Snags stoked Firpo’s fire
Best between Cairo and Shanghai
The City Diary
Nightmare by darkness, despair by day
Mayor marks market illegal
Samaritans turn saviours
Firemen’s best friend at home amid the rubble
Mark of a visionary
VHP link trips state staffer
Calcuttans in hill crash

Calcutta, April 24: 

Lopsided battle of blaze & ladder

The victor: stacks of synthetic garments, varnish and paint-smeared walls, wooden panels, two electricity transformers, numerous divisions and sub-divisions carving 200 shops out of an area that once housed a single restaurant and a few stalls.

The vanquished: four ‘dousers’ from Austria, two hydraulic ladders from Finland (later found “unnecessary”) and 300 fire brigade personnel.

Despite pressing into service the best fire-fighting equipment on offer, the blaze that ravaged Firpo’s late on Tuesday, continued to feed on the remains of the 150-year-old building well into Wednesday.

The unequal battle was rendered even more lopsided by the initial lack of manpower capable of operating the two hydraulic ladders, admitted officials.

One of the ladders, drafted in around midnight, remained a spectator on the spot for more than an hour as officials hunted for firemen trained to operate it.

The right men for the job were finally identified around 1 am and one of the ladders was put to use for over an hour, before officials decided it was taking up too much space and hindering salvage.

Besides, the building being just two storeys high, the presence of the ladder was deemed “unnecessary”.

The unequal battle his men raged with the flames left fire services minister Pratim Chatterjee more than a little jittery.

“How can I say when the flames will be doused? Who knows, it may continue till tomorrow,” he said at Writers’ Buildings on Wednesday afternoon. “No one can give any assurance, given the concentration of combustible material inside the market,” explained Chatterjee.

The fire minister, however, kept insisting that the decision to bring the two hydraulic ladders to the spot was an unwise one. Chatterjee, of course, was silent on the fact that the operation had been held up as the men with the technical know-how to operate the machines were nowhere to be found.

“These ladders are helpful in reaching the higher floors of multi-storeyed buildings and rescuing people… That was certainly not the case in the Firpo’s fire and so we pulled them off,” Chatterjee said.

The minister, however, admitted there were “technical snags” in one of the two ladders brought to the spot. He chose not to comment on the use of one of the hydraulic ladders well after midnight.

According to Chatterjee, the four dousers — manufactured by Rosenbauer of Austria and costing Rs 16 lakh each — were enough to fight the flames. “They act more like a camel’s hump,” the minister explained. “They can store much more water than the ordinary fire-tenders and can, therefore, fight fire longer,” he added.

Officials said each douser has a capacity of 17 or 19 kl and can continue spraying water from two outlets for more than 20 minutes.

Quick to blame the blaze that raged through a night and day on the combustible material stacked in the congested market, officials held up the example of the UBI branch, housed in the building. While structurally, the bank was in a shambles, most of the lockers — with their belongings — remained relatively untouched by the flames.

“The bank did not have so much of combustible matter and the effect is there for all to see. It was so difficult to control the flames in other parts of the building, as they spread from one item to another,” officials said.

Though everyone in the fire services department said it would be wiser to wait for the forensic experts to ascertain what had set off the blaze, senior officials did not hide their displeasure at the “presence of two transformers inside the building”.

Chatterjee himself said he would ask his department’s officials to find out whether this was permitted by law.

“Even if they are legally allowed, no one can deny the fact that they constitute a major hazard… Even if those transformers did not start the fire, they definitely contributed to its spread,” officials said.

Most of the shops at Firpo’s were closed when the fire broke out, around 9 pm, on Tuesday. “Firemen wasted precious time cutting through the shutters to get at the flames,” Chatterjee said. “By then, a lot of combustible material had caught fire. So, for quite some time, the blaze appeared ‘uncontrollable’.”


Calcutta, April 24: 
An advertisment appearing in Calcutta’s leading daily in December 1925 went thus: An evening out — Dine at Firpo’s. Tonight Chat Noir. Restaurant phone 1402. The accompanying visual showed flappers dancing cheek-to-cheek with men in formals. Pre-Independence, into the 50s, Firpo’s was the only destination for men about town, regardless of skin tone, and the ladies who accompanied them.

