India celebrates 75 years of Independence this year. Away from the official celebrations and pageantry, away from the camera conscious moves and sloganeering, here is a candid look at what the citizen of India at 75 has to say. SREYA DEB brings you a selection of voices from Kolkata in the first of a 3 part series:

Ram Prasad (60s), cobbler

Ram Prasad has practised his trade at the same location since 1984. In 1981, he travelled to West Bengal from his hometown in Begusarai, Bihar, and took over from his father, who was also a cobbler, three years later. Ever since his father ran the business, he rented out a small room, just 3 by 3 square feet, behind the shop front, and lived there. Ram still continues to call it his home in Kolkata.

"I came to Kolkata in 1981,and I started this job in 1984. Before that my father ran the business. I lived with my father and learned the trade for four years and then took over. After that my father retired. My father said, 'now you do this for the rest of your life', and that is what I have been doing. I live in Kolkata, but my wife, son and daughter are still in Bihar. I am able to go meet them maybe three times a year.

Ever since I came here in 1981, this shop has been here on this corner, in the exact same place. You can see the little wooden stool in the corner has almost been shredded to bits now, that small and narrow wooden slab has been here since the start too. Even my business and life have stayed exactly the same. When I came here, I went to Khidirpur for a year where I thought I was going to be taught leather stitching. Instead, they taught us how to make beedis! So I spent around two years just making beedis, and then I left that work and became a cobbler, just like my father. But I still remember exactly how to roll beedis too.

My shop is open from 8AM to 1PM in the mornings, and then again from 5PM to 9PM at night. I am on duty for at least 8 to 9 hours daily. The Covid pandemic harmed my business. No one got out on the streets. So who will need the services of a cobbler? I spent 9 months just sitting here without any work.

Some people from the Communist Party (CPIM) came by and gave us rations and drinking water weekly. They gave us grains, potatoes, onions, oil, spices, almost everything. It was enough for me but my wife and kids were having a rough time back home. I could not visit them either. But they also managed, with a little help and adjustments.

I run my business alone, so is it enough? Yes I suppose so, enough for me to take care of the basic needs. But during cyclone Amphan, there was so much damage to all the shops. Some people from the CPIM came by and promised me a compensation, they said 'we will give this and that', they took photos and all. But nothing came of that.

These political parties and governments make no difference to my life. It is all the same.

Amphan had caused a lot of damage. The shop was already over 50 years old, so almost everything broke down or flew away.

Then an acquaintance of mine saw the condition and realised that it would be impossible for me to stay that way. He loaned me the spare tin sheets and building materials he had and helped me to fix my place up. It took almost Rs 8000 to rebuild it all. I paid him back slowly.

I will be travelling home next month… My son is 23 years old now, and my daughter is 17. My kids left school midway. Son is in Delhi, he got a job there last month. My daughter is still at home. My son has come here two or three times, but he says he does not like this work… But this is the only skill I have, so I have to do this job only.

I have been here many years, and I have friends from other localities also. We have maintained good relationships with each other. All my friends keep saying that I never fight. They have all known me for years, if you ask any one of them, they will say that I have never had a fight with anyone.

I have seen so many physical fights starting from small conversations as my shop is at a very busy street corner, at the bend of a traffic intersection. But somehow till date I have not had a fight with anybody.

I stay by myself in peace and mind my own business. I have a bed, a stove and cutlery back in my living quarter. Right now I pay a monthly rent of Rs 100, and there is a separate metre for electricity and there are no issues from the landlord, it's all good.

My only worry right now is that three months ago I got diagnosed with diabetes. I had knee pain and so I went to the doctor at Bijoygarh Hospital. They told me to get blood tests. Turns out I am diabetic, and now I have to take medicines thrice a day and get check ups done.

Swapan Kumar Dey (68), shopkeeper

Swapan Kumar Dey sells stationery and has been running his store for the past 15 years after his father passed away and travels almost 40 minutes from Haltu, Kasba to Bijoygarh everyday, to sit at the shop. It is packed with notebooks and pens, and plastic jars chock full of erasers and sharpeners.

