Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A 'restaurant' for the destitute on Kolkata's rail tracks

By Sreya Basu, Kolkata, May 11 : One chapatti for 50 paisa, a plate of rice for Re.1, a bowlful of curry for Re.1...So reads the menu card of a "restaurant" on railway tracks that has been running here for the last 51 years. In times of high inflation, it is a godsend for the poor.Popularly known as "Gariber Hotel" or food joint for the destitute, it is run today by 40-year-old Fatima Bibi at the southern division of Sealdah Station in north Kolkata. She sits with her bags full of leftover food, using up the space around a couple of unused tracks, even as trains whiz past on other platforms nearby.

She took over the business from her mother Nur Banu at the age of 11.

Fatima told IANS: "I work as a part-time maid at various households and a few hotels. I collect the extra food, the leftovers or even slightly stale food at the end of the day from these places. The next morning I sell it to my customers."

Her hotel on the tracks opens at 8 a.m. and shuts down at noon. And it has a faithful clientele of beggars, pickpockets, platform dwellers, porters and drug addicts, who troop in for an inexpensive bite.

"I have over 200 regular customers apart from the flying ones. The number of customers is increasing with such rapidity that I have employed my two daughters and two sons as household helps and hotel bearers. They too bring excess food from their workplace to meet the demand," Fatima said.

Fatima and her clients sit under an open sky, sometimes putting up plastic sheets on bamboo poles as makeshift shelter from the hot sun or rain.

It goes without saying that the reason behind the humongous success of this "hotel" is the compromise between hunger and poverty.

"We hardly earn Rs.25 a day. Surely, we can't afford to spend more than Rs.5 a day on lunch and dinner. Here we can eat to the fullest for Rs.3, that's what matters. Whether the food is leftover or slightly rotting, we don't care," said Chanchal, a beggar at the station.

Some customers have just a bowlful of boiled rice water available for 50 paisa.

However, Fatima manages to make about Rs.800 a day from her "hotel". But just as there are no free lunches in this world, it seems there are no free businesses either - not a day passes without Fatima giving bribes to the railway police.

"Every day I have to pay the police personnel Rs.100 to allow me run my business peacefully. But policemen are like chameleons. On strict days they just kick my customers and me out of the tracks. However we don't give up. These tracks are ours and the next day we are back to our old place again," said Fatima.

(Sreya Basu can be contacted at sreya.b@ians.in)

--- IANS


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