It even found a mention in Shubho Tagore’s book of poetry, Pico Pansy, and provided the perfect “floor” for Miss Shefali’s show in Satyajit Ray’s Seemabaddha.

Peliti’s, an older restaurant opened by another Italian in Old Court House Street and later acquired by Mr Firpo, was the place for lunch. But Mr Firpo’s establishment on Chowringhee, facing the breezy Maidan, was meant for evenings out. Indians were debarred from most clubs in the city. So what better place for a rendezvous than Firpo’s? In the pre-WW II days, it was said to be the best restaurant between Cairo and Shanghai. Even about three decades ago, people would swear by Firpo’s bread. Shuvasree Bagchi, 73, recalls how she would accompany her father, Maharaja Jogindranath Roy of Natore, on his daily visits to Firpo’s.

She remembers the shimmering ambience of Firpo’s, with its chandeliers and wall-to-wall mirrors. “We would wolf countless sausages and chips that were on the house. Tea would be served in the afternoon and drinks only in the evening. The band would play and couples would start dancing. The food was heavenly, particularly the ham and mutton sandwiches, cheese toast and pastries and ice cream in vanilla and strawberry flavours. Later, I have been to five-star places, but nothing could match the dignity of Firpo’s”.

Of an evening, burrasahib Bhaskar Mitter, 82, would go for drinks to the bar on the verandah. “You could literally take the air there. If there was a small group, they would leave the bottle on the table. No question of measuring by the peg. They would take your word for the number of drinks you had had and few abused this arrangement. So, they had a high reputation among their clientele,” he says.

Rhoda Dastoor, in her 70s, waxes eloquent about Firpo’s confectionery. “The liquor chocolates, shaped like bottles with labels, came in red tins. One flavour was violet-centred. The whiff of baking bread outside is unforgettable. Every new year, we had dinner for Rs 10 per head. Afterwards, each lady was presented with a large French doll.”

Photographer Ahmed Ali, close to 80, says in the 30s, lunch cost a ridiculous Re 1 and eight annas. After the war, Mr Firpo brought a young Italian manager, who renovated the place and installed ACs. It closed with the 60s, and was wiped out with the new millennium.


Calcutta, April 24: 

Held for flesh trade

At least 17 persons, including some girls, were arrested from a guest house in Dum Dum on Tuesday night for their alleged involvement in flesh trade. Inspector in charge of Dum Dum police station Sudip Roy said the arrested were interrogated on Wednesday. The manager of the guest house was also picked up, while the owner managed to escape.

Satta arrests

The port police arrested Hasmat Ali, a satta operator, and rounded up nine others from the Watgunge police station area early on Wednesday. The police recovered Rs 30,000 as board money.

Run over

A 50-year-old man was run over by a private bus in Barrackpore, on the northern fringes of the city, on Wednesday. The driver of the bus fled with the vehicle.

Traffic affected

Traffic on Foreshore Road, in Howrah, was disrupted on Wednesday following the derailment of a goods train. Police said it took more than two hours to clear the passage.

IT seminar

A two-day seminar on IT-enabled services will be held at the Birla Industrial and Technological Museum, on April 26 and 27. Organised by the computer engineering division of the Institute of Engineers (India), the discussions will focus on the importance of IT in everyday life, and its utility in various areas like administration, healthcare and law enforcement.

Forgery case

Justice K.J. Sengupta of Calcutta High Court on Wednesday directed deputy commissioner, eastern suburban division, Sanjoy Mukherjee, to take necessary steps in connection with the complaint lodged by Pradeep Agarwal with the Maniktala police. Agarwal alleged that his signature had been forged by some people, who claimed ownership of the premises belonging to him.

Tech tie-up

To offer computer-enabled academic support to students between Classes VI and X, Globsyn Technologies has joined hands with “We will provide marketing and technical support to the form of pedagogy developed by schoolcircle,” said Bikram Dasgupta, CEO, Globsyn Technologies, announcing the acquisition of Adventus Knowledge Systems.    

Calcutta, April 24: 
The roof of the 150-year-old Firpo’s building caved in on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the first flames licked its walls on Tuesday evening.

