Notun Jibon, which in Bengali means ‘A New Life’, is the most accurate description of the experience that Arup Sengupta has lived through. Arup was born in an affluent family in Kolkata in 1952. This could have been an ordinary, cushy life, but fate had something else in store.
In 1968, he lost his father, and with that the family fortunes began to dwindle. To deal with the loss of her husband, Arup’s mother took to alcohol, while his sister began working in dance bars to pay the bills. But things were about to get worse. Shortly after his father’s death, Arup was diagnosed with Tuberculosis (TB). “Back then, with TB you either died or survived, there was no in-between. I was told I had only seven months to live,” he explains. Because of its infectious nature, TB carried the same stigma and fear then that Covid-19 carries today. He was thrown out of his locality, and had to spend many days on the streets.
With no hope in sight, his mother took him to the church for help. That is where we was introduced to Mother Teresa (or Sister Teresa, as she was then called). Known as the ‘footpath saviour’, Mother Teresa was taking care of leprosy patients on the streets at the time. She directed him to a TB care facility in Darjeeling. “As I had financial issues, she sent me to a TB care facility in Darjeeling after four days. I was with 18 people in a single room, and saw death upfront almost every day. But I was lucky to be alive,” he says.
After his recovery, Arup stayed at a shelter home in Kolkata run by Mother Teresa, where he was inspired by her spirit and dedication to social work. During this time he also completed his education, paying for it through odd jobs which included playing in wedding bands. Arup went on to complete his college education and was successfully employed in the corporate sector for 45 years, moving from Kolkata to Delhi to Mumbai and Bengaluru. In 2010, while he was in Delhi, he would see a lot of construction workers and their families sleeping on the streets in the dead of winter. His heart went out to them and so he would supply clothes, blankets and money to them.
In 2016, after his retirement, Arup returned to Kolkata. “The city I left as a young boy had changed. I came back to poverty, apathy, and a general sense of disillusionment. No one should go to bed at night on a hungry stomach. When I meet my maker I need to have my answers ready and be able to look at him and tell him I did all I could to make a difference,” says Arup.
On New Year’s Eve in 2016, Arup accompanied by his late wife, Dalia and family friend Jhumki Banerjee, along with her 15 year daughter, Subhangi, decided to distribute blankets to the needy. And with that his second life, or Notun Jibon, as a dedicated social worker began.
Arup was especially disheartened to see the children of the street dwellers. He wanted to ensure that they had a safe place to spend the night and received basic education. “We started offering school bags, shoes, socks, uniforms, textbooks and notebooks. We also spent our Saturdays teaching them about basic morals and the importance of personal hygiene,” he adds.
Soon, they began receiving requests from parents to start a night school. Thus the Sahoj Path (Easy Way) school was born. Today there are 40 children between the ages of 3 and 12 that attend the school. The first class is physical training, which begins in the afternoon. The kids are then served an evening snack of milk and bananas following which they have two periods of reading, writing and maths, ending with one period of arts and crafts or value education.
Apart from working with these children, Notun Jibon also helps to rehabilitate sex workers and their children. The Notun Jibon team, comprised of eight women, call themselves Nari Shakti and are from underprivileged backgrounds. The secretary of the organisation is Jhumki Bannerjee, who was herself rescued from an abusive marriage by Arup and his wife, Dalia. There are also two men who work with them. Together, they teach, manage daily tasks as well as campaign and fundraise for the organisation. “Knowing that even after my death, the organisation will march forward in their able hands is very satisfying,” says Arup.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, Arup and his team were on their feet trying to get groceries and other essentials to the people in need. The Notun Jibon team distributed groceries to over 400 sex workers every month during this period. Many who were inspired by their efforts, contributed to the cause. “I have managed to gather many well-wishers over the years. One post on social media and I see my friends coming forward to graciously support me. All my savings of 45 years have gone into this organisation.”
Going forward, Arup plans to open an ashraam called ANANDA ASHRAAM which will have a shelter home and school in a nearby village in Sundarban. With donations from companies, friends and family as well as his own contributions, he wishes to take care of 100 students from the red light areas of Kolkatta. Akanto Apon (Selfishly Mine), will be a center housing 20 dying and destitute elderly picked up from the streets of Kolkata, and will also have adjoining farms to ensure that food supply can be self-sustaining. For himself, Arup has only one dream—to move to ANANDA ASHRAM and life the rest of his life there, in the service of others.
It is stories like these that give us the inspiration to wonder about our own lives and how we have use the agency we have to make a difference in someone else’s. Giving Circle celebrates this selfless spirit of service and salutes Arup Sengupta for his efforts in caring for and empowering the less fortunate.