A 59-year-old man lives in small first-floor room of a century-old building along Kolkata’s Central Avenue, in the city’s heart. He is a cardiac patient.
He surfs local news channels through the day on a small television gifted by a friend till 3am. He keeps checking his cellphone frequently, which is never switched off.
Bipin Ganatra’s heart may be weak, but it is very much there where he wants it to be. He is a fire chaser by passion, the only one perhaps in the country of 1.2 billion people who volunteers his body and soul to douse any blaze in Kolkata.
The self-styled firefighter reaches a blaze site in no time after catching the news on TV or through his phone, and helps the fire brigade save property and lives.
Over the past four decades, this bespectacled and frail man has fought more than 100 fires. His relentless spirit has been acknowledged in the form of a Padma Shri, the country’s fourth highest civilian award, this year.
“You never know when a fire breaks out. It could be a news item, or an SMS alert from the fire department. I am constantly on the lookout for such accidents,” said Ganatra, sitting on a mattress on the floor where he sleeps.
He is not too delighted with the award, worried that the honour has increased his responsibility.
“More than my own satisfaction, I have to now ensure that a Padma Shri never gets tarnished by my lack of efforts,” he said.
The youngest son of a small-time shares trader, Ganatra was around 12 when his elder brother Narendra was killed in a fire on a Diwali night in Howrah. It changed his life; he dropped out of school and started chasing fires since then.
“Every time I saw the red beacon on a fire truck or heard its clanging bells, I chased them. I joined the firemen as soon as I reached the spot. Initially they didn’t allow me to douse the flames, and I helped them with odd jobs such as carrying hosepipes.”
Today he is considered part of the firefighting force.
Ironically, he lives in a house that doesn’t have any fire safety measures. A mesh of electric wires dangle from the ceiling in each floor, illegal godowns stacked with plywood and chemicals occupy the ground floor.
His room has the bare minimum to sustain his austere bachelor life. On a wall hangs a firefighting uniform gifted to him in 1994 by the fire services. He never uses it, but wore it to pose for HT.
Another wall is adorned with medals, badges, trophies, photographs and certificates that he has received over the years.
“Ganatra serves society in the truest sense of the term. We are all proud of him and happy that his efforts for four decades have been finally acknowledged,” said GP Ghosh, director of the state fire department.