The flames continued to lick at the southern and western sections of the building, facing Leslie House and Chowringhee, respectively. Nine more persons — mostly firemen trying to enter the building amidst the falling chunks of concrete — were injured during the day, taking the injury list to 11.

The roof of the building — already weakened before the fire by the plants that had taken root over the years of disrepair — resembled a “pack of cards” when it collapsed, firemen at the spot said. “It was crumbling very fast throughout the night and finally gave way around 6 am,” one of them added.

Fire-brigade men had a tough time getting to the highly-inflammable material that was stored primarily on the ground floor of the building. “Rows of synthetic garments behind shuttered entrances — the shops had shut down when the fire started — made the fire-fighter’s progress difficult,” fire services minister Pratim Chatterjee said at Writers’ Buildings.

Making things more difficult were the falling chunks of concrete from the ceilings of the ground and first floors, firemen said. Most of their nine colleagues to be injured during the day were victims of cave-ins, they added. “Some of the sections are out of bounds as the ceiling of the ground floor has weakened considerably,” one of them said towards the evening.

Even as the police continued looking for the building’s apparent lessee — Rajen Poddar — on the basis of an FIR lodged by the fire services department at Taltala police station, the occupants of the shops embarked on mostly futile attempts to salvage what was left of their wares.

Most of them, like Ratna Sen of R.R. Sen and Brothers (a century-old foreign-exchange firm), crowded on the main road, waiting for a signal from policemen and fire-brigade officials allowing them entry into the building.

Some, like Abhijit Pal of a garments-selling outlet, did not wait for the signal. He managed to enter his first-floor outlet, in a relatively less-singed section on the southern side of the building, and threw down stacks of clothes to his employees waiting on the road.

There were fewer still, like the staff of Chandrani Jewellers, who were counting their blessings. One of the units not to have too many combustible material, it was spared the fate of most others inside the building.

A team of officials from the Central Forensic Science Laboratory failed to enter the premises. Members of the team left, hoping it would be easier on “Thursday or Friday” to enter the building and collect samples to establish the cause of the fire.

Sharing the focus with Firpo’s was the neighbouring Leslie House. The northern wing of the five-storeyed building was extensively charred and offices in that section, like N.K. Singh’s shipping firm and B. Sengupta’s eye clinic, bore the brunt of the blaze.

Officials, without waiting for the last of the flames to die down, opened a counter on the pavement where shop-owners could register themselves and their estimated losses.

But as more and more shop-owners came forward, it became clearer to officials how Firpo’s — once the destination for those looking for good food and a great time — had degenerated into just another shopping venue run by fractured families hurtling towards financial liquidity.


Calcutta, April 24: 
A day after the blaze at Firpo’s, officials of the assessment wing of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) stumbled upon the fact that the shopping complex in the sprawling two-storeyed building was “illegal”.

Also, members of the building department turned their offices upside down but could not locate the plan of the building.

Mayor Subrata Mukherjee said the CMC did not have any record of the shopping complex or the 150 shops in the building nor did it sanction any such plan. The building was constructed by an Italian, Mr Firpo, in the 1930s on a plot which belonged to the famous Mullicks of Pathuriaghata.

“It is a completely illegal market. I fear the building plan will never be found,’’ the mayor said. He recalled that as the then municipal affairs minister in the Siddhartha Shankar Ray government, he had stopped construction of the market but subsequently it came up during the Left Front regime.

Mukherjee said the mode of payment of the building’s tax, too, is complicated.

The tax bill of the building is made out in the names of Jitendra Mullick and Dhirendra Mullick, trustees of the late Raja Rajendra Mullick, but sent to a firm called Auto Distributor at 36, Jawaharlal Nehru Road. Though the owner of the company is not mentioned in the CMC’s records, the police said it belonged to one Rajen Poddar.

Director-general of fire services S.I.S. Ahmed said the property had been leased out to Poddar but he was unaware whether it had lapsed. While Rajen Poddar could not be traced through the day, his brother, Ravi, said: “Rajen is the owner of Auto Distributor and had taken the building on a 30-year lease from the Mullicks. He has about 10 more years of the lease period left,” said Ravi.

