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People of Bharat: Bhola Das

I knock at the door and I am answered by Bhola Das who has agreed to meet me here; it’s one of his patient’s home for whom he renders caregiving services. We skirt out to sit in the dining hall; Bhola has an hour off for lunch. He talks to me in hushed tones and I follow his lead — perhaps he doesn’t want to disturb his patient. He has a gentle demeanor and as we speak I begin to understand why he is well-suited for his work. Bhola Das is 57 years old and was born to a Bengali family in Kolkata. He tells me unlike many in those times, he was born in a hospital. In those days, his mother was employed there as a sanitation worker. His father worked as a painter on contract. Poverty was chronic. ‘Khub ekta bhalo arthik obostha chilo na,’ (Our financial condition was not very well then) says Bhola Das.

Bhola Das completed his primary education and tried to follow his father’s profession, taking up odd jobs in painting. However, work was sparse and payments irregular. Bhola recalls a dark time when unemployment was a constant threat. He confesses how he suffered from bouts of depression followed by a scramble to find work. Grappling with uncertainty, he continued in this manner until he found an agency that connected patients with caregivers. He enrolled with them and started working as a caregiver. That was nigh 20 years ago. During this time he worked mostly at patients’ homes — sometimes he was requested to serve outside Kolkata which made him travel to nearby districts for 3–4 days. He counts a few districts in West Bengal on his fingers where he was sent to work. In 2016, there was an opening for a ward boy at the very hospital he was born. He applied and was interviewed, post which he got selected for the job. He continued to stay in touch with the agency, balancing two jobs whenever he could. The work and income were both regular. However, in 2018 the hospital decided to lay off staff for cost-saving reasons — Bhola Das found himself among the first ones on the way out.

Bhola Das currently lives with his wife and an aging mother in a rented, semi-pucca house in a slum settlement in Kolkata. The house has one room with an attached kitchen and it suffices for the three of them. His two daughters are married and ‘settled’. At present, the health care agency connects Bhola Das to patients in need of various caregiving services, maintaining a steady source of employment. Bhola Das is required to report to a patient’s house at 8 am and leave by 8 pm. He carries his tiffin with him sometimes and has his lunch on-the-job. Sometimes, he leaves the house and buys something to eat from the streets. The nature of Bhola’s work varies from patient-to-patient. His current patient is a middle-aged man with a mobility problem; Bhola Das has to assist him in and out of the wheelchair, take him for a walk and administer his medicines. Speaking about his patients, he points out — ‘Onek lokjon er shaathe kaaj korechi’ (I have had to work with many people) and most of them are ‘bhaalo’ (gentle in behavior) — permitting him some time off during lunch; others can be more demanding.

Bhola Das earns a monthly salary of Rs. 10,000 which the patients pay him directly. He has to pay the agency a nominal commission of around Rs. 50 every month irrespective of whether he is employed or not. He spends Rs. 4000 on groceries, Rs. 500 on utilities and Rs. 2500 on rent. He is eligible for subsidised rations by the government and gets three kilos of wheat every three months for Rs. 3. The agency gives him a uniform that he is supposed to wear to work every day. Bhola spends Rs. 1500 on recurring health expenses; especially for his wife.

A year ago Bhola’s wife needed eye surgery. ‘Bouer choker chikitsha te onek khorcha hoeche (A huge expense was incurred in getting my wife’s eyes treated),’ he says and tells me he spent Rs. 30,000 aside from medications. Bhola Das pooled the family’s savings; his daughter who was single back then helped him with a large portion of the expenses. Bhola tells me she also regularly pooled in her monthly earnings for buying groceries. Now that his daughter is married, her lack of contribution has reduced the family’s earnings by half. Bhola has lost a lot of work days in taking care for his wife. He tells me he was also unable to take up jobs with night shifts for a year after his wife’s surgery. Continuing he clarifies, ‘Night shift jobs in patient care pay much more.’

Bhola has a bank account but does not put it to much use. He is able to save Rs. 500 each month which he tucks away at home. He owns a feature phone and uses it to make and receive calls from the agency and his patients. He is fearful of using a phone to make money transactions over the internet as he feels he lacks the skills — ‘What if I make a mistake and lose money?’ he interjects. He aspires to buy a home of his own someday but has no plans on how he would go about it.

Bhola tells me he is satisfied with the way things are. He likes his job and feels he is doing a good service to society by helping sick people. He has no life insurance or medical insurance to his name. I ask him how his wife and old mother would survive if something happened to him — but he assures me it’s only a fleeting concern. As I wrap up my notes, I catch Bhola with a far-away look on his face. I immediately feel sorry about asking my last question.

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