From ragpicker to research assistant

Tuktuki Mondal  

On Wednesday, when activists and celebrities will be busy delivering speeches on the achievements of women, one woman in her late twenties will go about her daily routine unnoticed, on the southern fringes of the city, near Ballygunje railway station.

Tuktuki Mondal (28), who lives in a shack on a south Kolkata pavement, is unlikely to be mentioned in those speeches or recognised for her work that begins at the at the crack of dawn. And yet she embodies this year’s Women’s Day theme — Be Bold for Change.

Life has not been easy for the ragpicker.

No stranger to hardship

Born a Muslim and married to a Hindu, and still facing social stigma for her decision, Ms. Mondal is used to hardship. Her father died before she was born and when she was barely three months old, her mother Anwara Bibi, left her with her grandmother, and moved to Mumbai for work.

But her grandmother was determined to send her to school. “I never told anybody [in school] about my financial situation, my background or that I was often sent to the other part of the city to pick up garbage,” Ms. Mondal said, recalling her childhood.

There were moments when she nearly gave up. On the pavements of south Kolkata, many were unsure if a part-time ragpicker was justified in attending school. So she dropped out, “out of deep frustration” — only to return with more grit. She not only cleared the secondary and higher secondary examinations but also enrolled in a south Kolkata college. Eventually, she became the first graduate among the ragpickers of Ballygunje — if not the entire city — in 2012.

Her efforts to break out of her milieu brought her recognition from researchers of the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (MCRG), whom she assisted in producing in-depth report on urban migration and poverty in 2016 — ‘Women and Child Migrants in Calcutta’ ‘Women and Child Migrants in Calcutta’ .

“Tuktuki assisted me during a project on urban migrants. Besides, she is very passionate about ensuring that government identity documents are provided to homeless people and has done considerable work in her neighbourhood in this regard,” said Debarati Bagchi, a former senior researcher at MCRG, who co-authored the report.

Community outreach

“But then look at her! She is researching the same kids in her community, trying to find more about them, providing ethnographic inputs to us, coordinating with officials, at times, to deliver identity proofs to these homeless — she is an outstanding person,” Sabir Ahmed, another senior researcher, and co-author of the report, said.

Ms. Mondol’s journey was frought with challenges with neighbours and her husband Buddhadeb Mondal questioning her intention to go to the college.

“But I realised, even if I did not support her, she would continue to study. Giving up is not in her nature,” said a smiling Mr. Mondal, who runs a small tea shop next to their shack. Ms. Mondal, however, could not continue to work. “I resigned from the job after the daughter was born,” she said.

Planning to get back to work as soon as her two year old daughter “Shrestha grows up a bit,” Ms. Mondal finally described, perhaps little half-heartedly, her definition of International Women’s Day.

“I do not know much about this Women’s Day really, it does not work… I just wanted Shresta to grow up with more confidence than I have,” she said. She insisted that the interview should mention that she “loves to work on urban poverty.”

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 3:30:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/womens-day-from-ragpicker-to-research-assistant/article17424302.ece

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