Sukumar Biswas is no ordinary coconut seller. His love for music, “I can live without food but not without singing,” does not stop while he cuts coconuts for thirsty buyers. In and around the area of Lankapara in Santipur, he is better known as ‘ daabdadu ’(coconut grandfather).

The 70-year-old hands out green coconuts with a straw, and once you are done, he slices the nut and scoops out the tender coconut meat for you, singing folk songs all the while. He sings songs composed by mystics like Lalon Fakir, musician Shah Abdul Karim, Bhaba Khyapa and others. He says he finds the meaning of his life within these songs and quoting one he paraphrases it for PARI: “We can reach the truth only when we know what truth is. And to know the truth we must inhabit honesty within ourselves. When we are free of dishonesty, we are able to love others.”

He continues even as he moves from one locality to another driving his toli (a van attached to a tricycle). Listening to his singing, people come to know of his presence in the area.

“There are people who don’t buy coconuts but listen to my songs standing for some time. They don’t have to buy. I don’t expect much sales. I am happy with that,” he adds all the while continuing to deal with buyers.

Left: Sukumar selling coconuts on the streets of Santipur.
PHOTO • Tarpan Sarkar
Right: Back home, Sukumar likes to sing while playing music on his harmonium and dotara
PHOTO • Tarpan Sarkar

Left: Sukumar selling coconuts on the streets of Santipur. Right: Back home, Sukumar likes to sing while playing music on his harmonium and dotara

Sukumar was born in Kushtia district in Bangladesh where his father caught fish for a living, and in the seasons he was unable to fish he worked as a daily wage labourer. When the 1971 war began in Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan), a large number of people took refuge in India. Sukumar was one of them. “When we came to this country we were refugees to everybody. Most of the people saw us with pity,” he says. When they moved to India, they could bring only one fishing net with them.

Sukumar’s family first landed in Shikarpur village in West Bengal. After moving to Krishnanagar for a few months, they finally settled at Jiaganj-Azimganj in Murshidabad district. Sukumar’s eyes shine when he talks about his father fishing in the Ganga and later, “went to the local market and sold those fish for a good sum of money. Once he came home, he told us that we did not need to worry anymore. It was as if we won a lottery. We got 125 rupees by selling those fishes for the first time. This was really a lot for that time.”

Growing up, young Sukumar worked across a variety of professions: a hawker in trains, sailed boats in the river, as a daily wage labourer and made musical instruments like flute and dotara. But no matter what he did, he never stopped singing. Even today, he remembers all the songs he learnt in the riverbanks and green fields of Bangladesh.

Sukumar now lives in Santipur in West Bengal’s Nadia district with his wife. They have two daughters and one son. His daughters are married, and their son is a daily wage labourer in Maharashtra. “They accept whatever I do, let me be who I am. They always cooperate with me. I don’t worry about my daily earnings. It has been a long time since I was born. I believe I can live the rest of my life like this.”

Watch the film: Daabdadu, the singing coconut seller

Tarpan Sarkar

Tarpan Sarkar is a writer, translator and graphic designer. He has a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University.

Other stories by Tarpan Sarkar
Text Editor : Archana Shukla

Archana Shukla is a Content Editor at the People’s Archive of Rural India and works in the publishing team.

Other stories by Archana Shukla