A flight of rickety wooden stairs leads to an open verandah where a sexagenarian is busy locking the doors of his room in Central Kolkata. A fire has broken out in the northern part of the city and he is rushing against time to attend the call of duty.
Draped in his uniform, the lanky man could easily be mistaken as one of the firefighters of the fire and emergency service department of West Bengal. But he is not one.
Meet Bipin Ganatra who is famously described as the ‘fireman’ of Kolkata, the sobriquet that has been bestowed upon him because he has rendered voluntary services in extinguishing flames and rescuing trapped people in over 200 fires that has occurred in the city in the past five decades. And this Republic Day, Ganatra was conferred the Padma Shri by the President of India for rescuing people from fire-related accidents.
His expertise and bravery in reaching even the most dangerous nook and corners of the fire ravaged buildings have put young firefighters to shame.
Ganatra, a bachelor, says that his affair with fire has been his passion since childhood. He remembers when he ran from school to assist the firefighters in a fire that had broken out in the neighbourhood. “It was just a usual day for me when suddenly I heard the clanging bells of the fire engines passing from a lane outside my school. It was lunch time and I managed to skip the watchful eyes of the guard to reach a building that was engulfed in flames. I helped the officials to lay the pipes. It was my first romance with fire, and the intensity has not reduced a bit in these years,” he says sitting in his dingy room that immediately need repairs.
I stood motionless seeing human bones lying in front of me after extinguishing the flames.
Over the years, his experience has come handy in quickly extinguishing several major fires across the city. He was among the first to reach when the Stephen Court building in Park Street, off South Kolkata, was engulfed in flames that killed over 40 people in 2010. He played an active role in rescuing people during the AMRI Hospital fire in 2011 that claimed around 90 persons.
The fireman still shudders to recollect the skeletons he picked up during the rescue operations, “I stood motionless seeing human bones lying in front of me after extinguishing the flames. The sight was horrific. I collected the bones in a polythene bag and handed them over
The 60-year-old who works as an electrical mechanic and earns around Rs 3,000 a month, also depends on charity to sustain his livelihood. “I had a bypass surgery in the early ’90s and need medicines. My friends and some people, aware of my good deeds, donate some money that helps me to survive,” he says over a cup of coffee.
Impressed by his devotion, the fire department gifted him with a uniform along with a rare volunteer’s steel ID card which he wears while going out to work. “Earlier, the fire officials didn’t recognise me and often asked me to stay away from the danger area. It hampered my work. The senior officials came to know about it and gifted me with the uniform and the ID card.”
Ganatra has won several awards from the State government and private organisations. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee felicitated him with a medal for his exemplary work in 2014.
He was offered a job as home guard in the city police department but he declined the offer. “The job would have virtually consumed my whole day making it difficult for me to help people during emergency. My sole aim is to serve the society.”
Such has been his dedication to live for others that he sleeps with his television switched on even during the night hours, “so that I don’t miss any news of a fire in the city. Whenever I hear that a fire has broken out, I immediately hire a taxi and rush to the spot. I have not sought a single penny as travel expense from the fire officials in the past five decades of my service.”
His cellphone starts ringing. A caller on the other side informs him about a fire accident in South Kolkata. He gears up to leave his house and rescue the living or the dead. Who knows?
As he sprints down the staircase of his century-old building, the words of Swami Vivekananda ring in the ears, “They alone live who live for others, the rest are more dead than alive.”