22 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

From railway platform to high street

Shabnam Ramaswamy’s life has been one of twists and turns; she refused to give up on life and is today a respected social worker

By SNM Abdi
21 Mar 2016 | 09:42 am
  • Source:Supplied

I was 25 years old and a mother of two children – a boy and a girl – when, following severe marital issues, my husband of eight years one night evicted me from my house. That was in 1979. I took my son – my husband kept my daughter – a small suitcase with some jewellery, a few clothes and some money, and left.

I did not want to trouble any of my friends and the only person I thought who could help me when I found myself on the street that fateful night was my cook, Bharati. I vaguely knew that she lived near a football stadium not too far away from our house in Kolkata’s upscale residential area, Salt Lake. So I desperately searched for Bharati’s residence, frantically asking anyone I saw on the road at that late hour for directions.


When I finally found Bharati around midnight, I realised that she lived in a slum. Her cubicle was tiny and was shared by four people. I was horrified because as the daughter of a doctor and the wife of a rich businessman I had lived a privileged existence and had never seen anything like this before.

Bharati, however was extremely kind and allowed us to spend the night in her hovel.

In the morning, after a breakfast of tea and bread, she gave me the address of a relative who lived near Sealdah railway station in north Kolkata, saying he could help me get a decent place to live. But I discovered that he too lived in a slum and a place there was all he could offer. It was so unhygienic and small that I decided to go to the Sealdah railway station to think of other options. I sat down on a wooden bench meant for passengers, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I did not want to go back to my parents’ house because I had a feeling they would not be very happy to see me back.

With no help in sight, I decided to live at the Sealdah railway station – it was at least better than the slums I’d been recently exposed to. The rail station was – and still is – a haven for hundreds of homeless people in search of shelter and basic amenities. It has public toilets with a steady supply of water and waiting areas with swirling electric fans and lights which are never switched off. During the day I would visit friends pretending that nothing was wrong, or take long, slow walks around the city to while away the time.

But I returned to the railway station in the evenings. At night, my son and I slept on a bed-sheet spread on the floor with hundreds of other men, women and children for company – and like them ate cheap food available round-the-clock, drank tap water and used the washroom there.

But unlike them, I didn’t have to do odd jobs to earn money for daily expenses as I had left the house with some cash and clothes. When money started running out, I started selling my jewellery – gold bangles and rings.

The whole experience was emotionally and physically shattering. But I was lucky that I wasn’t abused or robbed.

On the platform, I had time to think about my life: I was born in 1954 in an affluent but conservative family in Katna village of West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, 280 km from Kolkata. I attended a good school and had the best things in life. I have two siblings – a older brother and younger sister and it was a happy life.

But my world came crashing down no sooner I finished schooling. In 1971, when I was 16, I was married to a 34-year-old architect completely against my wishes.

It was a loveless and rocky marriage and after eight years, I was on the road.

After spending two months on the railway station, I decided go back to my parents’ house. However, just as I had guessed I did not get a cordial welcome there.

I returned to Kolkata and checked into a small hotel in Bowbazar and after leaving my son in a neighbour’s home, went job-hunting. As I was fluent in English I was hired as a receptionist in a clinic on a monthly salary of Rs 1,200. It was a hand to mouth existence. I would travel second class by tram from home to office and back.

I realized that I would never move up professionally as I was not a graduate. So I enrolled at Viharilal College in Alipore for B. A. (Hons) in Home Science and earned a degree in 1985.

Half my salary was spent on house rent. I needed money for my education, and bringing up my son. I had a knack for painting, designing and decorating. So I started my own interior decoration firm called Visual Interiors in 1983. A friend gave me table space in her office. Luckily, I knew a few artisans and promised that I would give them 50 per cent of the profit if they could get me some clients. Luckily, the very first contract we bagged yielded Rs 75,000! Finally, there was light at the end of the tunnel.


It took a few years before my fledgling business became really profitable. In 1984, I rented a one-bedroom flat in Salt Lake for Rs 2,500 a month. In 1987 I filed for divorce and also claimed custody of my daughter and two years later was granted a divorce and custody of my daughter.

As my business flourished, I bought a small flat in Salt Lake and a car. My son and daughter went to good schools. I began rebuilding my life brick by brick.

I should have been happy and contented. But there was a strange vacuum within me. I wanted a new beginning. I felt I had outgrown Kolkata and wanted to explore the world beyond the city. So on a whim, we packed our belongings and headed for New Delhi.

I had seen street children at close quarters during the two months I spent at Sealdah railway station and wanted to help them. As luck would have it, even as were settling down in Delhi, I saw a newspaper advertisement calling for a coordinator for a new project on street children. It was launched by a trust set up by popular filmmaker Mira Nair from the earnings of her successful film on street kids, ‘Salaam Bombay’. I applied and was hired.


While I was working for Nair’s Salaam Balak Trust, a journalist and documentary-maker called Jugnu Ramaswamy came to film our project. Over the course of a few months, we fell in love soon and got married.

Jugnu and I decided to set up our own NGO, Street Survivors of India (SSI). A policeman gave us the terrace of his police outpost in a slum for literacy classes. SSI’s aim was to keep as many of the local children as possible off the street, away from crime, and to give them a little bit of a head start. We offered them basic lessons in language, maths and science. The kind policeman even issued identity cards to the boys to stop his men from arresting them.


Unfortunately, after eight years, the slum – including the police outpost – was suddenly demolished to create prime commercial space. But, at another level, it set the stage for the fulfillment of my childhood dream of establishing an English-medium school in my native Katna in West Bengal.

We invested our life’s savings in Jagriti Public School in 1998. Jugnu even sold his house in Delhi to fund our dream project.


Today, the no-profit Jagriti Public School, imparts education to nearly 700 poor students from class one to 12. Experts say it’s a trail-blazer. It has been lauded nationally and internationally.

But life’s a mixed bag. In 2005, Jugnu suddenly succumbed to a massive cardiac arrest after laying the foundations of a grand and successful experiment. I still think of him every day and miss him.

Jagriti is a magnet for foreign interns and volunteers. On an average, we have six interns from USA, United Kingdom and other Western nations. Recently we had a Mexican girl. They teach as well as offer lessons in theatre, art, public speaking and music, among others.


Having suffered a lot, I also wanted to do something for women. I conceived Stree Shakti, or Women’s Power, now a flourishing company managed by over 1,400 less privileged women with an annual turnover of Rs 10 million. It is based in Murshidabad, in West Bengal. Initially, I revived Murshidabad’s dying kantha tradition to give them an income. Kantha is an embroidery technique used to make comforters or light quilts created by stitching together layers of old saris. Our kantha products are now objects of desire in Delhi, Kolkata, Iran and Milan. They are sold in outlets in Delhi, Kolkata and also exported.

Stree Shakti has also become a forum for counseling and settling family disputes.

Now both my children are married and well settled and I’m a happy grandmother too.


I’m no longer a city slicker – most of my days are spent in Katna with my rural projects. I have learnt that in life there are no full stops. There are commas, though. And as in films, plays or operas, there is an interval, or recess between two parts, in life too. In my case, I must say that my second half is my better half!

By SNM Abdi

By SNM Abdi