Mineral water on a roll, with biryani bite
College boy drowns on trip to village
A season to reunite, a reason to rejoice
Calcutta connection in Asoka action
The City Diary
Tradition lurches on, and the city lives
Durga, dholak and dandiya
Lads’ day out among the deities
Sun rays light up mandap, cook feast for go
Clay cups that stole the show

Calcutta, Oct. 25: 
Time: Nabami night. Place: Any major puja pandal. Focus: Food, fun and festivities. At the 50-odd foodstalls, pandal-hoppers are on a sip ‘n’ bite spree as if there is no tomorrow. It’s the last night of Puja revelry, after all.

The menu card, this time, is a mix of the survivor series (roll and chowmein), the has-beens (mishti and beguni), and the new craze (mineral water and biryani).

The official number of five-day foodstalls flooding the city, Corporation sources say, is “around 50,000”. But the actual figure could be double that, they hasten to add.

The latest fad this Puja has been bottled water. As the Kinley salesman at Maddox Square, who sold around 4,000 bottles on Ashtami, observed: “It is now a question of status to be seen with a PET bottle.” Way up north, near Mohammad Ali Park, stall-owner Amit adds: “The demand for mineral water this time has been higher than even soft drinks.”

Big-name brands have a strong pandal presence, but some of the anonymous tiny stalls of old are holding their own. So, for every Lipton Iced Tea and Dominos at Maddox Square, there is a Tomaké Chai fish stall and Khana ‘roll-chowmein’ Khajana. The Iced Tea, a first-timer at the Pujas at Rs 10 a cup, is selling up to 70 a day at south Calcutta’s favourite adda spot, and is also lending a ‘cool’ touch at the Park Circus Maidan and Salt Lake’s FD Block puja.

The sprawling Deshapriya Park grounds are dotted by the phuchka, bhelpuri and ghugni. The only brands in sight here are the soft-drink and ice-cream vendors. The rest, like Spicy Grub, Apanjan Caterer and Metro, are serving up the ubiquitous chowmein and roll, with a few biryani stalls thrown in.

At Sundar Maiti’s dimly-lit eatery, egg and chicken chowmein sales touched 900 plates on Ashtami night, with chicken rolls the next-hottest thing at 400.

Ananda Haldar, a phuchkawala at Deshapriya Park, has no complaints, after selling “around 5,000” on Ashtami.

But it’s no smooth sailing for the traditional beguni-mishti brigade on Surya Sen Street, the food station for pandal-hoppers flocking to Mohammed Ali Park, College Square and Santosh Mitra Square. Badal Dutta of Kalika Telebhaja, laments the changing taste buds. “People have been asking for fish fry, fish balls and cutlets, rather than beguni, fuluri and alur chop this time. So, we have been forced to change our menu and have even dropped beguni, which was our most popular item.”.

North of Esplanade, biryani and chaap has emerged as a top draw, pushing even roll and chowmein down the Puja pop stakes. Rajesh Sau of Anup Hotel said South Indian food, a huge hit in the past two years, has been the biggest loser this time. The demand for phuchkas, too, has dipped.

The sweet shops also wear a deserted look. “The younger lot is steering clear of mishti,” confirms Indrajit Modak of Putiram. But the ice cream-man, from north to south, is selling his Kwality Walls, Metro and Vadilal in style. The young, say restaurateurs, have all hit Park Street, where the wet laws are favourable and the party is on till late.


Calcutta, Oct. 25: 
A second-year student of economics (hons) at St Xavier’s College, Calcutta, Tathagata Sengupta, drowned when he, along with his friends, went to bathe in the Ajoy river at Chupkuni village, in Katwa, Burdwan district, on Wednesday. His body was recovered on Thursday.

Additional superintendent of police (headquarters), Anirban Roy, said Tathagata had arrived from Calcutta with three of his friends to celebrate Durga puja at the house of his friend Abhirup Mukherjee’s maternal uncle.

On Wednesday, the group went to bathe in the Ajoy when Tathagata, who had gone into deep waters, went missing. His friends searched for him in vain.

