Twelve-year-old Bipin Ganatra lost his elder brother Narendra to a freak fire on Diwali night. The young boy decided there and then that he would try and save the lives of as many people as he could from fires. And that is exactly what he has been doing selflessly for over four decades now, very often risking his own life in the process.
Ganatra had to drop out of school soon after his brother’s death. Today, at the age of 59, he is not a professional fireman but has fought over 100 fires in the densely populated, chaotic city of Kolkata – working tirelessly to douse flames, rescue people and clean up debris.
“Fires talk to you. They come in red and blues. The blue ones are more lethal. And the roar tells you so much about what exactly the blaze is feeding on,” Ganatra said to BBC in an interview.
The wiry man lives alone in a tiny flat, keeping a keen look out for reports of fire incidents in the city. He watches television and listens to the radio regularly for any breaking news about fires, often staying up late into the night to do so. He also keeps calling Kolkata’s fire brigade headquarters often for updates.
Whenever the news of a blaze breaks, he calls up the fire brigade HQ and immediately takes a taxi to the site. There have been instances when he has reached the fire location much before the fire brigade itself. For someone without formal knowledge of fire-fighting, Ganatra has become so adept at negotiating his way through fire-ravaged buildings that the authorities don’t try and stop him anymore.
In 2009, the fire department honoured Bipin Ganatra with a volunteer’s metallic ID card ( a rare award) for his selfless service.
As a child, Ganatra would run out of the door whenever he heard the frantic, clanging bell of a rushing fire engine. He would chase the shiny red coloured vehicles as they made their way through Kolkata’s congested lanes to reach the site of fire. He would then hang around, watching the firefighters work, helping them and eventually learning from them. He first lent a hand to firemen during a blaze in a bank in 1978 and has never looked back since then.
According to reports, Kolkata is a city of frequent fires. A total of 347 people died and 1,749 were injured in some 2,000 fires in 2014. Last year, there were more than 1,600 fires, leaving 143 people dead and 974 injured in the sprawling megapolis. It’s not so surprising then that the city’s firemen are among the most overworked in India. This is also the reason why Bipin Ganatra is seldom out of work – he has attended to as many as three fires in a single day!
A few years ago, Ganatra almost lost his life when he entered a burning warehouse in Kolkata’s Strand Road to haul out two gas cylinders that could have caused great damage had they exploded. Once, when a four-storey building was on fire, he scaled the walls to the first floor and then went up the stairs to persuade a pregnant woman not to jump off the terrace. He stood with her till the firemen arrived and then helped the firemen make an improvised stretcher to move her across to an opposite roof.
Another time, during the notorious 2011 fire in a private hospital (it claimed the lives of 89 patients), Ganatra entered the hospital building through a smoke-filled stairwell to saved the life of a still alive patient who was stuck in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.
Among other incidents in the past, Ganatra was also involved in the rescue operations after the Bow Bazar bomb blasts in 1993, as well as the 100-hour Nandaram Market fire in 2008.
Ganatra has often been injured, burnt and caught under the rubble during rescue operations, but he has never let this stop him from heading out to help at a new fire in the city. Even today, he can be seen fighting flames in Kolkata, wearing a 21-year-old khaki uniform (gifted by a fire official), a safety torch (bought by friends) and a yellow plastic helmet (another gift by well wishers).
The humble man, who barely earns Rs 1,000 a month by working as an electrician, gets by with a little help from his friends; they give him 2,500 rupees every month. That he often does not know where his next meal is coming from has not dampened this extraordinary man’s zeal. When there isn’t a fire, he can often be seen at the MG Road-CR Avenue crossing in Kolkata, helping cops manage traffic.
“I lost my brother. But I don’t want others to lose their dear ones. My efforts are directed towards bringing peace to the soul of my dead brother,” says Ganatra.
Affectionately known as ‘Bipin Da’ among locals, Ganatra is the only person, apart from fire brigade officials, who has been to almost every fire accident site in Kolkata in the last 40 years. Not ready to hang up his boots anytime soon, he is determined to help put out fires till his last breath.
Bipin Ganatra may not wear a cape, but this gritty 59-year-old firefighter is definitely a super hero we all need to thank. Little wonder he was honoured with the Padma Shri (India’s 4th highest gallantry award) in 2017.
UPDATE: Recently, when a fire broke out in a building in Bagri Market in Kolkata’s Canning street continues, 60-year-old Ganatra was among the first volunteers to join the firefighting operations. Jolted awake by a phone SOS from a trader, the veteran volunteer sprinted for over two kilometers to reach the site of the blazing inferno!
“I went around the entire place ,shouting out for people who could be trapped. Once I was sure that everybody had left safely, I returned to the fire tenders and started helping with the firefighting operations”, Ganatra told Times of India.