the floods when people got stuck or found themselves in the violent currents of the river water,” he says.
Soon, it spread through word of mouth and people started reaching out to him for help. “Everyone along the riverbank came to know about me risking my life to save people from drowning. And it was my grandmother who encouraged me and was confident about my skills,” he says.
At a time when there was no social media or phones, he rushed whenever requested. “Eventually, I started the street food business to make a living. It also became convenient for me to check on people jumping in the river or drowning by accident,” he adds.
Since the first incident, Rajesh has saved over 150 lives and fished out over 800 dead bodies from the river.
However, he was often discouraged by friends. “My friends called me a fool for helping people during the initial days. But over time, they realised the humane act behind it and now encourage me and even support me,” he says.
Today, he works with the police department, fire department and other local groups to save lives.
Pravin Patil, assistant sub-inspector with Pune police, says, “I became acquainted with Rajesh through a mutual friend when posted at the Deccan police station. He has been an asset for the department for the past 25 years.”
Pravin says that Rajesh has attended calls in the middle of the night and left his business to save people.
Rajesh attributes this quality to his personality. “I rush to the spot whenever I get a call. My elder son Akash takes charge of the food kiosk. At times I do not have time to inform my family either. I lose sense of my surroundings and focus on saving that life,” he adds.
‘I Do Not Fear Death’
Speaking about the risks involved, Rajesh says he has faced numerous occasions where he could have lost his life. “People are disoriented and scared when they are in the river and fear drowning. There have been about 10 occasions when people have pulled me down, and I had to struggle my way with them to get air and pull them to the surface,” he says.
“But they are not at fault,” he adds.
Sharing an incident, Rajesh says, “During the floods of 2018 in the city, a person called to inform me about his brother stuck at the river bank. It was risky, but he wanted me to help. I jumped in the waters and managed to help the man cross the river. However, I got stuck in a whirlpool and got pulled repeatedly in the water.”
Rajesh says he thought that it was the last day of his life but managed to cut through the water in the end.
After fishing people out of the water, Rajesh takes them to Sassoon Hospital, a government medical institute. “I call for an ambulance or hire an auto-rickshaw. At times, I carry them on a bike with someone holding them, if their condition is critical to save that person,” he says.
He adds that on many occasions, the passersby considered the saved person dead, looking at their critical health condition. “But I have given my best to reach them to the hospital at the earliest and save lives. I feel proud of such moments because it saves a family from getting emotionally devastated. If an earning member dies, it becomes a financial loss too,” Rajesh shares.
Any expenses, hospitals and otherwise, are borne by him.
Rajesh says that more citizens need to come forward and volunteer to save lives. “The fire and police department are only present on the spot in times of crisis. However, many more lives can be saved if citizens can contribute during floods or other tough situations,” he says.
However, he has not always been successful. “There have been instances when I have not been able to save people and have lost their lives during the attempt of saving them,” he adds.
His contribution to society has won him many accolades by the civic body, police department and other social organisations but laments at not being recognised at the state-level.
Despite this, Rajesh says that he will continue to save lives until the last breath of his life. “I may be 50, but I have a strong physique and stamina to enter rough waters. I have told my friends and family that my legacy to save lives should continue if I lose my life while saving someone,” he adds.
“I do not fear death, it is imminent for all. It would be a privilege to lose my life trying to save someone else,” he concludes.
Edited by Yoshita Rao