I have often found my maid Radha to be an accurate barometer of public opinion on a variety of issues. She comes in at 6 a.m. and if NK is not around,  we have fascinating discussions on a range of subjects- from politics to fashion, from relationships to urban transport. All this while she is washing dishes or mopping the floor and I am still on my first cup of tea. She is one of the blessed few of her ilk who are not interested in gossiping about the neighbours.

Radha is a symbol of the new modern woman. She is about my age, born and married into a simple farmer family in  Karanjali, Diamond Harbour Division. Property division and financial trouble prompted her to move to Kolkata with her husband and son. Pretty soon the former fell ill and became bed  ridden while the latter grew up to become a chauffeur in some distant part of the city. He rarely comes home now.  Radha works in eight houses to keep her household running. She spins like a wheel from 6 in the morning to 4 in the evening, and then goes home to  complete her own housework. Yet, despite this busy and unending schedule, she is always smiling and so well informed! She can read and write in Bangla and has a particular interest in state politics. She is excited about the upcoming Panchayat elections and is keenly following the drama around polling dates.

This morning, I casually broached the subject of rotten meat with her asking if she had given up chicken. She threw down the mop disdainfully and turned. Why  should I? she says.  If there is rotten meat today, it was surely there yesterday also? When it did not make me sick then, why today? Cant you see that it is all a ploy? Who has the time or energy to go looking for carcasses, clean and cover them in chemicals them and then sell them to shops on a massive scale? Maybe a few people were doing this here and there- they need to be punished. But why do you think this issue has come up just before the elections? Mark my words, it will all die down after the polls, and people will go on eating just as they have been all these years.

Point indeed. But what about the fact that cats, pigs, crows and other animals are being sold as chicken/mutton, I ask? She again throws down the mop. Didi- are you really so dumb? Don’t you know that the crows and sparrows have all but disappeared because of mobile tower radiation? Where on earth are these people going to find enough crows to kill and pass off as chicken in this city of meat lovers?  As for cats, is it that easy to find and kill cats? You think there is a secret cat breeding facility somewhere? Will that not make it costlier than chicken? Where is the economics in it? As for crow meat, I have tasted it- and believe me, it is horrible. Nobody will accept it as chicken except drunkards in the local thek who wont bother with the difference.

But then Radha do you really think it is all a  big lie? That everything is okay and some people somewhere are deliberately diverting attention? No Didi it is not that. See, we must accept that unhygienic and stale food  is sold all over Kolkata. Small hotels and restaurants cannot afford high quality suppliers or even to cook everyday. They will use poor quality meat and store leftover food in fridges. If someone wants to eat there they have to accept this. Why, do you think, food is made everyday in the big hotels that you eat in? I have worked in Apanjan (a very popular restaurant in Garia)- and believe me- they even make the masalas and boil the tarka dal for a month in advance and freeze it. Even you do it dont you? Dont you keep leftover rice in the fridge and eat it the next day? Why blame them if they do it on a larger scale? But I am telling you, even the smallest, poorest roadside vendor will not serve food or meat that could be poisonous – because he will lose his business if people fall ill.And surely carcass meat must be poisonous or causing serious sickness.

I ponder on this quietly for a few minutes. Then try again- what about departmental stores Radha? She is getting irritated now- getting late for the next house, but I cannot stop. Her world view is fascinating. Listen Didi- departmental stores, caterers, weddings and functions and take away food stores are big offenders. They buy stale and cheap food and also serve it months later because they have big expensive freezers to store the food in. If you choose to buy or eat from them, then you are asking for trouble. But my  point is- what is new about all this? Has it not been happening for years and years. Of course food quality is important. Of course, we should not be served or eat bad meat or vegetables or anything. The responsibility for this lies with with three groups. The customer who is not discerning about what he eats, the vendor who is not honest about what he serves and the government departments who are not honest in their work on assuring food quality and hygiene. The customer doesnt care what he eats ( just think Durga Puja), the vendor doesnt care what he sells, and the department only cares as to how much money they can skim from the top. Under these circumstances, making one or two people a scapegoat is just an election ploy to divert attention from the real issues out there. Do you get it now?

