Saunak Bhattacharyya had an opportunity to meet a nonagenarian freedom fighter who changed his outlook on life and made him think deeply on what it is that makes heroes – ordinary men and women who make extraordinary sacrifices so that others around them can live better. Whether through love for his country or love for his fellow human beings, Sudhanshu Biswas teaches the values of compassion, perseverance and belief in one’s purpose.
(Update: The 99-year-old freedom fighter from West Bengal has been honoured with the Padma Shri award for the year 2018. His philantrophic organisation runs schools, orphanages and dispensaries for the poor and the downtrodden.).
Getting down from a crowded local train at Dakshin Durgapur railway station, I saw dark clouds setting in. I came out of the station and searched for a rickshaw or cycle-van (a popular mode of transport in rural India). Finding none, I began walking through the village roads. I am in a village of South 24 Paragans district, 35 kms from Kolkata. This district and the neighbouring Sunderbans are some of the poorest districts of India. After walking 2kms in the mild rain, I reached ‘Sri Ramakrisha Sevashram’ (SRKS) to meet Mr. Sudhanshu Biswas.
Owing to urbanization, old people get deserted by their family. The hermitage provides shelter to 29 senior citizens from the nearby villages. A charitable dispensary is also run as a part SRKS. To top it all, well into his seventies, Mr. Biswas studied general medicine and Homeopathy, observing the irregularities of doctors in villages. He collects medicine samples from physicians and distributes them among the sick.
Drying myself with a towel, I inquired why there was no transportation from the station. Mr. Biswas replied with a smile “When there is no demand, there is no supply”! His simple reply, or rather its inverse, also answered my unasked question as to why this 95 year old freedom fighter chose to spend his last four decades here. Instead I asked him what was the main objective of SRKS.
His kindly eyes met mine directly and he said “To impart man-making education”. The depth of conviction came from his own first-hand experience of being arrested from the examination hall by the British police during his childhood; a memory that has driven him since to help educate the less privileged—backed by his understanding of the importance and meaning of education.
As the conversation went on I learnt that he had left home while still in his teens to fight for India’s freedom. He successfully carried ‘live bombs’ to lodge an attack on the British Administration. Mr. Biswas dodged death a number of times in gun battles. He was caught by the British and jailed for several years. The simple man before me has been a part of the famous revolutionary group – Anushilan Samity.
After independence, enthused by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda – “Service to man is service to God”, Mr. Biswas founded SRKS. No wonder he had chosen this poverty stricken village where I was surprised to see that neither any temple nor mosque existed – an unusual occurrence in India.
In the last four decades, he has set up 18 free schools for the poor children in remote villages in the nearby Sunderban area. The teachers of the schools belong to the same village and hence an ownership is created. Till date, thousands of orphans have stayed and studied in SRKS and currently he is bringing up 67 orphan students who study and take care of all the work of SRKS.
He sits straight, glows bright while talking about the past with deep eyes revealing his knowledge about ancient religious scriptures. He talks and hears well, as he showed me the ashram which has a pond, small agricultural tracks and fruit trees. Every day he takes Mathematics classes in the school. I truly believe now – “This life is short, the vanities of the world are transient, but they alone live who live for others, the rest are more dead than alive.”
I met a person who is superior to me in all aspects. Physique: At 95 he does more physical work than me. Work: A visionary and does more significant work than myself. Sacrifice: I sacrifice little money and few hours for the down-trodden, his entire life is for and among the poor. Love: I married my school mate after 10 years of courtship; he still carries the bullet marks he received due to his love for his own country and billion countrymen. Academics: He still teaches 10th class mathematics, without the help of calculator. Scripture knowledge: I have the holy thread around me and he has the ageless wisdom around himself.
A standard eighth student came to close the gate. Seeing the never ending rain and after enquiring that I have no umbrella with me, he thought for a while and opened his cap. His cap was an old free cap from a popular health drink provider. It was as prized for him as our premium branded watch or new i-pod is. He offered his cap and insisted that I wore this, to protect my head from the shower. I was indeed touched by his gestures. Mr. Biswas is right; I was taken aback with the man-making value education infused in these kids. Although it was raining, I saw the dark clouds flying by.
You could visit their website for more information on their work, and how you could help them in this. While monetary assistance is needed, even donations in kind are appreciated. Due to the poor access to the place, it is not easy to attract and retain primary teachers and mentors. Also, they are unable to offer very lucrative packages for good teachers to live there. To solve this, we are exploring the feasibility of holding virtual classes. This will be possible if we can manage to get desktops, webcams and internet connectivity.
In addition to this, stationery items, groceries, woolen clothes and blankets would be highly appreciated. When I visited them second time, during December it was a pity to see these kids in half pants! They would also highly value individuals who could give them some time and support to help them reach out to more people with their work and sustain themselves with revenue-generating activities. Do contact them or the author at email@example.com for further details.
Update from the author on 2nd Dec 2013: I visited Sri Ramakrishna Sevashram last month and learnt from the officials there that because of the TBI article on the organization, since March they have got a donation of Rs. 4.9 lacs. This is a significant amount for this rural resource-less NGO. All credits to TBI for providing the platform – you and your team have MADE IT MATTER for them. Half of the donation has been used on water supply and tanks – which is complete now. They plan to start vocational training with the remaining amount. In addition to this, the ashram also received coverage by CNN-IBN after their reporter read the article on TBI – TBI enabled this as well.