Katwa police were informed and they engaged local boatmen and divers to launch a rescue operation. Till late on Wednesday evening, Tathagata’s body could not be located. Meanwhile, the police contacted Tathagata’s father, Prabir, a bank official, at his Sakherbazar residence near Behala. Prabir and his wife immediately set off for Katwa. Tathagata was their only child.

Early on Thursday, locals and a few policemen, who were keeping a watch, spotted Tathagata’s body and alerted the authorities. His friends identified the body.

Roy said Tathagata’s parents arrived on the spot by the time the body was sent for post mortem to Burdwan Medical College and Hospital. After the autopsy, the body was handed over to them.

They started for Calcutta in the afternoon. The police do not suspect any foul play, but investigations are on.

“We heard that Tathagata arrived with three of his friends, Abhirup, Abhishek and Samrat, to see the Durga puja in the village. Tathagata was reportedly swimming away from the bank when he was sucked in by a strong undercurrent,” said an official of Katwa police station.

Tathagata’s parents reached Calcutta with the body around 7 pm on Thursday.

A pall of gloom descended on Bhuban Mohan Roy Road, in Sakherbazar, as news of the Ajoy river accident reached on Thursday. As soon as the body was brought to the area, neighbours flocked the Sengupta residence to catch a last glimpse.

“We are in a state of shock and do not intend to keep Tathagata’s body for too long. We have decided to head for the crematorium as soon as possible,” cousin Piyali Debnath told Metro.

Bag snatched: Documentary filmmaker Pinaki Ghosh lost goods worth thousands after some unidentified men snatched a bag from him in the Golabari area of Howrah on Thursday. Mumbai-based Ghosh was in the city for a research project.


Calcutta, Oct. 25: 
Three-year-old Subrata Guchait never knew what a family was till he was told that an uncle had arrived to take him home for the Pujas. Languishing on the city streets, Subrata found a haven in March this year at a home for the destitute, run by a worldwide foundation, Free the Children (FTC), near Dum Dum.

On Thursday, Subrata could not believe his ears when the FTC authorities told him he would be able to spend this year’s Puja with his uncle in Midnapore. “Am I really going home to my uncle?” an astonished Subrata inquired.

The authorities of Free the Children-India, the Indian branch of the organisation, had thought up this unique “Puja gift” for Subrata and 24 others.

“The idea struck me a month ago, when I was pondering Puja gifts for the children. I asked my team in various districts to try and locate a parent or relative of these kids, where they could spend the Pujas. We somehow managed to pull it off in 24 cases. I can’t explain how happy these children were after getting a chance to return home,” said Swapan Mukherjee, FTC-India chairman.

The children will all be back after Lakshmi puja. “My idea is to turn this home into a model boarding school, where we will help prepare children for life in the mainstream,” said Mukherjee.

Unlike Subrata, whose father had thrown him out of the house a year ago after remarrying, Gimen Murmu, 6, had a different, but equally heart-rending tale to tell.

Two years ago, Murmu’s father died of snakebite in Bankura. His mother, finding it very difficult to make ends meet, had no alternative but to send Murmu to work as a cowherd. In February this year, FTC workers took a malnourished Murmu to the destitute home, where he has learnt to read and write.

“He had lost all hope of returning home, but we located his mother in Bankura. She was extremely happy to take her son back for the Pujas,” said a caretaker at the home on Thursday. Before leaving, Murmu said he “couldn’t wait to go back to the fields.”

Prasanta Kisku, 5, of Burdwan, Babu Mondol of Sashan, North 24-Parganas, Sanath Mondol of Canning, in South 24-Parganas, are others who have returned to their relatives for the Pujas. Sanath, 4, took new towels and clothes for his friends.

However, it wasn’t a happy occasion for everybody at the home. While the last few children left on Thursday, one boy stood in a corner, bidding farewell to his friends. Relatives of six-year-old Alamgir Mondol could not be traced. “He has an uncle in Deganga, but he had tried to sell off Alamgir after his parents deserted him. We decided not to take any risk,” an employee added.

