Written by Poojaa Mukherjee
In May, Kolkata-based documentary filmmaker Indrani Chakrabarti’s 64-minute film ‘Ladakh Chale Rickshawala’ won the Best Exploration/Adventure film at the 65th National Awards in New Delhi. The film documented the journey of a rickshawala, 46-year-old Satyen Das, from Kolkata to Ladakh.
“I have had many job offers since the award, and even before that as people in this area (Naktala) know about my adventures,” Das, who is fluent in Bengali, Hindi and English, told The Indian Express. “I have been offered money to open a stall of my own. Shop owners have offered to hire me. But I like my life. I own my own rickshaw and ply it the way I want. I don’t have a boss, I am not accountable to anyone and I can go travelling whenever I want.”
At 9 am every day Das arrives at the Gitanjali Metro station at Naktala and leaves for home 12 hours later. A shack near Naktala is home to Das’s family – his wife Meenu works as a maid and 14-year-old daughter Sukanya studies in a government school. It is also home to Das’s vast reputation – a neat folder will all the certificates from various government departments he has ever received and a collection of around 100 stamped police permits from all over India.
“I want to become a mountaineer,” Sukanya said to the approving gaze of her father. “She will climb Everest one day,” said Das. The family climbs a mountain every day with Das earning around Rs 300 each day and Meenu’s monthly Rs 5,000. For the award-winning film, Das got Rs 15,000 as remuneration. His travels had been taking him across the country.
In 1995, after years of work and saving money, he travelled through much of India in 403 days – from Kolkata to Puri in Orissa and then from there going down south then back up through Rajasthan to Jammu on a cycle. It set the tone of Das’s annual adventures.
In 2007, he took Meenu and Sukanya, who was just over a year old then, to Puri (Odisha) on his rickshaw. “We carried a sack of potatoes and rice and would cook on the journey and eat. We had only Rs 1000 in cash and used it to fix tyre punctures and repairs which needed to be done,” said Das. “We caught sleep at railway stations, schools and even in people’s homes when they allowed us shelter. Some of them would give us food and money too when they heard our story. People are very kind.”
The next year he peddled to Rohtang Pass (altitude 3,978 m) and found his way to the Limca Book of Records. It was sheer luck that brought Indrani Chakrabarti and Das together. “I had taken a ride on his rickshaw and struck a conversation,” she said. “When he told me his story I knew then it had to be shown to a wider audience.”
The Ladakh trip saw him come close to a snow leopard, suffer a drop in oxygen and navigate through uneven terrain. On the way, he planted close to 5,000 date seeds. “They don’t need much nurturing and will grow in adverse circumstances. It’s like human willpower,” he said.
“I stayed at Sonam Wanchuk School in Ladakh,” he said. “Sonam sir kept my rickshaw there to inspire people who would come. He also gave me advice regarding my rickshaw’s gear. He is an incredible man. He arranged for a flight ticket to Delhi despite me wanting to take a bus from Ladakh. He even gave me Rs 5,000 for returning to Kolkata.”Back home, the local community felicitated him and even refurbished his rickshaw with a special brake.
“The members of the Naktala Agrani Sangha (the local club) helped me in all possible ways by raising funds. They upgraded my humble rickshaw with suitable break and gear too. I’ve received both love and recognition, I’m grateful for that,” he said.
Das has taken to learning and educating people on global warming. He scours newspapers, social media and follows National Geographic keenly. “We live in a beautiful world but are bent on destroying it,” he said.
Meanwhile, he has already planned his next trip – to Umlingla Top in Ladakh which stands at 18,406 ft, the highest motorable Road in India. And this time he plans to take 20,000 date seeds with him.