In Wade Bolhai, visually impaired calendar salesman Sambhaji Bhor fights for the rights of the disabled
For the past two decades, Sambhaji has been selling calendars. This started off in the late 1990s when one of his uncles suggested him to make a living out of it. The piece of advice changed Sambhaji’s life as he embarked on the journey of traversing villages.
This story is part of a series on the everyday heroes of rural Maharashtra.
Sambhaji Bhor is not tired of selling calendars. He greets me with a smile and asks, “Is it 10.30 am?” With the rains and scorching heat leaving everyone confused in the village, Sambhaji is steadfast about reaching Pune. He is not venturing out to sell calendars on this day though. “Today, our group of friends will meet and discuss the issues of the disabled and will fight for it collectively.”
“I lost my eyesight at the age of three,” he narrates as we talk in his village Wade Bolhai in Pune’s Haveli taluka. He couldn’t complete his education beyond grade X because of the financial constraints. 41-year-old Sambhaji is brutally honest about his experiences battling the society which once disdained him for his impairment.
“Work for the society. Be independent,” he says proudly. That’s exactly the way in which people from the nearby villages describe him. His achievements spread across two decades triumphed over the name shaming he was subjected to. Today, Sambhaji has been actively involved in fighting for the rights of the disabled. This has taken him to several protests, each leaving him with more passion than ever before to fight for the cause.
In 1998-99, Sambhaji boarded the Kesnand-Wagholi bus. The bus conductor misbehaved and pushed him which led to a minor head injury. Angered by the incident, Sambhaji found his batch number and filed a complaint in the Pune Mahanagar Parivahan Mahamandal Limited [PMPML] head office in Pune city. “No one has misbehaved with me in the bus after this incident,” he says.
Bus experiences were his first encounters with the conservative folks and the way they had labeled the disabled. He has a bank of experiences to draw from, each conveying the story of inhumanity and the cruelty which people had resorted to.
In 2008-09, he and his friend Sanjay Bhairat wanted to book a Dadar-Pune railway ticket. “The fair for visually impaired people was Rs 14 then, but the railway officer was charging us Rs 16,” he remembers. The fair was hiked because of the introduction of ‘additional facilities for the disabled’ by the Indian Railways. Unaware of this, Sambhaji questioned the official about the increased fair. However, the official swore cuss words at both the friends and said, “You are blind, why do you need to know about this,” he remembers.
Immediately, Sambhaji went to the senior official and spoke about the incident. “Finally the officer had to apologise and tell us about the increased fair. Everyone has the right to know and I was just doing that,” he says proudly. These incidents have made him vocal about several issues lingering around for decades now.
“Now I don’t have to shout in the streets and villages [to sell calendars], people know me,” he says proudly. For the past two decades, Sambhaji has been selling calendars. This started off in the late 1990s when one of his uncles suggested him to make a living out of it. The piece of advice changed Sambhaji’s life as he embarked on the journey of traversing villages. He sells calendars in the villages of Haveli, Shirur and Daund taluka in Pune district. “There is enough work for nine months a year,” he says. In November and December, he sells calendars in the schools and offices of Pune city. For this, every day he walks six kilometers to the nearby Kesnand village to take the bus to other villages of Pune district.
Due to the infrequent bus facility, he prefers walking to the nearby villages of Ashtapur, Pimpri Sandas, Manjari Khurd, and Awhalwadi. Previously, he used to travel all the way to Baramati and Mumbai in Maharashtra to sell the calendars. “Now, I don’t get time to travel so far,” he says. Everyday he carries at least 350 long calendars with him in a blue coloured travelling bag which weighs around 20 kg.
He sells Urdu, Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and English calendars. In 2000, he had to buy them from Dadar for which he would commute by train alone. After four consecutive years, he then found an agent in Pune city who would supply it. In this journey, he witnessed a lot of experiences, both good and bad. “Once in the market, a man didn’t pay for the calendar. Immediately, a few people ran and caught him,” he says. Another experience worth remembering is that of a man who didn’t pay him for the calendar, but returned after two years, paid Rs 20 and apologised.
Every day he leaves at 7.30 in the morning and comes back at around 7.30 pm after travelling to several villages. “A lot of people who have now become good friends drop me if I get late in the evening,” he says smilingly.
“While sitting in the weekly markets, a lot of people have taken calendars from me but never paid,” he says. Now he asks people to pay beforehand. On an average, Sambhaji manages to earn Rs 25,000 yearly from this business.
Suvarna Bhor, Sambhaji’s wife, 42, couldn’t complete her education beyond grade XII because of the finances. For 12 years, she worked as a nurse in the hospitals in Pune city and before that as a telephone operator in a firm in Amravati city of Maharashtra.
At the age of three, she was diagnosed with 52 percent Polio. One day, Sambhaji’s elder brother who was being treated in the hospital [Pune city] spoke about Sambhaji’s plight and how he couldn’t get married because of the disability. Suvarna overheard the conversation and decided to marry him. “As a nurse, I always accept all the patients and help them. I thought of helping such a man and change his life,” she says. Her decision was met with a fit of rage as her parents decided not to show up for the marriage.
“My parents said marriage is not a drama. How will you live with him?” she recollects. She was faced with terrible word shaming from several acquaintances. “One of my friends asked won’t you be ashamed of marrying a blind man.” His uncle who is a Police Sub Inspector later convinced the family members and supported Suvarna. “After several years now, my friends say that I made the right choice,” she says.
In 2007, Suvarna then started working as a labourer in a garment factory in the nearby Kesnand village where she was paid Rs 2,000 monthly. After Suvarna’s mother-in-law asked them to leave the house, the couple decided to start a grocery shop in the village in 2008. “Initially I thought no one will buy grocery from us. We earned as little as Rs 13 daily for months,” she recollects. Coupled with several instances of disappointment and ostracism faced by the society, the couple didn’t lose hope. “We had decided to work at least for ten years before shutting down the shop,” they say. Today, Suvarna manages to earn close to Rs 250 daily from the grocery shop. “If you work hard, it happens. But first, you’ve to work hard,” she now says proudly.
Under the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Pension Scheme, collectively Sambhaji and Suvarna get a monthly pension of Rs 900. “The Government hasn’t been proactive in helping the disabled,” says Sambhaji. In March 2018 he went to the Azad Maidan in Mumbai for a protest demanding rights for the disabled. After his travels and bitter experiences, Sambhaji has made several friends across Maharashtra and is collectively fighting for the disabled. “We meet every month and discuss the issues,” he says. Suvarna always wonders how he befriended so many people on his travels.
“What’s the point of education, if people don’t respect us? We should accept others and not tease them. With my son and me, my husband now has four eyes,” says Suvarna smiling as she rushes back to the next customer.
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