Hridai: A heart that understood human suffering

Today is the birthday of my grandfather Shri Hridai Nath Wanchoo whom I would call Daddy. His every birthday would be celebrated with Safaiwalas/Masheiks (Sweepers) who were also called as Khaakraubs. Hridai means heart and Mr. Wanchoo had a heart to identify and understand human sufferings, emotions, love and pain. This heart of H.N.Wanchoo would always recognise and remember services of Safaiwalas. On his birthday, I salute and thank all the Safaiwalas for their commendable work in Corona crisis. 

Shri Hridai Nath Wanchoo all along his life fought for the rights of Safaiwalas/Mashkys in Jammu & Kashmir. The only thing that would give him solace and happiness would be working 24×7 for uplifting the living standard of these hapless souls. I have closely noticed his love and respect for Safaiwalas/Mashkys. He would consider them as his extended family and they equally loved him. Everyday I would see him in the evenings at home busy on his Remington typewriter doing major documentation work for these Safaiwalas.

My grandfather would always place Safaiwalas/Mashkys higher than bureaucrat, politician, eminent citizens or religious leaders. Mr. Wanchoo would fight all levels of bureaucracy for their rights and dignity. He had a strong belief that a day will come when Safaiwalas children will be studying and working in best offices in J&K. He would often question, How many of us can do the work of Safaiwaala for just one month? Handling human excreta and transporting same on our heads for disposal.  They prevent us from major diseases and health hazards risking their own lives while on forefront.

Hridai Nath Wanchoo was an ethical, humane and honest soul. Once during his second daughter’s marriage, the discussion at home was that who would first welcome the Groom (Maharaaz) with garland (Pooshimaal). Everyone in the family suggested names of elderly relatives, neighbours, senior bureaucrats, politicians and others who were invited. But to every ones utter surprise grandfather had something else in mind.

 On the day of marriage ceremony when baraat arrived, my grandfather handed over the welcome garland to Safaiwaala, who was also heading the union. Safaiwaala welcomed the groom with lots of love, emotions and hugged him. Grandfather smiled with eyes full of divine light. Everyone in the gathering was surprised and many didn’t like this act, but Daddy knew that no one else was higher in stature than Safaiwala.

 His love for Safaiwalas/Mashky was selfless and infinite. My grandfather had adopted many children of Safaiwalas whose education and daily needs were managed by him. One of the favourites was Ayesha from Khanyar who was his dearest daughter. She has been a great dutiful daughter who worked hard to fulfill his dream. For Daddy all these kids were like a treasure, he would teach them, train them in various skills and they all were important part of our extended family.

During evening dinners we would all as a family talk and discuss many things. Daddy would generally ask his daughters about various new brands and products like clothing, soaps, hair oils etc for boys and girls. He would purchase them and give it to me for gift packing and later they were distributed among children of Safaiwalas.

Safaiwalas and their children have faced discrimination from Kashmiri society in various sectors including education. As is the present precedence in Kashmir, even in those days’ school or college admission would depend a lot on family background and profession of your parents. Children of Safaiwalas were often avoided by good schools because of their background or meager financial resources. Mr. Wanchoo fought for their rights at personal level, organizational level and even in courts.

However these episodes were regular and would deeply disturb Mr. Wanchoo. Finally he felt need of establishing a good private school for Safaiwalas and founded WORKERS SCHOOL at Batamaloo This school admitted children of Safaiwalas, Mashkys, Anganwari workers and other downtrodden sections of society. Needy students were provided school uniforms and books. H.N Wanchoo engaged his daughters, their friends and relatives with sound academic backgrounds as teachers on voluntary basis at Workers School, Batamaloo.

Workers School gained recognition and under his supervision scaled great heights. Today Workers School is illegally encroached by a local influential resident of Batamaloo. In spite of letters, complaints and reminders to all commissioners of Srinagar municipality nothing has happened in last 20 years. Locals of that area tried their best but corruption and nepotism in our bureaucracy has been successful in diminishing the prospect and growth of a school for Safaiwalas. Workers School Batamaloo is next to present day Batamaloo dispensary.

Sunday used to be a special day at Workers School. Grandfather would get ready and both of us would leave on his favourite Raleigh bicycle in the morning.  He would never travel in car even when his son would request him umpteen times. He preferred bicycle or waking. At Jawahar Nagar, we would first purchase delicacies from Billoria Sweets Shop. Every Sunday, owner of the shop would make special preparations and pack them with love for all the guests and children of the school. Believe me from Jawahar nagar to Batamaloo it would take us around two hours or even more. After every ten steps, Grandfather would be greeted by someone and then the discussion would start either about some complaint, personal issues and other related talks.

Everyone in school had his or her responsibility and honestly those days the work culture was much better than present times in Kashmir. Our health and hygiene awareness session would start in the morning in school building. Daddy would see patients, give them medicines free of cost and classify patients who needed hospital admission. I have personally seen him treating them, doing dressing in case of injuries, pus and frost bites. I would be surprised by his medical and diagnostic skills.

Grandfather had learned baseline medical skills during his tenure at J&K Red Cross Society starting in 1948/49. After the morning medical session, we would have light entertainment and interactive sessions. I would always be given the role of preparing and presenting weekly current affairs news in English. Daddy would guide me and then I would write script neatly on my four line English copy. Same things were also translated in Kashmiri. We would also have interactions and discussions on various topics and many of us enjoyed these sessions. The whole idea was to educate Safaiwalas about the happenings around the world.

One of the major strengths of Mr. Wanchoo was his strong belief in truth and honesty. My Grandmother, Mughlani ji, would often share her first experience when her husband was appointed as Khilafarzi officer in Srinagar municipality. Mr. Wanchoo’s in laws purchased a plot at Rajbagh and started constructing walls. Normally one had to seek permission of municipality those days and you could not bypass the approved plan. However officers in charge didn’t oppose thinking they are in laws of Khilafarzi officer.

In the evening Grandfather came to know about this and he lost his temper. At once he contacted the officer in charge and gave him two hours ultimatum to dismantle the structure or face suspension. I remember our black coloured heavy landline telephone no 3091 ringing continuously with calls from relatives. But no one in the family could tell grandfather not to go ahead with demolition. After two hours at 12:30AM he visited the site and stayed on till the whole structure was demolished. He was deadly against the culture of corruption and nepotism. Because of his honest attitude he did suffer many times and even fought bureaucracy tooth and nail at all levels. In municipality and public life, he was famous for his upright nature and no bureaucrat or politician would ever approach him for undue favours.

Safaiwalas in winters would be working in freezing temperatures without any protective gear. This would result in major infections in their extremities, skin and chest diseases. Their working conditions were pathetic and job security minimal. Hridai nath Wanchoo fought for providing protective gear to Safaiwalas, regularizing their jobs, providing them insurance, Jobs to their family members in case of causality and insurance cover. He also organized and raised emergency fund for Safaiwalas/Mashkys which they used in health emergencies, educational support, marriages or home renovations. Today I have restricted my writing only to Safaiwalas, may be next time will share his other life stories with all of you.

H.N. Wanchoo was assassinated on 5th December 1992 at Balgarden, Karan Nagar, Srinagar. We are trying our best to fulfill his dreams for needy through H.N.Wanchoo Trust, which runs ambulance project in 7 districts of Kashmir.

Happy Birthday Daddy!!! We salute all Safaiwalas today for their fabulous work in Corona crisis. Eid Mubarak to everyone. May you all be safe and healthy.

Dr Amit Wanchoo is Grandson of late H.N. Wanchoo,  and Chairman H.N.Wanchoo Trust