It’s a warm November afternoon in Kolkata’s swarming Bara Bazaar. On Rabindra Sarani, the street named after great lyricist and poet Rabindranath Tagore, the only music you hear is blaring Bhojpuri pop and the incessant honks of cars and bikes. Sitting for nine straight hours at the counter of one of the many little stores, Milan Goswami, 26, is selling that rarest of commodities—hope.

“Bolo dada, bolo!” he calls out, teasing a middle-aged, comfortably pot-bellied regular. Unfazed by Goswami’s gentle attempt at bullying, the man takes time to think, scratching his head for a few hesitant seconds before finally picking a stack of West Bengal State Lottery tickets for Rs 501. He takes the bunch and places it in his front shirt pocket for safekeeping.

“This ticket gives me the permission to temporarily feel peace and relief,” says the buyer, Sushil Kumar, 48, smiling to reveal paan-stained teeth. “I can sleep with the possibility of some dreams coming true,” he adds. Kumar, who is here every day, is just one of thousands of people stepping into the constellation of state government-licensed lottery ticket stores in Kolkata.

Prominent lottery agencies and stockists like Nirala, Vira, Dhar, Jyoti and S. Lal are ubiquitous on Mahatma Gandhi Road and Sealdah. Each has anywhere between three to five branches. On a typical day, the smaller outlets—barely large enough to accommodate a handful of people at a time—serve 40 to 50 customers like Kumar. These buyers frequent a handful of small stores regardless of loyalty to agency. The bigger shops, stocking lottery tickets for both retail customers as well as wholesale, claim to sell close to 25,000 tickets daily.

According to media reports, the West Bengal state government earns up to Rs. 35 crores in revenue through lotteries annually. A proposal to move ticket sales online will reportedly boost these figures by over fifty times more—to Rs. 2000 crores.

But at the sidewalk outlets in Bara Bazaar, in-person sales remain king. And it is quite frequently the wrinkled, calloused, and overworked hands of low-income workers or retirees that grasp the little paper tickets, which are paid for with wads of grimy bills pulled out from the pockets of boxer shorts under gamcha-lungis.

Goswami, the ticket seller at the local Jyoti Agency outlet, is a street-corner expert on the public’s impulse to gamble a few rupees on a lucky number. Many of his repeat customers play the game every day out of habit, he says, possibly to escape the reality that they’ve reached the top rungs of their lives’ ladders. Others, especially women, he adds, throng the lottery stores during auspicious festival times, when West Bengal’s state lotteries compete for space with big-ticket lotteries from Sikkim, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.

One of the many, tiny lottery ticket re-sellers dotting the streets of Bara Bazaar, Kolkata. Some of them cannot fit more than two people, including the seller himself, at a time. (Vangmayi Parakala)

Ticket sellers in Kolkata note that it is mainly daily-wage labourers who try their chances at winning big bucks. They save up whatever they can every few days to buy tickets.

“Sometimes, I advise them not to play,” Goswami says, sympathetically. “If they’re trying to bet for really big amounts by buying the more expensive tickets, I try to coax them into buying the cheaper tickets instead.”

Among retirees and the elderly, the modest thrill of a score that’s offered by every six-rupee ticket is only one attraction. The other is a sense of belonging, and community-recognition, that ticket stores offer.

“My wife died a little while ago, my daughters are married. What can a man like me do alone all day?” says 70-year-old astrologer Mahendra Singh. “The lottery gives me a kick, and I’m addicted to that josh. The lottery is the only medicine for the ills of my old age!”

Beyond that though, even the sellers are skeptical of the buyers’ masochistic optimism.

“No one has really been able to make a life or do something really big for themselves in all of this,” admits Dhananjay Pal, an older colleague of Goswami who has been selling tickets for more than a decade

Pal said he’s seen the lottery system itself change drastically over the years. There are more prizes now with smaller rewards, he says, and there’s hardly any value to larger sums of money that are being won. Also, chances were better before: There were fewer shops selling golden tickets to lottery players’ dreams.

Currently, 13 of India’s 29 states and seven Union Territories sell lottery tickets legally.

Unlike many older lottery merchants, Goswami, the wisecracking ticket-seller at the Jyoti Agency, hasn’t bought a ticket himself.

“As they say, the sweetmeat seller doesn’t eat the sweets himself,” he says, citing a well-worn Hindi aphorism.

Yet no seller escapes the power of the lottery. For them, the currency they are gambling are their hours and days. One recent afternoon at 4 p.m., as Kolkata’s busier lottery shops filled up with worn out, yet starry-eyed hopefuls, Goswami pored intently over a cheap, two-page tabloid that announced upcoming prizes the way he once studied the B.Ed. textbooks from his university days.

First Published: Jan 11, 2019 22:14 IST


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