Ravi refused to comment on the “illegal” shopping complex. “I can’t say anything about it as I am not connected with the property in any way. My brother (Rajen) is unwell and I don’t even know his phone number,” said Ravi.

In the wake of the fire, the mayor has ordered a probe into the Firpo’s market building, headed by director general (building), Ashok Roy Chowdhury. He has been asked to submit a report within 20 days.

According to the police, the owners of the shops in the Firpo’s complex had taken their shops on sub-lease from Rajen Poddar. “We are trying to figure out if the agreements with the shopkeepers was legal or was being kept a secret from the original owner,” Ahmed said.

Many of the shop-keepers in turn had again sublet their establishments. Civic officials said that Mr Firpo had taken the land on lease from the Mullicks to construct a two-storeyed restaurant.

“Though it became a part of the Calcutta skyline, Firpo’s turned sick from the late 1960s and the lease term also ended soon after,” said Shaktibrata Ghosh, officer on special duty to the mayor. He said Poddar took the property on lease from the Mullicks around this time.

Ghosh said in early 1977, construction started to convert the restaurant into a shopping complex. “Subratababu had stopped the construction. But four months later, the Left Front came to power,” he added.


Calcutta, April 24: 
As the smoke finally cleared from around Firpo’s market and more and more eye-witnesses came forward with their accounts, a clearer picture emerged about how the destruction had begun.

Most of the shopowners, who had invested huge sums to procure summerwear, leather goods, camera films and footwear, saw their stuff being reduced to ashes before their very eyes.

“There was never even a spark during the last decade,” said S. Mukherjee of R.R. Sen and Brothers, dealers in foreign currency for more than a century. But on Tuesday night, Mukherjee and half a dozen employees saw their office inside the market go up in flames.

“We came to know from friends that the market was on fire. I rushed with a few employees and saw giant flames billowing from the front and the eastern side of the market,” Mukherjee said.

“There was thick dark smoke and balls of fire all around the place with firemen desperately trying to douse the flames. We tried to move forward towards the market’s entrance,’’ he said. But, the heat was too much for Mukherjee and others to even venture close to the burning structure. Chunks of concrete were falling off and cracker-like sounds could be heard from inside the building.

Anant Deshmukh, owner of a garment store in New Market, saw the smoke as he was passing by the Oberoi Grand. “I rushed to the place and found that the fire had started to swallow Firpo’s market. I suddenly saw a person desperately trying to enter one of the shops.

Deshmukh lunged forward and stopped the man in his 70s from entering the building, which had by now turned into an inferno. “He seemed possessed and kept on saying that he would be finished if he could not save the garments inside the shop,” Deshmukh recounted.

Rafique Ahmed, 45, was huddled in one corner of Lighthouse cinema. His clothes store on the first floor of the building was now reduced to ashes. “Five days ago, I had got a consignment of saris and dress materials from Rajkot on credit. I have no idea what I will do now. I am destroyed,” said Ahmed.

Similar scenes of disaster could be averted at Leslie House next door thanks to the peerless efforts of eight brave people who fought along with the fire brigade team. The building survived despite its top floor catching fire.

They carried buckets of water from the tank, broke through the strong wooden doors of the fire-ravaged apartments, risked their lives and stopped the Firpo’s market fire from engulfing Leslie House.

For Bharat Gupta, Rontu Dutta, Gautam Sengupta and a few others who have establishments in Leslie House, it was an unforgettable night.

“We were up all night, evacuating residents and dousing the flames on our own, as the fire brigade was busy trying to control the fire at Firpo’s,” said a shaken Gupta, co-owner of Worldwide Enterprise, a second-floor glassware and crockery shop at Leslie House.

Around 9.30 pm, Bharat, along with Amit Saha and Gautam Sengupta, rushed to Leslie House after they heard Firpo’s market was on fire. The three friends were soon joined by five others, including Rontu Dutta, a shop-owner at New Market.

Within seconds, they heard cries of help from a second-floor tenant. “It was Mr Das calling for help. We helped him evacuate with whatever belongings he could take along. After sometime, we realised N.K. Shipping and Chartering Company on the second floor was on fire along with a few other offices. We asked the fire brigade to help, but they refused, saying they were busy at Firpo’s market,” said Bharat.

