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Bengal town that means business
OUR TOWN: RANAGHAT

Shop, shop, shop till you drop but don’t pay in plastic, please.

For a town that traces its name to Rana the dacoit, Ranaghat thinks nothing of keeping cash in the till.

“People here pay in cash,” says Sanjoy Biswas, who helps his father run Yashoreshwari Bastralaya, one of the two big sari shops in Ranaghat. “Barely two out of 50 customers ask about credit cards. That’s why we haven’t bothered about offering the facility,” he says, adding with a touch of doubt that two or three of the hundreds of shops here might be accepting cards.

Not that the allergy to plastic has affected business. Shops have exploded across the town. Garment and shoe stores abound but so do chemists and fast-food stalls. These are not cubby holes seen in the old business district but more spacious.

Can a congregation of shops find salvation without the modern-day temple that goes by the name apartments? Not in Ranaghat, certainly not in Rabindra Sarani, off the main business street called Subhas Avenue.

For years, Rabindra Sarani was a quiet residential area dotted with empty plots. Now new apartment blocks have sprouted, sometimes rising from the courtyards of ancestral houses in an uneasy cohabitation of the old and the new.

“All that remains of the Ranaghat I was married into is memory,” says Bijoli Banerjee, a 74-year-old grandmother from Rabindra Sarani.

The invasion of apartments has overrun even a landmark pond. Bijoli remembers Nandipukur, which her grandchild Pousali hasn’t seen. It has been stuffed till the brim to raise 14 two-storey houses.

Time for a chicken-and-egg question. Did the shops draw the occupants of the apartments or is it the other way?

“More people are settling in Ranaghat from adjacent areas because of better communication facilities. Besides, there was always refugee influx from across the border,” says Basudeb Mukherjee, a government employee who commutes to Calcutta daily.

“Roads have improved. Streetlights have improved too,” says Mukherjee. For that, he thanks the Congress board that had served for two terms before the outgoing one took over. “But work gets done only when the elections approach.”

Whatever the secret of the seductive powers of Ranaghat, sceptics feel it has grown up into an ugly princess.

“Getting a foothold on the trains to Calcutta at peak hours is a problem,” says “daily passenger” Mukherjee.

The local station, which has won the label “model” with its sodium vapour lamps, tiled floors and digital music on the loudspeaker, has played a big role in making Ranaghat the magnet that it has become.

The train journey to Calcutta takes two hours — not too long for people travelling from border towns like Burnpur in Nadia, Bongaon in North 24-Parganas and Lalgola in Murshidabad. Many from these towns have flocked to Ranaghat, which is also a junction station with access to the Krishnagar, Santipur, Lalgola, Bongaon and Sealdah lines. “Add to that students going to the city for computer or spoken English classes, masons and amateur ayahs,” Mukherjee says.

Ranaghat was always known for its shops but the eruption in the past decade has been phenomenal. “Ten years ago, there were 150 shops on Subhas Avenue. Now there are 350-400,” says Biswas of Yashoreshwari Bastralaya.

But the big fish are not exactly applauding. More shops mean less business. “Margins are taking a hit,” Biswas complains.

The ground floors along even the residential lanes house — you guessed it — shops, mostly chemists.

That brings up another brand that sells: doctors with a Calcutta connection.

When the local general physician, who charges Rs 100 for a visit, gives up, people queue up for out-of-town specialists at the chemists’. A city doctor, who comes here once or twice a week, usually charges between Rs 150 and Rs 200. Four nursing homes have come up in the last decade.

“And five new English-medium schools,” Bijoli’s granddaughter Pousali adds.

Pousali has appeared for Madhyamik from Brajabala Balika Bidyalay, the biggest girls’ school. Her cousin Avik studies in Palchoudhury Higher Secondary School, the biggest boys’ school.

Avik’s father Gautam rues not giving his son English-medium education. “The two English-medium schools that were there when he was young were far away,” he says.

If necessity is the mother of invention, Ranaghat has midwifed that role, too, to find a way out of Bengal’s resurrected curse called power cuts. “At least thrice a day for at least two hours every time,” says Malay Nandi of Mishti Mukh, throwing up his hands.

The enterprising have set up community generators, charging Rs 3 per point per day.

Ranaghat also seems to be basking in the power of money — flex banners are jostling for space with flags, festoons and other poll campaign mat-erial. “Never have we seen so much being spent on the civic polls,” says government employee Mukherjee.

It is easier to figure out Ranaghat’s economics than its politics. The Congress had swept the civic polls 19-0 in 2005. But 16 councillors, including the chairman, defected to the Trinamul Congress. The CPM is nowhere to be seen now.

But Ranaghat’s famed pantua has endured, perhaps without ghee. Nandi’s Mishti Mukh is one of the oldest sellers of pantua, the sweet that has placed Ranaghat on the gourmet’s map. “The quality of the raw materials has fallen. If we fry these in ghee, as our forefathers did, we would have to increase the unit price by Rs 2,” says Nandi, apologetic.

Ranaghat does know how to do business.

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