FTC-India authorities are keeping a close watch on the relatives and parents of these 24 children. “We asked them to sign a bond that the children were in their custody till Lakshmi puja. Moreover, we have our own ways of keeping track of them,” said Mukherjee, dismissing speculation that the children might disappear.


Calcutta, Oct. 25: 
Shah Rukh Khan versus Danny Denzongpa. Asoka versus Virat. As the superstar-turned-producer squared off against the veteran villain, hundreds catching Asoka a day before it hits the halls throughout the country could hardly have noticed a strong Calcutta connection in the stylised Thang-ta fight sequence. The teenagers backing the ‘hero’ are all trained Manipuri dancers from Anjika, a troupe based in south Calcutta.

Anjika’s tryst with Asoka began with a phone-call received by Manipuri danseuse Priti Patel last Pujas. It was filmmaker Santosh Sivan’s office, seeking her expertise in Manipuri martial art and dance techniques.

“I had no idea that I was being sounded out to choreograph some of the fight sequences of the magnum opus that Sivan was making. Later, I got to know that the office had contacted Darshana Jhaveri’s dance school in Mumbai, who had referred them to me,” recounts Priti, who set up Anjika some six years ago.

Priti was asked to choreograph what has turned out to be “one of the most artistic fight sequences on celluloid” and put Shah Rukh through the paces. “Primarily, I was asked to train 15 boys with eastern looks in a martial art technique called Thang-ta and a dance form called Pungcholam, and send them to Jaipur,” says Priti.

So, with dreams of a place in Bollywood history in their eyes, Imocha Singh, Dharmendra Singh, Ratan Singh and the rest set off from Calcutta to Jaipur, where the fight sequences would be canned under the supervision of Priti.

“Before leaving for the shoot, I trained the boys in Thang-ta since there was another sequence involving Kallaripayattu, which is from Kerala. More than thang-ta, what Shah Rukh finally liked was the initial salutation that one does before starting a fight,” says Priti.

“He observed my boys carefully and then did an exact copy. The Pungcholam that Shah Rukh, Rahul (Dev) and others did was a dance technique in Manipuri format,” Priti adds. One of the troupe members, Keisham Rajomani Singh, even participated in a song sequence for the film.

Priti’s boys “did extremely well” and grew “very popular” with the unit. “Everyone was amazed when the teenagers insisted that they fight and dance with real swords, instead of cardboard versions.”

Six cameras under Sivan and art director Sabu Cyril’s eyes canned major sequences of the boys from Anjika, featuring jumps, pirouette, bhava

Though the boys and Priti are not aware of how much of footage from the sequences will be retained for the film, their experience of sharing centrestage with the stars has been a major boost.

Speaking for the boys, Priti says: “Obviously, they are thrilled to have shared the spotlight with none other than Shah Rukh Khan, but they are eagerly waiting to see themselves on 70 mm, hopefully over this weekend.”



Bus knocks down eatery worker

HEIGHT OF GLORY: The puja pandal of Palta Netaji Sangha. Picture by Amit Datta Manoj Samanta, 40, an employee of an eatery in the Esplanade area, died after a chartered bus knocked him down at the crossing of Jawaharlal Nehru Road and Lenin Sarani early on Thursday. Samanta was returning home when the bus, WBU-2684, hit him from behind. He was taken to Calcutta Medical College and Hospital, where he died.

Expedition flagged off

A mountain-biking expedition to Nathula in Sikkim was flagged off from the seven-point crossing at Park Circus on Thursday. The expedition, organised by West Bengal Academy of Adventure Sports, is scheduled to reach Nathula on October 31, via Gangtok, Kayangnosala and Changu Lake. Minister for youth services Md Salim was present on the occasion.

Man arrested

Maheshwar Chaudhuri, 35, was arrested for lurking near Uma Das Lane late on Wednesday. A country-made revolver and three bullets were recovered from him. Interrogation is under way to ascertain Chaudhuri’s intentions.

