“I scarcely knew, by myself, that I existed,

that I’d be able to be, and go on being.

I was afraid of that, of life itself.

I didn’t want to be seen,

I didn’t want my existence to be known.

I became pallid, thin, and absentminded.

I didn’t want to speak so that nobody

would recognize my voice, I didn’t want

to see so that nobody would see me.

Walking, I pressed myself against the wall

like a shadow slipping away.”

- ‘Shyness’ by Pablo Neruda

A drawing of Sanjit Mondal
by Kabita Mukhopadhyaya

The frail frame of this man reminded me again about the shame of Bengal in letting a part of her population to wallow in utter deprivation. Aspiring painter Sanjit Mondal reached Kozhikode in a piteous condition. In search of a better job, he had caught a train from Aluva with a faint heart.

Earlier, he had en-trained from Howrah with a group of labourers to reach Aluva with the same intention, but the straitened conditions there provided no scope for gainful employment.

In the beginning, it was very tough. In his own words, “I would sleep in the beach at night and at day break, would walk to Palayam junction to wait for somebody to hire me. It wasn’t always fruitful. On unsuccessful days I would starve. It wasn’t that much painful, as I was not alone in facing such hardship, and we all became habituated to it. The worst was the police harassment. One day, at my wit’s end, not knowing what to do next, I sat on a pavement and in order to keep myself engaged and avoid hostile glances started drawing with my blue ball-pen on a white handkerchief, let slip by someone. A man materialised like an angel in this ‘City of Values.’ Noticing my drawing, the Good Samaritan, guided me to the Lalit Kala Akademi art gallery.”

Then on, the tale of the miserable man takes a curious turn. He comes in contact with the cultural milieu of this sensitive city. In his own words, “I wanted some papers, white ones to draw. Maheshdada gave me a full sheet of paper that I divided into four and started drawing. Since then, lots of people have bestowed me with profuse love. Many good people came forward to help me. Sangeetdada, the painter, almost adopted me. He gave me material to work. I stayed in his place, cooking and eating like brothers. He would often even give me some pocket money. He and his friends organised my exhibition of drawings and paintings at the art gallery. They also printed a nice brochure. I became popular among the cultured circle in the city.”

Photo by Sajan V Nambiar

He continues his fairy tale: “In time, I got a very cosy place to stay and work at ‘House of Sparrows,’ a trading godown transformed into its present avatar as an art gallery-cum-restaurant in Gujarathi Street. Basheerkka Badayakandy, the owner, is a very generous soul who has allowed me to stay here and look after the precious artefacts in his rare collection.”

Sanjit is now enjoying a rosy phase in his life. And for the first time he feels like a man. He is proud on being able to send money to his ailing parents. He nurses an ambitious project to depict the caring city using his gifted draftsmanship.

The day Sanjit was born, some time in or around 1976, his father lost his job. He spent a poverty-racked childhood in a slum in the posh south Kolkata area. Renu, his mother with three children, the sole bread winner, made her living as a house maid. His ailing father went to stay in a thatched mud-house in his birth place of Lakshmikantapur, for the space in Kolkata was too cramped for the five of them.

Chancing on an advertisement about a course in fine arts, the upper primary dropout once approached the Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata, as he felt the urge to learn. He was summarily turned back with the comment: “No, this isn’t a place for people like you.” But that couldn’t dampen his ardour for art. He frequented galleries to see the exhibitions of works of art. The sari markets of Gariahut enticed him. He visually consumed those designs with a great reverence.

Now he himself has turned a creator. Thanks to this city and its compassionate people, he has been offered a chance to fashion a better life. He is not scared of life any more.

 (Painter and art teacher Kabita Mukhopadhyaya has made Kozhikode her home and is a 'Mathrubhumi' columnist. She could be reached at <prabhakarankabita@gmail.com)