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Friday , September 14 , 2012
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Spot the star: Prez or ‘Olympian’
Pranab’s para not used to a President

Current address: Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Permanent address: 60/2/7, Kavi Bharati Sarani, Lake Road, Calcutta 27.

A four-storey yellow and peach building, with its windows cased in protruding grilles, houses the two second-floor flats that are Pranab Mukherjee’s home in Calcutta.

The building, a stone’s throw from Buddha Mandir, on the left of Dhakuria bridge as one approaches from Gariahat, bears only one mark of distinction on its outside: a handful of policemen posted always.

On a sultry, rainy evening ahead of the President’s arrival in his native state, the building looks empty. It is a quiet, not very well-lit neighbourhood. Adjacent to the building, on its right, is a telebhaja shop. Close by is a Shani Mandir; next to it stands the local club: the Panchanantala Yuvak Sangha. Past that is the yawning arch of the Dhakuria bridge underpass that leads to the now-closed AMRI.

It is like any other slightly listless Calcutta neighbourhood. But if you put your ear to the ground, you hear a buzz.

Pranab Mukherjee’s para in Calcutta looks at him humbly, with a mixture of awe, pride — and a bit of suspense, as to what is going to unfold on Sunday, when he will be on his first visit to the locality since becoming President.

He will stay for a few hours at his home. But because the para is not used to Presidents — Mukherjee is, famously, the first Bengali President — it does not quite know what to do with him.

The Panchanantala Yuvak Sangha, the local club, the walls of which are heavy with pictures of several gods and goddesses, is ready with plans, but will not say what they are, for an audience with the President may not be possible.

The club members, about half a dozen, gather at a moment’s notice to talk about the President. “He is our pride,” says Samir De, a member. He has his own business, he says. His friends agree with him. One of them points out Mukherjee is the first Bengali President, and from the locality.

“We would certainly like to meet him. But what if we don’t get the chance?” Das asks.

Mukherjee is the absent guardian of the locality. The former Union finance minister has been staying at this flat during his Calcutta visits for about two decades, say his neighbours. If he has not forged ties with individuals, he has forged links with the para in other ways. Through something close to his heart: religion.

He sponsors the annual Shani puja at the temple and conducts it too.

“He is here on the day of the puja every year in Bhadra (September) and fasts since morning,” says Samar Banerjee, the watchman from a private security agency at 60/2/7, admiringly. “Only this year he could not attend,” he adds.

Samar Banerjee adds that the President organises a much-enjoyed feast every year, when he himself serves food to the people employed at the building.

Gauri Pakhira, who lives in a first-floor flat, smiles as she talks about Mukherjee. She used to know his wife, Suvra, well. Will the residents of the building get to meet him? She does not know.

Chhaya Naskar, caretaker of Mukherjee’s flats, disappears hurriedly into the lift with her packet of vegetables. She will cook Mukherjee’s favourite four or five dishes on Sunday, but will not say much about him.

Samar Banerjee is concerned that a tidal wave of visitors will descend on Sunday. Some of Mukherjee’s relatives and people from his village Mirati in Birbhum will also be there, apart from a huge crowd of the curious.

Atanu Banerjee, son of Mukherjee’s elder sister, will also be there.

As Atanu, a SAIL employee, says, he will be coming to meet his uncle. Does anything actually change, except the footfalls, when a President comes calling? The neighbourhood will find out on Sunday.