Raju Kher has just passed his Madhyamik or class X exams. He is very happy for having scored a first division and achieving ‘distinctions’ in four subjects. A student achieves a ‘distinction’ by scoring at least 75 marks in a subject.
But Raju’s distinctions are even more remarkable because he has nothing much to go by. He lives in a Home for the destitute – a home for the homeless and the poor.
So there have been no tuitions for Raju, no energy foods to improve his brainpower during exam times, and no parents either to shower all the attention that an achiever usually gets.
What Raju has is The Refuge. This is the name given to the Home for destitute children and adults that is housed in a two-storied building. It is located in the busy locality of Bowbazar in Calcutta.
Few names for buildings are as appropriate as this one. For 99 years now, The Refuge has provided refuge to hundreds of destitute children. But it may not live to see its 100th birthday. For, the building is crumbling.
The Refuge has over 300 members. Many of them are orphaned boys and girls like Raju, old people who have nowhere to go, and even mentally and physically disabled people. And all of them will be back on the streets if The Refuge is forced to shut its doors.
When it began, the Home was called Das Ashram. It was run by a group of youth who belonged to the Brahmo Samaj, an organisation whose members rebelled against many of the negative practices that had crept into Hindu religion such as sati or the burning of the widow on her dead husband’s funeral pyre, or belief in superstitions.
Later, the Home was run by Ananda Mohan Viswas, a close associate of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the famous social reformer who pioneered the idea of women’s education in Bengal as well as widow remarriage. Ananda Mohan renamed it The Refuge.
Soon after this change in management, The Refuge shifted to its present premises.
Today The Refuge has two schools in its premises. Both are for boys and girls up to class IV. Besides the living quarters, it houses a library, a dispensary and a clubroom.
But it is in a very bad state. Water drips from the ceiling even during classes and the plaster is peeling off the walls. In fact it is dangerous to stay in The Refuge. Raju recalls the time one of the staircases leading to the boys’ seminary collapsed a few months ago.
And one day while attending classes, the children witnessed something that terrified them no end. A huge chunk fell from the ceiling of one of their classrooms.
“We have somehow managed to make temporary arrangements, but those are no long-term solutions”, said the Superintendent Basudev Ghosh, to The Telegraph, which carried a report on The Refuge recently. He too has grown up in The Refuge.
A dark shadow clouds Raju’s face when he imagines The Refuge shutting down. How will he pursue his dream of studying science in a city college if he has nowhere to stay? The officials of the Home have promised to pay for his higher studies. But that’s only if the shelter survives.
Raju has nowhere to go. He can’t even go to his mother who is alive. But she makes very little money from a sales job with which she has to support herself and her daughter. So how can she keep Raju with her?
And Raju doesn’t want to leave the Refuge either. The love that he feels for this ramshackle building and its residents is greater than anything he has felt for anyone else in the world. That is why he is so sad. He is hoping against hope that something is done for his ‘home’ before it is too late.
Satyakam Hajra is as sick with worry as Raju. Satyakam was left at the gates of the home when he was three days old. Years later he is still living in the home. After passing out of school, Satyakam has joined the staff of The Refuge. What will happen to his future, he wonders? He will lose his home and his job in one stroke. Satyakam can’t sleep at night due to the thought.
It’s not as if the building is totally beyond repair. “We desperately need funds for the extensive repairs that engineers have prescribed,” says Rita Banerji of the governing body, which runs the affairs of the Home.
The governing body members too want to save The Refuge at any cost, and are looking at every possible source of funds. But it is not an easy task given the amount of funds required.
However much money it takes to survive, The Refuge has to survive. For how many Homes have given its residents as close to a Home as possible? That is why Raju and the others are so unhappy. Nothing will replace The Refuge for them.