Md Zaman Khan’s story
By Fadila Chater
Md Zaman Khan rummages through the refuse that’s polluting his beloved city of Kolkata, India. In his hands are dirt-caked plastics and food wrappers. The hot sun beats down on his back and pearls of sweat form on his forehead. Focusing on the ground in front of him, he feels the sharp gaze of disapproving and puzzled looks on his back. Why was a young, middleclass man, the son of an engineer, picking up garbage off the street like a beggar? Nevertheless, the 22-year-old continues picking up trash, despite how ridiculous or improper he appears to others on the street.
“Look, these guys are doing great work.”
Stunned, Zaman looks up and sees a child, no older than five- or six-years-old. The boy tightly grasps his mother’s hand; the way an elephant grasps his mother’s tail with his trunk.
“This is why I send you to school,” the boy’s mother continues, pointing at the garbage in Zaman’s hands. “To learn more about humanity.”
The gesture was small, and perhaps insignificant to others, but for Zaman hearing those words made his tireless efforts to inspire change in his community worth it.
“This was a very, very positive experience for me,” Zaman says to me. A year has passed since this encounter. Now Zaman talks to me, 12,000 kilometers away in India, via video chat.
The West Bengali capital of Kolkata boasts a population of nearly 5 million people. Like many Indian cities, discrepancies in Kolkata’s class demographics are varied. Here, the poor are very poor and the rich are very rich. Zaman was fortunate to be raised by two well-educated, middle-class parents. Unlike the children he grew up seeing on the street in tattered clothing, Zaman was afforded a good education and other opportunities. He followed his father’s footsteps as a mechanical engineering student, now finishing up his bachelor’s degree at the Institute of Engineering and Management in Kolkata. Soon he will be starting his masters at a university in Australia.
Despite his well-to-do upbringing, Zaman was uncomfortable by the state of social interaction between economic classes in his country. He explains that because billions of people live in poverty, it is nearly impossible for the Indian government to intervene. Unlike Canada, social infrastructure and welfare programs in India are nonexistent.
“You can see beggars lying on the road, and that’s very sad for me,” he says. “And nobody is doing anything for them. I can’t see an old man lying on the road, dying and begging for food – it’s very hurtful.”
The impoverished are treated with little respect and dignity and so too are the roads and public places – which are always littered with trash. In effect, the social and environmental issues the country faces are further complicated by a lack of understanding and tolerance.
“In our country and the world also, humanity is something that is lacking,” he says. “There are many people who speak about it, but there are few people who follows it.”
Inspired by the social injustice he saw Zaman took to the internet to express his thoughts on the state of humanity.
“After writing blogs for more than two years, I was thinking I should be doing something more practical with humanity,” he says.
The internet proved to be a great place to express thoughts and inspire people. But Zaman knew that if he wanted to see change, he needed to become the change. The only problem was he didn’t know where to start. A quick Google search lead him to the Happy Community Project.
Zaman was inspired by the work that the Happy Community Project was doing 12,000 kilometers across the globe in Nova Scotia. The young man wrote an email to founder Barry Braun, explaining the need for a Happy Community Project in Kolkata. Barry wrote back a week later, saying he would love to see a Happy Community Project in India.
“So, he advised me to open a Happy Community Project in Kolkata, which is quite a big challenge for me,” he says.
Twenty-one-years-old and neck-deep in school work, Zaman didn’t know if he could lead a project of large scale and magnitude. But, with the guidance of the Happy Community Project training program, Zaman was given the tools and resources needed to gather a team, actualize his ideas and successfully fundraise.
“You have to show others how to follow humanity,” he says. “You have to be a hero for someone else so they can follow humanity.”
Soon enough, a dedicated core team of about nine people was formed. Then began the brainstorming of community-building and charitable activities. First on the agenda was a neighbourhood cleanup, which raised awareness about the Happy Community Project’s cause and inspired others to do good deeds. Many passersby were surprised to see a wealthy man pick up garbage, a job usually reserved for the homeless.
“Work is also divided in our country,” he says. “A sweeper is a different class, when a sweeper is sweeping the road, then people will not approach him because that is his job. When a middle-class boy, wearing a good t-shirt and sunglass is cleaning the road, then people will approach him. That’s the point we are making. It’s the kind of thing where we have bridged a gap.”
It wasn’t just strangers who were puzzled, even Zaman’s family had reservations about the work he was doing on the street.
“My family when I started the Happy Community Project were like ‘are you stupid?!’” Zaman says. “Now they are helping us. That is the biggest difference which I have seen in my family. My parents have now understood that what I’m doing is right.”
Since Zaman’s first Happy Community Project initiative, the group has amassed 75 Facebook members. In March 2019, the Happy Community Project surprised a group of orphaned and disabled children with a birthday party. And soon, the Kolkata Happy Community Project plans on visiting a girls’ school to lead a workshop on humanity and women’s empowerment.
Zaman knows that it will take dozens of community-building initiatives to make a substantial impact on Indian society. And at times it can be discouraging, especially with constant judgement from the rest of society. Regardless, Zaman finds happiness and inner peace through the Happy Community Project. And he hopes he can inspire others, much like the little boy and his mother, to pursue that same happiness.
“When you serve humanity, nobody is going to applaud you. It’s your heart that sends a message to your mind that you have done good work.”