The friends then carried buckets of water from the building’s water tank and forced open the doors of the second-floor offices, dousing the flames. “We could control the blaze only after an hour. By then, two elderly ladies had already started screaming. We helped them get out of the building and handed them over to the fire brigade,” said Bharat.


Calcutta, April 24: 
He owns a small electrical shop on Central Avenue and stays in a modest house on Debendra Mullick Street, in central Calcutta. At first glance, there was nothing to set him apart from the crowd of onlookers as Firpos’s went up in flames on Tuesday night. But Vipin Ganatra was not just another face in the crowd.

For more than 14 tireless hours, the 42-year-old fought the market blaze and its consequences. From 11 pm on Tuesday, till Wednesday afternoon, Vipin proved to be “the firemen’s best friend”. And for no personal gain, either. It’s just that where there is a fire, there is Vipin.

“It’s my hobby. Whenever I hear of a major fire, I rush to the spot to do what I can to help... I feel like doing it,” said Vipin, taking a breather from clearing the debris on Wednesday. “I was injured while helping firemen battle the Canning Street blaze, but that has not deterred me.’’

On Tuesday night, Vipin had just finished dinner when his friends told him that Firpo’s was on fire. He rushed to the spot and slipped into the role of fire fighter, through a night of devastation and a morning of despair. It was tough going, culminating in a providential escape on Wednesday morning, when a staircase came crashing down inside the market.

“I was barely a foot behind four firemen when the structure collapsed. The cement slabs fell on their heads and shoulders. I shouted for help and pulled one of them out of danger. By then, others realised what had happened and we managed to rescue the rest,’’ added Vipin, who, along with a couple of cops, rushed the injured to SSKM Hospital.

At the site of the Chowringhee blaze, Vipin was an unlikely but welcome hero. “At around 2.30 am on Wednesday, when a few shop-owners managed to venture inside the ravaged building, he (Vipin) was there with us. Some of us were afraid to go in, fearing a cave-in. But Vipin went inside and recovered whatever clothes he could lay his hands on,’’ recounted Sanjay Mulchandani, who owns a readymade garments shop in the market.

Even the cops were all praise for Vipin. “He has been here since the fire broke out, helping the firemen and shop-owners,’’ said deputy commissioner of police, central, Zulfiquar Hasan said. “I saw him after the Canning Street and Manohardas Katra fire, as well.”

By 1 pm on Wednesday, the fatigue was beginning to show. The flames had been doused, the smoke brought under control. As firemen and policemen started withdrawing their steps, it was finally time for Vipin to be homeward bound.

Tired and hungry, he turned his back on the blaze that was. “I will go home, have a bath, grab a bite and then open my shop,’’ he said, wearily. Business as usual for Vipin Ganatra.


Calcutta, April 24: 
One more chapter was added to the educational activities of the Sri Aurobindo Institute of Culture on Wednesday. That, too, to coincide with a historic date — on this day, 82 years ago, Mother (Mirra Alfassa) arrived at Sri Aurobindo Pondicherry Ashram and stayed there till her death in 1973.

To mark the occasion, a new floor— Jaya Mitter Memorial Block— was added to the Future Foundation School at Sri Aurobindo Institute of Culture, at Regent Park.

While inaugurating it, educationist and Sanskrit scholar Gobindo Gopal Mukhopadhyay said the floor was dedicated to the memory of late Jaya Mitter, who was the main spirit behind today’s Future Foundation School. It is an integral part of the Sri Aurobindo Institute of Culture and upholds the ideals of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

Besides Mukhopadhyay, former power minister and vice -chancellor of Jadavpur University Shankar Sen, former vice- chancellor of Visva-Bharati Nemai Sadhan Bose, former MP Phulrenu Guha and historian Amalendu De were among those present.

Speakers on Wednesday recounted the contribution made by Mitter, who was associated with the institute from 1976 and gradually built today’s Future Foundation School from a mere nondescript nursery school with a student strength of 20.

“Jayadi (as she was fondly called) worked hard between 1979 and 1999 single-mindedly for the institution,” Mukhopadhyay said.

Ranjan Mitter, Jaya Mitter’s son, and present honorary secretary of the institute of culture, said the present extension of the three-storey building would provide more space for extra-curricular activities.

