Kolkata’s last newspaper deliverers.
At a time when a large chunk of the country is raving, or reeling under the launch of Arnab Goswami’s new channel, I went down memory lane reminiscing about a time when news was really news – not biased, not nationalist, not partial – not a reality show. While journalistic ethics and objective reporting are part of another argument, the simple shift of news becoming digitalized and its manifold implications on livelihoods is an ignored but important dialogue. It made me think of the invisible men of our country, without whom news would not have reached our living rooms for years before the world wide web came along. There wasn’t a single morning from my childhood when my father’s face wasn’t buried behind the black and white sprawl of the local newspaper. It was because of the relentless and dutiful service of these delivery men who ensured every household had their share of morning scoop, come rain or snow, that we were able to live as informed citizens, much before RTI. What will become of these men, who I think are the real news bringers of our Republic?
As the sun begins to only hint at rising, these mysterious men set out on their bicycles, covering hundreds of houses, for several years, without a single day’s break. Mysteries have an uncanny ability to draw you, and it did, towards the little-known lives of these invisible men from Kolkata.
Setting out for the day
Worried I wouldn’t be able to wake up, I had spent the previous night awake, lying on my bed, scrolling down the morbid screen of my mobile phone. As the first rays of the sun peeked in through the gaps of my room’s translucent purple curtains, turning them a lighter shade, I jumped out of bed and stood in my balcony, waiting. Newspaper delivery men are elusive too - they arrive long before people are up, don’t ring bells, or make conversations, they simply do their jobs and disappear. In a rush to get to the next house, and the next, before sunrise. I knew getting hold of them would prove to be pretty hard because I was simply not sure about the exact time they came.
I reached the parking lot of my building and there he was, with a benign smile and his magical (almost-teleporting) chariot, his cycle.
The daily quota
When I told him I wanted to have a chat with him, his words were almost predictable, “Ok but first let me finish delivering the papers.” Originally from Agra, Surendra Kumar Gupta migrated to Kolkata when he was little. He started delivering papers at eighteen and today is 65 years old.
“It’s a funny story how I began,” he said, chuckling to himself. “I used to wake up as late as 9 in the morning and my friend who I lived with, would get annoyed with me. He used to deliver papers. One night before we could turn out the lights, he told me that he was going to wake me up early. In those days the police stations used to ring a siren, kind of like how we set alarms on our phones, and that was the signal for him to wake up. Having nothing better to do, I went with him to deliver papers. There was something about the early morning air that got me hooked.”
That was 47 years ago, in 1970. In those days many buildings didn’t have lifts and sometimes he would have to take fling the paper into people’s balconies. An exercise that gave him quite the bowlers arm. Gupta first started delivering newspapers in the Bowbazar area for someone else. This work fetched him a monthly salary of Rs. 30. In 1972 he shifted his services to Ballygunge and got an independent agreement with a distributor. His earnings shot up to Rs. 2000 and since then he has been delivering papers dutifully in the same locality. Today, he earns around Rs.10000 a month, apart from which his two sons, who work at a jewelry shop, help to run the household.
“My sons often ask me to stop working. They think it’s too strenuous for my age,” Gupta said, looking down and running his fingers along the rim of the cup in which my mother had served him tea.
“Then why don’t you? If they are supporting you and want to take care of you, why are you making your body go through this every single day?” I asked.
Gupta adjusted his shirt to sit up straight, looked me straight in the eyes, smiled and said, “Because 80 people wait for me to come every morning and give them their newspapers. They are used to reading it because reading newspapers can become an addiction. Some people can’t go to the toilet without it. Also, it is important that people are aware about the world.”
Streets of Kolkata
“There are mobile applications and the internet for that today. Does that bother you or your business in anyway?” I replied.
“I already told you. Newspaper is like Mother Dairy. Everyone uses it and having used it all along, they will never use anything else,” he said and laughed at his own joke. “I do wonder sometimes about T.V. and computers and all these things you youngsters use. But by the time they completely replace newspapers I’ll be gone. So it doesn’t bother me. My time has almost come, everyone I began delivering papers with is dead or seemingly close to it. So if you kids want to read news from a screen, it’s fine with me,” he said staring distantly at a wall.
Gupta entering my building
Gupta delivers papers to 80 houses and works from 4:30 am to 9 am, cycling around a vast area tirelessly. To snatch a glimpse of this part of his life, I asked him if I could come along with him the next day. I jogged behind him, sleepless and exhausted, as he cycled a tad too fast for his age, stopping every now and then to check if I was keeping up (and I barely was). I had slowed him down but, he kept chatting whenever he could without complaining, asking me to go back home only because I was panting like a dehydrated poodle.
Finally realizing his work was much harder than it sounded and acknowledging my own incapacity to keep up, I went home.
I looked around and began noticing the changes that had come about in my immediate surroundings. There were more buildings, the mosque that had been a landmark for years had been renovated to become unrecognizable, the man I used to go to for cycle repairs had shut shop, and in its place stood a cyber café. I saw these things and mused about the insidiously shifting paradigms of society. I wondered if the years old tradition of reading newspapers would last. A tradition that is so intrinsic to India’s culture, a nuance of the city’s everyday life.
Today, what’s left of the invisible men from my childhood is only their traces.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Suman Quazi
Photographs by Suman Quazi