On a chilly Saturday morning in Kanpur, just when the sun was about to rise, I took an impulsive decision to go on a boat ride. Unbeknown to me, that decision led me to meet Amit, an extraordinary man who rows a boat. Amit was just like any other guy struggling to make ends meet. Except he wasn’t. Do you know how sometimes in life you come across a person whose sheer modesty and charm can’t help but play what-ifs in your head? And their casual disposition is so humbling, it unnerves you? That person was Amit Nishad for me.
Born and brought up in Sarsaiya Ghat, Kanpur, Amit comes from a family of ten, with two of his brothers working along with him. The boating business has been in his family for generations. His ancestors worked as farmers before they became boatmen, and it has been twelve years since Amit has been doing this. For him, it wasn’t much of a choice but a necessity. Amit followed his father’s footsteps. When he was a child, his family was financially constrained, barely surviving. Whatever income his father used to earn from boating would only provide food for a single meal per day. Now that Amit works, he says “Ab hum bhi hai, to koi dikkat nahi hai ghar mein.”
During winters, the business isn’t very fruitful. When Amit was young, he would sell water in the district court and earn a minimum wage, carrying buckets full of water from the ghat to the court campus. Today, he has a clientele of people who religiously come there every day to bathe in the Ganges and devotees who visit the temples across the ghat. But the pandemic changed that for him, making it more difficult to earn a daily wage.
With the onset of the pandemic, devotees avoided coming to the temple, so did the early morning bathers due to their inhibitions on finding Covid-infected corpses in the river. After a point, the water in the river got replaced by sand, so much so that it got very easy for people to walk across the ghat to the other side. To sustain, Amit had to open a tiny shop, selling munchies and pan masala to some farmers and very few tourists. Nonetheless, he believes that there isn’t much left of the boating business today. As someone who occasionally goes to visit that beautiful place, and the kind, loving people living there, I feel deeply sad about it.
Inspite of his financial condition and constant struggle, I have always seen a sterling smile on Amit’s face. Most times when someone asks him about the boat-ride fare, you’ll find him blushing as if the question made him uncomfortable. This year, Amit went to the Kumbh Mela for the first time, it was a remarkable journey for him.
“Humne ded mahine nav chalaya kumbh mei, vaha se naam bhikamvake aye hain,” he said, sounding extremely pleased with his work.
He tagged along with his elder brother and his grandfather, who were felicitated by PM Narendra Modi there. Amit and his peers were responsible for taking VIPs on boat rides, he delightfully mentioned how everyone knows them there as ‘Kanpur vale.’
During one of our conversations, Amit briefly talks about how despite facing all the hardships that come along with this business, he doesn’t want to do any other job. He doesn’t want to risk losing all his connections, all the bonds that he has formed during the course of twelve years. In a world where many can't hold onto their beliefs, Amit is brave enough to hold onto them. Ever since the pandemic, businesses and livelihoods of thousands of boatmen across India have gravely been impacted, pushing them on the verge of poverty and starvation. Claiming to receive little to no help from the government, several have had to switch to alternative sources of income for survival. Traditional boating businesses like Amit’s, that haven’t known any other means of occupation, have witnessed their foundations being dismantled. And despite such turmoil, Amit continues to carry a warm heart and a bright smile. He simply knows that there are many like me out there, people who are extremely fond of him, people who’d wait for hours at the ghat for him to come back when he’s not around. In a world where kindness is seen as a weakness, Amit Nishad somehow derives strength from it.