“The effort is to finish the work, which my mother set out to do, and to make the institute achieve the aims of Sri Aurobindo. We try to strike a balance between the spiritual, mental and the physical self,” he added.

A book, entitled Agni Yuger Agnikatha , published by Sri Aurobindo Ashram, was also released on the occasion.


Burdwan, April 24: 
A public works department employee posted at the Burdwan medical college was suspended last evening for being a key member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Officials said Biplab Das was guilty of holding the post of secretary in the VHP’s Burdwan district unit. “Das is holding a key post in the district’s VHP unit despite being a government employee. This is against service rules laid down by the government,” said Burdwan district magistrate Manoj Agarwal.

He said state home secretary Amit Kiran Deb had sought a report from the district administration on the matter. “I have sent two reports to the state home department after getting the matter properly investigated by the district intelligence branch and a deputy magistrate. Das was suspended following instructions from the state government,” he said.

The controversy started when VHP celebrated Ram Navami last Sunday at the Burdwan town hall with permission from the district administration in the presence of a deputy magistrate. State VHP president Sunilendu Bhattacharya and secretary Rabi Shankar Bhattacharjee were also present on the occasion.

On that day, nearly 1,000 kar sevaks present there took a vow to participate in the construction of a Ram mandir in Ayodhya. Deputy magistrate Mani Mohan Chowdhury was also present there with a large police contingent.

Even as the district magistrate denied having given permission to VHP supporters to take such a vow at the Ram Navami celebration, Chowdhury said such programmes were not possible without the district administration’s clearance. “How then could I be present there with a police force if the administration was unaware of it?” Chowdhury said.

The contradictory statements by two senior government officials caused severe embarrassment to the district administration. Agarwal asked Chowdhury to submit a report and instructed sub-divisional officer Sadar to probe the matter. A suspension notice was served on Das on the basis of the probe.

Unfazed by the suspension, Das said the state administration was harassing VHP workers under pressure from the ruling CPM. “I shall move court as well as the human rights commission,” he said.

The State Government Employees’ Federation has extended help to Das to fight the suspension order. Federation secretary Pabitra Ganguly said they would start a “vigorous movement” if the suspension order was not withdrawn.

“We are also looking into the legal aspects of the issue so that we can challenge the government’s order in a court of law,” he said.


Siliguri, April 24: 
They had set out to escape the sultry Calcutta summer. But before they could reach Gangtok, their Commander jeep plunged into river Teesta, some 9 km from the Bengal-Sikkim border of Rangpoo.

Three of the passengers and the driver of the jeep died. Nine other passengers were seriously injured.

They are being treated at the Tashi Namgyal hospital in Gangtok.

Seven members of the Chatterjee family from Noyapara, Maheshtala, Dum Dum and Baranagar, and the three-member Chakraborty family and the Pal couple had hired the jeep (WB-76-2469) early this morning from Siliguri to go to Gangtok.

Among the group were a 55-year-old constable of the Kalitala police station in South 24-Parganas. There were also two babies — 14-month-old Samarpan and two-year-old Puspak.

The dead have been identified as Nilima Chatterjee, Swapan Chatterjee, Kajol Chatterjee and Sanjay Kumar Mahato, the driver.

Darjeeling superintendent of police Sanjay Chander, after hearing the version of the injured, blamed “reckless driving” for the accident.

“The driver, in a tearing hurry to make a second return trip between Siliguri and Gangtok, lost control of the vehicle. The jeep overshot the winding road and hurtled into the Teesta. The vehicle plunged some 150 feet into the turbulent river,” he said.

Assistant medical superintendent of the Gangtok hospital, Dr S.C. Pradhan, said: “Sushil Chatterjee is fighting for his life. He has been shifted to the Manipal referral hospital at Tadong on the outskirts of Gangtok.”

The remaining eight have been identified as Mithu Chatterjee (Swapan’s wife) and her son Samarpan, Sujit Chatterjee, Sipra Chatterjee, Bhogpatti Chakroborty and his wife Subarna and son Puspak besides Parichay Pal.

Puspak and Pal, though seriously injured, are stated to be out of danger.


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