Van collides

The driver of a Nissan van was seriously injured after it collided with a car at the crossing of Mission Row and Bentinck Street on Thursday morning. Both vehicles were impounded.

Booth-owner shot

Niranjan Agarwal, owner of a telephone booth at Bonhooghly, was gunned down by unidentified men on Wednesday. Police said the men wanted Agarwal to open the shop late in the evening. When Agarwal refused to comply, one of them pulled out a revolver and shot him from point-blank range.

Puja awards

Barisha Netaji Sangha, in Behala, won the Indian Oil-Impact fire safety award. Netaji Sangha, Lake Town, was adjudged second, while Badamtala Asar Sangha, in Kalighat, came third in the safety category. Dum Dum Park Tarun Sangha was awarded the Khabor Ekhon-Impact Samman. Thumbs Up TO lions club of calcutta royal for organising a diabetes detection camp at Behala    

Calcutta. Oct. 25: 
For many years, I have found myself answering questions about the Pujas. From misty-eyed Bangalis in, of all places, Wichita, Kansas, sitting on high-school basketball court bleachers turned Puja pandals, to South Asianists, whatever they are, in Hyde Park, Chicago, the queries have ranged from ‘does Simla Byayam Samity still have the best idols’ to the semiotic interpretation of a particular ritual and even what constitutes the possible erotics of a Puja popular culture.

And every year, I have been a little more tentative than earlier, realising that nine years are just too long for me to claim the authenticity of a native informant.

But over the past few days, I have reclaimed some of it. In fact when, after two taxi refusals, I realised that not much has changed and I had little reason to entertain self-doubts, I got down to what was for me a first. Travelling south to north during the Pujas in the Metro.

Except for the short 11-minute ride from Rabindra Sadan to Girish Park, I might as well have been on L9 many, many years ago as it made its way from Gol Park past Lansdowne and down Central Avenue. A more discerning eye may have noticed the changing fashions in the weave of the clothes or the patterns on the salwars, but I have little doubt that the kaaj on the panjabi was just the same as what Pal Tailors at the crossing of Kali Krishna and Malapara had shown me in 1992. As I stepped on to the platform at Girish Park, the one thing that struck me was the reluctance of the men to make way in seats clearly marked ‘Ladies’.

Up the escalator at Girish Park, three sights presented themselves and I could well have been in sixth grade accompanying my cousins around the pandals — the chowmein-sellers, the roll-makers and the kulfi-walas. I crouched as close as one can to the chowmein-sellers to detect even a hint of change in the condiments.

My olfactory abilities, made utterly sensitive by years of sniffing bland burgers, picked up just the same smell as before. I trained my eyes at the roll-makers to see if I could detect any changes in the practised flourish as they diced the onions and curved their thumbs just a tad to roll it up. Again, not a whit had changed.

Lurching left on to Beadon Street, I stopped dead in front of the panwallah where I was wont to gurgle down a bottle of Thums Up. Gone was that drink and, instead, a neon sign showed a light-eyed beefcake clutching a Coke. I turned around to the familiar ‘party’ stall. But save the iconography of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin with their garlanded portraits, a lot had changed. No books in English and not much of a fare in either Bangla or Hindi. As I leafed through a Rahul Sanskrityayan collection, a wary eye on that beef-cake peddling Coke, a hand from across the stall thrust a copy of a pamphlet on neo-imperialism and multinational corporations with the advice that I would find “the true story of oppression” there.

I tried to ward off that offer, but not before his large, gomed-wearing hand suggested a book on astrology to understand “the party position” on the matter better.

A little further, a familiar baritone was cajoling visitors into Rabindra Kanan, with large banners underwritten by corporate houses showing the way. I weaved my way through the crowds and reached home, secure in the knowledge that I had gotten back my voice as a ‘Kolkata-bashi’, just enough to share the story of the chow-chows and changed hoardings.