"As long as my limbs are in order, I should be doing something to earn my living. I am a retired person, what exactly do you want to know about me? I was born here in Bijoygarh, Kolkata. This shop is not mine, it belonged to my father.

Initially I used to work in the railways. I got the job halfway through college. But later I resigned as I was not satisfied. I came back home from Adra (a railway colony in Purulia), which was my last posting.

After some struggle, I joined the Central PWD and worked there for 16 years. However, I started to realise that I was not able to handle the physical exhaustion. That's when my family pointed out that we have a small shop right here, why don't I run it?

Until a few years ago my shop would be open from 10am to 10pm. But now I'm ageing and diabetic, so I run the shop from 4pm to 10pm. My son and daughter do not have any particular interest in running this store. My daughter is working and my son is still a student. Hopefully he will be able to complete his education in the next few years.

I have seen a lot of changes over time, but let me be clear, I will not say anything political. For a few years I was attached to the Congress Party, at the time of Siddhartha Shankar, when the party was still in power. But luckily I got a job in the railways, which as I said I left eventually, because my mind was not satisfied.

In this place alone a lot has happened in the many years I have worked in this area. The building across the street facing my shop used to be a typing school. I'm talking about '64 or '65. I used to go there to train. I got my job at the railways after I learned typing from this very school! There is a lot of history here.

Looking back, I do wonder sometimes if I should have left the jobs that early. But I do not have any regrets. If I have my hands and legs, I believe I should be making myself useful. That is all I need.

Bhabotosh Sengupta (62), shopkeeper

Bhabotosh Sengupta runs his shop out of a corner of the ground floor of a building, and lives with his aunt, wife and son, on the floor above. Their income comes from this shop that they have been running for a little over 10 years now, and the pension fund of his aunt.

"I've been here since I was born, in 1960. Our family home used to be in Dhakuria, but we moved here permanently to Netajinagar when I was just a year old. I live here with my wife and son, and the head of our family and our guardian, my aunt. Now there are flats and buildings here, earlier this area only had privately owned single storied houses. There used to be a pond way over there that is gone now.

There isn't much to tell about myself, I've been unlucky since I was a child. I didn't get very far in my education. We were the last batch in 1976 before the West Bengal Board Exams started. I only studied till higher secondary, and once had to appear for the repeat examinations to be able to pass.

Even after school, I could not get a hold of a job easily. Many people my age were joining political parties, but I was never inclined towards that. So not a lot of job opportunities came my way. Because politics does not mean politics, it only means you have to praise and butter people up to get ahead. And I cannot do all that.

I picked up a few jobs here and there. I started a rickshaw business for a while But I ended up selling all the rickshaws off because I could not manage it. The rickshaw pullers used to steal my money, and two of them robbed the rickshaws and ran away. I started working as a security guard for a few years. I even worked as a security guard at the Hindustan Times newspaper office for a while. Now for the past 10 years, I have been running the shop with my wife, and my aunt also helps out.

We only open up the shop for a few hours in the day. We hardly get any customers, so we cannot bear the electricity bill for those extra hours every day. See I have been here since morning, it is afternoon now, and I have hardly earned Rs 400 today. It is only the beginning of the month. And in the evening we usually do not get customers at all, other than a few here and there wanting to buy beedis. So nowadays we do not open the shop in the evenings anymore.

The only reason our family is staying afloat is my aunt. She retired from a government job and gets a pension. Once she passes away, I really do not know how we will manage. I can only hope my son has grown up a little more by then. My son is in class 11, I don't know about his ambitions. For now he is still studying, let us see what happens further. I don't know what he wants to be. I wonder if there is any point in dreaming for people like us?

I have a heart problem, and the doctor had also prescribed a mandatory inhaler. My wife had a nerve issue and was hospitalised for nearly a month. But even after a month if she does not get better, is it possible to keep her in the hospital? They medicated and operated on her, but there was no improvement. Now she has trouble sitting down. I don't think her condition is going to heal. It has been five years since her diagnosis.

Cover Photograph: Ram Prasad, cobbler in Kolkata

All photos SREYA DEB