BURNT OUT

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 1.06.04
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Calcutta has many unique features, not all of which should be emulated. One such is its habit of losing bits and pieces of itself and its history in devastating fires within meticulously contained boundaries. The burning down of the 118-year-old bookshop, Dasgupta & Company, on College Street, means a violent change in cityscape and memory-frame that cannot be accounted for by business losses and the loss of numerous books. Not that there has been no warning. The old building of the New Market was burnt down in 1985, taking with it, not just commodities and life-savings, but a whole chunk of the city’s history and countless fragments of collective memory. A new building came up in its place, but evidently, no lessons were learnt. In the decades that followed came other irreparable losses, among them the photographic studio of Bourne & Shepherd in 1991, with its treasure-trove of old and unrecoverable photographs. Although Calcutta is showing itself keen to change its outer trappings to emerge as a glittering competitor of 21st century Indian metros, some of its old habits of primitive thoughtlessness and negligence remain exactly the same.

The West Bengal government actually boasts of a fire services ministry. A fire protection policy for old buildings and bazaars, strictly implemented and regularly monitored, could perhaps have saved the old market of Manohardas Katra, for example, or prevented the dangerous blaze in the fireworks bazaar in Canning Street in 2000. Significant in a different way were the blazes that destroyed the theatre houses, Star, Rangmahal and Biswaroopa. Given the keenness of the agents for the city’s development, all the fires cannot be put down to mere negligence, especially since sabotage has been the official explanation in some cases. The fire in Firpo’s Market in 2002 burnt the kind of hole into the city’s memory and image of itself as has the destruction of Dasgupta’s. It is less important to find out which is sabotage and which is not. Strict and sensible regulations, regular checks and properly equipped fire tenders would be enough to keep under control both accidental and intentional fires.