Calcutta. Oct. 25: 
It’s a unique blend of Bengali culture with Punjabi rituals on Beniapukur Road, where Ma Durga co-exists with Vaishno Devi. Here, dhunuchi nach is replaced by dandiya, the dhak s give way to dholak s and the role of the priest is enacted by a lady.

Welcome to the puja organised by Mata Jagaran Manch, a forum set up by T.S. Baweja and his wife, Rajinder Kaur, 10 years ago.

The middle-aged Punjabi couple, living in the city for over 30 years, said: “We are like any other Calcutta family and take part in the festivities of Durga puja. In North India, we worship Vaishno Devi during the same time of the year. So, we decided to put both the traditions together and start our own puja.”

The concept has clicked. During Navratri, hundreds drop by every day.

“Punjabis, Sindhis, Marwaris, UP-ites, Biharis and even Bengalis join us in worshipping the mother. It’s a mandir and everyone is welcome here,” says Rajinder, in charge of the puja.

“We are like an extended family and the ambience of devotion and respect makes this puja really different,” adds Baldev Kumar, a regular. The devotees maintain a fast during the festival and their food is “100 per cent” vegetarian. Kirtan and bhajan, aarti and puja mark the nine days of devotion.

“Over 500 people join us in the immersion procession, which we take out on the morning of Dashami, as per the rules of Calcutta Police,” says Baweja.


Calcutta. Oct. 25 : 
Unknown and unsung, a band of 100 young jurors visited 11 major Puja pandals in north and south Calcutta over Saptami and Ashtami. Attired in spotless white kurta-pyjamas and new leather sandals, the boys, between eight and 17, had one common identity. None of them knew who or where their parents are. Their only address is the government-run Kisholaya Home in Barasat.

This year’s Puja will be memorable for them. And not just because this was their first opportunity ever to tour and see first-hand the painstakingly-decorated pandals and protima s, but also for the chance to evaluate and choose the best of what they saw.

It was just five days before Shashti that the idea to give them this opportunity befell a couple of individuals. Sudipto Chowdhury, general manager (eastern India) of Freetolays, and Niladri Biswas of Community Action Research Enterprise, wanted to help either under-privileged children or the members of old-age homes share the joys of the festive season.

They approached the social welfare department with the offer. “We were told that the boys of Kisholaya Home would respond the best. The management of the home was approached and they drew up a list of 100 boys from the total of 205,” said Chowdhury.

“All the boys, including the 105 who could not make it this time, were given clothes and sandals, and snacks provided by Gupta Brothers. The whole effort required resources to the tune of Rs 4.5 lakh and, at the end of it, I’d say it was money well spent.”

In batches of 50 each, the boys boarded two buses on both days and hopped from Jodhpur Park, Mudiali, Singhi Park and Park Circus in the south to College Square, Simla Byayam, Md Ali Park, Vivekananda Sporting and Bagbazar in the north. They ended the visits at the FD Block puja in Salt Lake. At one of the pandals, the owner of a drug store came up with chocolates. “For eight-year-old Sanju, the youngest of the lot who was picked up by the police three years ago, the trip was “great”. Adjusting his new sandals, he said he enjoyed himself right from the start, when “famous jadugar P.C. Sorcar flagged us off.” For Subhendu, 17, Gautam, Babu and Sumon, the experience was a “grand adventure.”


Calcutta, Oct. 25: 
Solar power is the latest to join the puja bandwagon. With an eye on the dismal power situation in the state, Barisha Netaji Sangha, in Behala, has electrified its pandal with solar energy.

According to club president Debaprasad Ghosh, the lighting arrangements within and outside the pandal is through solar energy. The organisers are even cooking the bhog in heaters energised by solar power. This is for the first time in the city that a puja committee has resorted to an alternative source of electricity.

Ghosh mooted the idea in the puja committee’s meeting in mid-April. “We approached West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency (WBREDA) with the proposal,’’ Ghosh recalled.

The officers directed Ghosh to two agencies, Geetanjali and Agni, which have the know-how to trap and convert solar energy into electricity.

