Bringing Health To Belechonga

We strive to help people around Kolkata, West Bengal

It was just past midday. The warmth of the winter sun had finally overcome the morning chill. Supriyo Gupta was attempting to organize a tangled mass of attendees to our day-long health camp. He would finally succeed in having them stand single file along the outside wall of the primary school hosting us. The line was colorful with the many colors of the saris in it. The line was colorful with the many shapes, sizes, and complexions of the people in it. The line was colorful with the lilting dialects and accents of rural Bengal. Supriyo was in a relaxed black tee, with a line from Shakespeare on the front – very different from the crisp dress shirts and ties he would ordinarily wear to his day job as an investment banker. Perhaps because of the relaxed outfit or perhaps because he was representing Uddyom – our beloved little service organization, he coaxed and cajoled his line to stay back from the road, to let an elderly person go first, and to remain in good spirits for the next three hours. Every person in line, and then some, about a hundred in all, would be seen by a crack team of eye specialists in a very specialized mobile clinic. The bus that housed the clinic had somehow been wrapped around a tree and wedged between a culvert and a heap of sand, to fit in a space at least two sizes too small. Supriyo would direct those in line, in ones, two, and threes into the bus. Some would find out they need glasses; others would go home knowing to blame cataracts for their blurry vision. Every once in a while, someone would stray over and ask a question and Supriyo, whether he knew the answer or not, would promptly point to his good friend Sanjay Das. This was, part in deference to the more involved role that Sanjay has in Uddyom, and part revenge for Sanjay attempting to blame Supriyo for an earlier navigation snafu.

The bus carrying a group of volunteers had finally made it past the railway crossing on the fourth try after almost an hour of waiting in line. The driver had been instructed to make up for lost time. In full compliance, he was driving as fast as his bald tires would roll along the roadway flanked by picturesque farmland and occasional clusters of buildings, the largest of which were always the cold storages – monstrosities compared to the surrounds, exuding importance in bright paint and prominent boundary walls. Eager to get to the site for the health camp, almost everyone was checking off the landmarks supposed to be crossed. Once the final landmark, a large temple complex, came and went, the uncertainty started. Where was the final turn to be made? Was the turn to the left or the right? Sanjay and Supriyo, both tracking our progress on maps on their smart phones, confidently egged us on. Straight!! Straight!! Don’t slow down. Just listen to me!! In just a little while we slowed down at a very feasible crossroad, but the boards spoke of a railway station in another village, not the Belechonga we were supposed to reach. Sanjay, responsible bureaucrat with the government, having run large operations for higher education, information infrastructure, and disaster management added a pinch of extra authority to his voice in trying to convince us of the next steps. Phone calls were made. Locals were asked the familiar, “Elder brother, is Belechonga this way?” Accompanied by a swing of Judhajit Dasgupta’s arm to make the direction obvious. Turn around, said the locals and turn around we did. About five minutes of back tracking revealed a large banner announcing the health camp and a volunteer with an official badge on his shirt waving us to make a right turn. Judhajit, accustomed to bossing staff that oversees outfitting of manufacturing facilities for a large chunk of India, silently swallows the reprimand from the locals for having missed the turn. Slightly bruised egos of the navigators later, we were at the primary school along the dirt path.

It was about 10:30 am and the lines had been forming for over an hour. Just to the left as soon as one entered the small courtyard of the school, was the registration desk. Tirthankar Debnath’s wife and daughter were registering villagers and marking their tickets to indicate which specialists each person would see. Tirthankar, a professor of dental surgery by day, and in-charge of Uddyom’s forays in the health sector, was making final arrangements in each of the examination rooms where the physicians and medical technicians would see the patients. Soon, Priyadarshi Basu, a geneticist and leading expert on liver disease, and Supriyo Ray, attorney practicing civil law during the day, would join the registration team and together would expertly guide the throngs through a series of medical examinations. The pharmacy was being set up across the courtyard from this bank of rooms. Subikash Mukherjee, professor of economics, whom many were meeting after almost three decades, was taking directions from Abhik Chatterjee’s wife, a veteran of many of our health camps. Abhik, hydrographer by training and responsible for charting and reporting navigable depths on the Hugli River, was himself organizing another stack of medicines. Just beside them, Arindam Bakshi and Krishnendu Chakraborty kept an eye on Atanu Dawn’s young son and other children, who were organizing the blankets, school bags, books, and other school supplies that they would later hand over to children and families in attendance. Atanu, proprietor of a construction business, had leveraged his contact with a colleague to find the school and the local team to organize and support the health camp. He would spend the day, floating between stations, talking to the locals, and running away from Subhomoy Bhattacharjee’s regular, but playful, threats to cause him bodily harm.

