"I don’t always love strange houses with lots of people I don’t know. Tell me you’re going to stare at me, use a language I don’t understand and laugh slightly crazily from time to time and honestly I might not come at all. But David – as most people reading this will know - is a persuasive man. He was sufficiently persuasive that I booked my first return visit to Shuktara in 15 years. On my last visit I was unemployed and childless. A decade and a half later, I am grey-haired, over-employed and had the eldest of my three children with me. Frankie is 13 and – perhaps unsurprisingly – is more used to spending his half-term holidays inhabiting the worlds of Netflix and Fortnight than the backstreets of Calcutta.
But none of that mattered. From the first smile that cracked when we arrived at Shuktara it all came rushing back to me in a messy, happy jumble of memories. The Bablu of my mind was a boy, but here was a smiling man. There was Sunil too, also still smiling but now with hair flecked with grey. And here was Bappa, the newest member of Shuktara’s family whom I had never met but read about in David’s recent newsletter, hugging us and grinning as though his life depended on it. I know it sounds like just the ridiculous talk of a cosseted north London liberal (which I am!), but everything felt like… home. This is what I remember feeling a decade and a half ago and it was amazing to feel it, perhaps even more strongly, on this visit.
Of course, there was great sadness too. Pictures of Anna still stand among the pictures by local Bengali artists with which David has decorated the walls. Bablu was Anna’s closest friend. He signed tears and sadness when we talked about Anna. On our first evening, we sat on the roof of the house with a few of the boys and watched the sun go down over Calcutta. Because we were with David, we were of course, drinking tea. Not for the last time, I thought what an exceptional place he and Pappu have built with little more than an overriding principle of love.
Of course, as a Dad, I was particularly thankful for everyone being so welcoming to my son. All the miles between privileged north London and Calcutta, the gulf between Frankie’s life and the reality of living in Calcutta, so much of it seemed to melt away as Shuktara’s boys welcomed him to their home. Hours spent playing a board game called carrom which involved flicking counters into pockets on a board. Trips on the back of a motorbike to visit Raja’s home nearby and meet his wife and child. Meandering walks through the back-alleys to pick up madeleines from Shuktara Cakes to sell back at his school in London. The great privilege for both of us was to feel like we were welcomed into this zany, slightly chaotic, incredibly warm family. It just felt so special.
So much life has been lived since my first trip to Calcutta and so much work done to build what Shuktara is. Tiny Sanjay from my first trip is now a confident young man supporting his family and living independently. Shuktara Cakes holds the promise of achieving a sustainable income for many of the boys and was recently written up in a Calcutta newspaper as having the best cakes in town. Where grinding poverty and disability have been unkind, Lula Bari now offers a whole new generation of girls the same uncompromising love and support that the boys have enjoyed. Prity, Guria, Tamina……..whole new chapters in the Shuktara story since I was in Calcutta last.
I like to imagine myself in another twenty years, grizzled, perhaps lame in one leg and once again drinking tea on the roof of Shuktara as the sun goes down. If this Shuktara of the future has fostered even half of the love it has shown over the past twenty years we will all as supporters, feel incredibly proud of the work that David, Pappu and the team have done. I don’t bet (much), if I did, my guess is that all the right foundations are in place for a home of much happiness for many, many years ahead."