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From glory to wreck, the mute victim in wane
Firpo’s market, exactly a year ago, after a late-night fire reduced it to rubble

It is a tangled mass of rusted iron and steel, broken walls and charred ruins. The inside of Firpo’s is a dirty and dingy picture of damage and decay, a year after the fire blazed through the once-famous restaurant and later, a thriving market. The insides remain gutted even today, with an air of neglect hanging heavy over it.

The 150-year-old building, once a symbol of grandeur, is now an eyesore, as it stands on Chowringhee Road looking forlorn, with the skeleton of a burnt-out billboard perched precariously on the caved-in roof. Only a handful of shops on the outer façade of the structure managed to salvage the space to open up once again. But those unlucky enough to have been housed inside have little to show for their suffering on the night of April 23, 2002.

“Nothing has been done,” a garment shopowner points out in frustration. “No repairs, no cleaning up inside, nothing… We don’t even have running water in our shops, because the pipes and taps were destroyed and have not been fixed. It is a mess, with the debris still lying in heaps, and there is no help. We lost a lot of goods, and were then left to pick up the pieces… It isn’t even safe to go inside, and there is no way to go upstairs.”

Another shopkeeper expressed mild surprise at the fact that a year had passed since the fire, before sighing resignedly and saying: “We are managing the best we can. We lost a lot too, but at least we still have a store, like about eight or 10 others outside. But all those whose shops were inside had to forget everything and go elsewhere.”

In adjoining Leslie House, the top floors were also affected by the fire. A year later, M.K. Shipping, on the second floor of the building, has renovated the room damaged by the flames, but the view from their window is unchanged. “The fire-fighters used our office windows to pour water onto the flames, because they couldn’t go inside,” says an employee. “It is very sad, the way Firpo’s has just been left like that. Something should be done about it.”

From being a refined restaurant, where the city’s rich and famous sipped tea on the terrace, to becoming a busy three-storey market of around 200 shops, selling garments to gifts, and even housing a bank, Firpo’s chequered history, it seems, has come to a rather ignominious conclusion, with even the papers pertaining to its origins missing from the Corporation files. So, while opinions remain divided on whether the fire was caused by a short-circuit or sabotage, and till the authorities figure out what to do with the structure, Calcutta laments the loss of a famous landmark.

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