Calcutta Notebook


Swapan Das died on nineteenth January, 2015 at the age of sixty, nineteen days after retiring from service. From afar it was not much of a turbulent life. Not a life one writes stories about. But let's take a closer look anyway.

Swapan's appearing in joint entrance examination and getting admitted to a medical college created a flutter in his community. He had grown up in a poor middle class family in Lalgarh Colony (a refugee settlement) near Dumdum. It was more of a well-developed slum and boys and girls in his locality did not give much of a priority to studies.

From the very first day of his joining National Medical College, the people in his colony started flocking around him for medical advice—complimentary of course. He was their son—one of them and Swapan obliged in his own way.

The period was early 70s. A new type of student movement was gathering momentum in West Bengal and National Medical College along with some other colleges in the state was spearheading the same. Students were out in the streets questioning autocratic governance in education and elsewhere, rejecting religious and cultural taboos and demanding socio-economic changes in favour of the poor.

Like many others Swapan started thinking of playing a role in social change—to fight against social inequalities and corruption. He participated in student movements against dictums of corrupt ruling powers—whichever they were. He joined in relief camps organised by the medical fraternity in drought or flood affected areas in West Bengal and elsewhere. He was a regular volunteer in a weekly medical clinic in a slum in Howrah.

In those days Swapan, did not have enough money to pay for daily expenses of coming to college. Often his friends came to his rescue. Well, studying in a government medical college was quite cheap in those days. In the night it was a common sight in his house to see Swapan buried in his books on his bed inside mosquito netting with a lantern to light up. There was no electricity in his room.

He became an activist of Blikhshan, a science oriented monthly publication for the youth that raised debates on social and economic issues as well and became quite popular during the period.

When he graduated to become a doctor he had no option but to join the first job he was offered. His father had a small shop in a pavement near Sealdah and the income was irregular and theirs was a family of six with no other earning members. He joined ESI Corporation. There was not much of a clinical work in his duties, but he continued his philanthropic work in his locality.

His wife Malabika came from a well to do family and was academically brilliant. She is a college teacher now and theirs was a happy family with two nice kids. He never went into private practice, but devoted his off times to socially meaningful activities as he saw them.

He was a regular member of the group that published Bijnan o Bijnankarmi, a popular science magazine by radical scientists and teachers. His friends in this group called him "a doctor by mistake". The reason was Swapan had excellent technical skills in computer and electrical gadgetry and happily served as an "electrician". He learned acupuncture and in his knapsack there would invariably be the acupuncture kit along with his electrical tools and "magic box" for entertaining social gatherings.

Till his last days he was the Vice President of Disha, an activists group which carried research and raised public protests on environmental issues. During the last year when he was confined to his bed in a sanitised room in his house he spent the time taking photographs and video clips through the only window connecting him to the world. These are excellent works of art says a professional photographer.

Swapan's has been a simple life. He was not much in the limelight, ever. But he was one of those who decided to challenge the society and to put up a fight against the existing social norms.

People like Sitaram Shastry, Amal Som, Ashok Bandhyopadhyay and Swapan Das, all products of the social movements of the 70s have passed away, but only after they made dents in the existing social fabric. Small dents maybe, but dents nevertheless. They were honest to themselves and pursued what they believed to be socially meaningful.

Swapan was no ordinary man after all.

Vol. 47, No. 37, Mar 22 - 28, 2015