Giving away her hard-earned income to the destitute, Dil Afroze Khuki of Rajshahi chose a life of constant battles.
In her 60s now, she has been a newspaper hawker in the northern city for 30 years.
Khuki collects newspapers from agents near her home in the city’s Seroil area, and walks the city’s wide streets and narrow alleys.
Sometimes, she narrates personal stories and sometimes discusses morality and life lessons — as exemplified by great personalities including Socrates, Girish Chandra Sen and Begum Rokeya — with strangers.
When she comes across someone, particularly women, in need, she extends a helping hand. She often lends money, but never claims interest. She is not known to lie.
Khuki’s pursuit of a self-reliant, dignified life rarely receives appreciation. Many call her “insane” for her ramblings on values and morality, and her seemingly carefree attitude.
“Being born is easy, but living life is difficult. Life is like a boat that has to find a shore,” she says rhythmically, as if she was reciting a poem.
“I’m a candle that doesn’t know when it will be put out,” she says.
She says she sells newspapers to people — most of whom mistreat her.
“How miserable is the life that’s dependent on others!” she says, adding, “I sustain myself by selling newspapers. Is it dishonourable? How am I offending anyone?”
Born into a well-off family, Khuki’s life could have been different.
According to family members, Khuki is 10th among seven sisters and five brothers. She attended Bharateswari Homes boarding school in Tangail in the 1980s, and was married off, widowed at an early age.
Her husband’s untimely death came as a shock and Khuki decided not to remarry.
In 1991, she started working as a newspaper hawker by selling the now defunct Rajshahi-based weekly Duniya.
Ahmed Shafi Uddin, a retired official of Rajshahi University was the helmsman behind the weekly. He recalled how Khuki got started as a hawker.
Khuki’s brother-in-law Abdul Aziz took her to meet Shafi Uddin — looking for a job for her at the weekly.
“She was in her 20s. I could not find a job for her, as she didn’t know how to write. I asked them to go home and joked that I couldn’t find her any other job besides that of a hawker,” he said.
“A few days later, Khuki came to me and insisted for the job of a hawker. We were worried about her but she overcame all the hurdles. She started with 20 copies, and in no time was selling 500 copies a week. Gradually, she began selling daily newspapers,” he said.
“She was well-mannered and well-versed. Subscribers liked her,” he added.
“Sadly, she had to endure repeated harassment and assaults,” Shafi Uddin said.
Jamiul Karim Sujon, former president of the city’s newspaper hawkers’ association, said Khuki sells over 300 copies of newspapers every day now.
“She sold more before. Now, because of wider access to internet and digital news, the demand for newspapers is on the wane. She buys newspapers with cash, never leaves anyone unpaid. She denies handouts if offered. Rather, she tries to help out whoever is in need,” he said.
This correspondent met Khuki at Sagarpara area recently while she was resting on a footpath.
She said she inherited properties from her parents and husband.
She bought sewing machines and bicycles for several young women and their husbands, and regularly donated to orphanages, mosques and temples.
She has helped a number of families become self-reliant by buying them cattle.
She took this correspondent to her home in Seroil area — a one-storey building with three rooms, surrounded by a wall covered in weeds.
Her room looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in days. Hundreds of empty plastic bottles were strewn about and there was dirt on her bed and in her living room.
Khuki showed old, laminated photographs, bringing them out from a steel almirah.
In one photograph, she was receiving a bouquet; in another, she was addressing a rally — glimpses of her life in the 1990s.
She buys food from street vendors, Nahid Akter Tania, a neighbour said.
“She has none to look after her. Most of her neighbours are her relatives, yet they never cared for her enough,” she said, adding that Khuki has been offered assistance but refuses to accept.
Locals said some of Khuki’s relatives tried to deprive her from her inheritance, but the locals helped her secure her ownership to her home. They mentioned attempts to grab her home.
When contacted, Khuki’s nephew Shams-ur Rahman denied the allegations.
He said, “She is an embarrassment to the family. She doesn’t like being assisted, and neighbours get the impression that the family is not helping her. It is the family who takes care of her when needed.”
Khuki says her last wish is to be buried in Kushtia — where she spent some of her fondest childhood years with her family — and wants to leave her properties to orphans and students of the school she went to in that district town, but says she doesn’t know how she would ensure that.