The sun is strong enough at 2:30 pm to make one forget that this is winter. But Subhomoy, a high-profile litigator at the Kolkata High Court, hatches a plan in the heat of the afternoon sun. Could we, Uddyom, sponsor the surgery for those who have been identified with cataracts? He disappears into the mobile vision testing bus to talk to the representatives of Sushrut, the organization conducting the vision tests. Not surprisingly, the entire village, hears the conversation held behind closed doors of an air-conditioned bus. Subhomoy’s voice has always had special powers to penetrate barriers and defy the laws of physics. The news is even better than we may have imagined. Sushrut will be able to use their own funds to perform the surgeries. Subhomoy consults with the small group of executives who keep Uddyom alive and breathing and within minutes commits to bringing the patients to the hospital, arranging for accommodation overnight after the surgery, and returning them to the village after their check up the next day. Just like that, with the snap of a finger, a good thirty will see again. In a while, the public address system comes to life and we hear the familiar voice of Shivaji Basu Roy making the good news public.

Shivaji gets plenty of practice in logistics operating his large and growing business in outdoor advertising. He uses this to perfection to choreograph many of Uddyom’s activities. His day started early, overseeing the loading of supplies on to the bus at 6 am in Kolkata. He has been walking the premises all day, wireless microphone in hand, directing, asking, coaxing, and reprimanding as needed to keep the behemoth moving. At about 2:45 pm Shivaji makes the announcement about the free cataract surgeries on the public address system. He outlines the process and asks those affected to be in contact with a local leader about dates. The enormity of the outcome is almost lost in the details of the logistics.

By the time 3:30 pm rolls around, patients have been seen by a general practitioner, a pediatrician, a cardiologist, a dentist, an otolaryngologist, optometrists and an ophthalmologist. Arup Roy has coordinated ECG tests conducted by a technician for each person who needed the sophisticated diagnostic procedure performed. Over two hundred and fifty villagers who have no access to quality health care have received care from leading specialists from the big city. They have now started to make their way home by foot on the narrow packed red dirt lanes. Some have climbed on to the back of a cart being pulled by a bicycle. There also is the occasional motorized rickshaw to take people further. The mass of humanity assembled for the day is melting back into the country side, hopefully just a little bit healthier than when the day started.

Uddyom volunteers like Krishnendu Chakraborty, Arindam Bakshi, Mukut Mitra and Souvik Sarkar have set aside their occupations for a day: building one of the tallest buildings in the city, building financial infrastructure for the government, looking after a construction business in our neighbouring state of Jharkhand or ensuring aircraft safety for a major airline. Their families, including young children, have participated at full throttle throughout the day. With the day’s work almost done, the volunteers eat a late lunch in small groups. Conversation is a mix of observations, highlights, flaws that need to be fixed the next time. But inevitably, the conversation also carries threads of a long, thirty-five year long, friendship, familiarity, and camaraderie. We have known each other’s parents for almost as long as our own. We have been friends with the group of partners we have in our wives since before we were married to them. We have adored each other’s children since before they were born.

Every Uddyom adventure has a hero. A hero whose stories will be repeated forever hence. We are back in the hero for this adventure – the big yellow bus that was stuck at the railway crossing, then overshot the mark, but finally got us to our destination. The bus has had an eventful day. It was late to arrive at the pickup point. Curses were hurled at it as groups and families waited at various points of the route to be picked up. When just about everyone had been picked up and we were finally gathering steam, it blew a tire. Then the jack to raise the bus was not high enough to put on the spare that looked like it was made and remade before the British left India. Somehow that too was overcome. At the end of the day, a large branch of a tree had to be cut down for the yellow bus to turn around so it could bring us home.

We are in it now. Victory signs are flashed for one last photograph as we speed back towards the city. The setting sun hangs just above the green fields like a ripe winter orange. Conversation is picking up. Satisfaction is expressed in spades, but never in a self-congratulatory tone. Even bigger plans are hatched. Always, even bigger plans are hatched. Slowly conversation shifts to the familiar, to the usual, and the customary. Old stories from our school days that have been told and retold countless times, but have never lost their luster, are told one more time. Even our wives and children who have heard these stories almost as many times still laugh at them. Life is not complicated for a band of brothers in this oasis. Is this why we formed Uddyom? Is it all about us? The answer is simple – no it is not. We have our oasis and no one will ever take it away from us. Uddyom is about spreading this blessing and incredible good luck to the less fortunate. Uddyom is about sharing our joy and serving humankind. Uddyom – the enterprise only increases our uddyom – our enthusiasm for it. Until next time; Remember even bigger plans are being hatched – always.