The pandal, modelled on a Bankura terracotta temple, was designed by a young local artist, Supratim Karmakar.

“A dozen labourers worked overnight to complete the structure. Karmakar is a perfectionist and the set was redone several times before he gave final touches to the pandal,’’ Ghosh said. The ‘temple’ walls were recreated with the help of plaster of Paris.

Once the structure was completed, engineers began the task of placing the dish and solar panels to trap solar energy. There are 19 solar panels spread across the pandal, which trap sunrays. “They absorb heat and light and transfer direct current to the batteries, which convert it to alternate current of 220 volts,’’ he said.

According to puja organisers, it requires 2 kilowatt of power every day to electrify the pandal and its surrounding areas. The solar panels generate 2.4 kilowatts a day. The dish is placed beside the pandal. The organisers have made charts explaining the technology.

Authorities said the initial investment to procure the technology is Rs 5 lakh. The cost for solar-enerated energy is Rs 35 per unit. The rate is higher than that of CESC, which supplies power to Puja organisers at Rs 3 per unit consumed.

Ghosh claimed that the technology has a lifespan of 20 years, which means that the per-unit cost will come down gradually.

CESC official Dilip Sen welcomed the effort. “It is safe to use non-conventional energy for pandals. Barisha Netaji Sangha’s effort will help create awareness about the proper use of non-conventional energy,’’ he added.


Calcutta. Oct. 25 : 
For Hari Projapoti, the man behind the pandal at Bosepukur Sitala Mandir Durgotsav, it has been a moment of pride and achievement.

Asian Paints Sharad Samman, ATN Bangla award, Pratidin Puja Utkarsha, IBP Shrestha Singha, Calcutta Municipal Corporation award… his magnum opus in clay cups has bagged them all.

Projapati hails from Varanasi. “Clay-modelling has been a family business. My father, Shalik, used to make vases. But I am the first to move out of the city,” he said.

Projapati, who came to Calcutta in 1974 as an eight-year-old, has stayed back ever since. But business in clay cups hit rock-bottom when plastic cups rose to rule the market. “We used to supply 1,000 to 1,200 cups daily in the 70s. Tea stalls in Burrabazar and Sealdah were our main clients. But the demand is down to a third of what it was. A hundred cups, which take an hour to make, fetch around Rs 11-12 now,” the soft-spoken man said. For a family of seven, the monthly income of Rs 3,000 hardly makes end meet.

So the call from Bandan Raha, who conceptualised the pandal, in May was a “pleasant surprise” and a “huge break”. “I was on a vacation visiting my relatives. But after Bandan da’ s call, I rushed back and soon after, sent for more hands from Varanasi,” he recalls.

What followed was a round-the-clock toil for the next three-and-a-half months. The potter’s wheel was set up on the verandah of a puja committee member’s residence. “Truckloads of alluvial soil would come from Kakdwip and we would make a mould, shape the cups on the wheel and dry them before setting them on a coke-oven fire to harden,” he recalled. The size of the cups varied from 10 g to 1.5 kg (the biggest ones used for the gigantic lampshade hanging from the roof, which by itself required around 650 cups).

“We had a tough time with the sun playing hide-and-seek,” said the potter from Picnic Garden. More than a lakh cups were damaged during production. But the team of 22 toiled on.

Prajapati today is an exhausted, but happy, man. “I have supplied diyas and ghots in pandals before, but this was beyond my imagination,” he said, looking up at the ceiling of the 50-foot marvel.

He basks in the glory of the 1.5 million cups as visitors pat his back in appreciation. Those who do not know him throw coins on the wheel of the clay model of a potter near the entrance. With the accolades has come the financial booty of Rs 1.5 lakh. Yet a shadow clouds his face on being reminded that the structure will have to be dismantled. “I do not how they are going to do it, but my heart will break with those cups,” he said.

(Hari has only made the cups. Sarkar Decorators made the pandal frame and the cups were set on the pandal by Bhakta Das and his team. He repeatedly refers to the team effort.)


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