I nod thoughtfully and sip my tea.  My mind is moving away from meat and cheat. Surely something is right here. Truly this is a land where everybody thinks for themselves. The rikshawpuller who reads the newspaper at 6 a.m, the maid who discusses ethics and policies effortlessly, the village girl who is standing in the elections for a position as Panchayat Pradhan and the sweeper who insists on exercising his franchise and is ready to fight for his right to do so. Bengal is the best. Always. Tomorrow I will discuss PDA with Radha.


The Homecoming


बुढापा बहुधा बचपन का पुनरागमन हुआ करता है

These lines, immortalised by Munshi Premchand in his timeless classic, Budhi Kaki caught my attention as a young school student decades back. The poignance of those lines, tempered by the agonising mental imagery of a desperately hungry old lady scrabbling for food in the rubbish heap of her own house were burnt into my mind by Pande Sir’s passionate eloquence. I have carried that awful visual in my head since then, and consequently a fear of such a thing happening in real life. Unfortunately, the older I grow, the clearer it is to me that Munshi Premchand’s story was not a work of fiction. If he did not actually see it happening, he must have sensed that it was going to happen.

On Sunday, 15 April, Bengali New Years day, some of us visited two homes run by an NGO called Friends of Kolkata’s Elderly. Started in 2003 as an initiative to distribute food parcels to the homeless people living on Sealdah Railway platforms, FOKE now runs two homes and several outreach programmes in the city.

These homes are the residence of 35 homeless old ladies or Dida’s ( and three homeless men or Dadu’s as well). They have been brought here from places across the city, from charitable hospitals, roadsides and railway stations. Their families have either abandoned them or lost them- choosing to ignore or forget about their very existence. Kind people, usually rickshawallahs or beggars have shared their food with them and escorted them to a safer place, perhaps a police station or a shelter.

They may have wandered away from home and were unable to find their way back, or perhaps they were chased out of their homes, or they moved out after being assaulted and victimized for their property- every kind of horror story possible exists within those walls. And yet, they had all dressed up for us in their pretty new Saris and were waiting to welcome us and spend a few happy hours together- such is the resilience of life.

The idyllic village of Madhubati is just a short drive away from Kolkata.  We had my ebullient cousin Arvind for company and so it was a musical journey in the truest sense of the word. We were a small motley group- Arvind, myself, our cousin Raji and our friend, mentor and guide, Dr Abhijit Dam. Animated discussions on spirituality and the duality of life  made that drive memorable in itself.

The home in Madhubati village has been donated by a generous family. It houses 15 ladies, three gentlemen and four staff. The first floor has been converted into a small accommodation for visiting volunteers. All of them were waiting for us with cheerful welcoming smiles. We chatted. Some of the ladies had made jewellery for us and gifted them to us with all the pride of self achievement possible. Lovely, a 75 year young lady, dressed in a stylish black salwar kameez showed us her knitting- she has been knitting sweaters and scarves for all the staff in the home. Her last memory is of being in an ashram in Hardwar- she has no recall of how she arrived in Kolkata and does not remember where her home is. She however discussed the lanes and byelanes of Delhi with me knowledgeably, she remembers that her parents house was in Janakpuri. Others sang for us, one effervescent young lady, who was obviously a foodie regaled us with details of recipes she had customised to suit her own palate. Another showed me her bed, invited me to sit on it and tell her about myself. I couldn’t speak because the tears wouldn’t stop- I could not hold back my emotions.


The residents lead a regimented life here and quite naturally their day revolves around mealtimes. They spend their afternoons teaching local children, in a makeshift school on their porch! Their evenings are spent watching TV and then they chat amongst themselves until it is bedtime. One lady explained to me that she stayed up even after bedtime, just so that the staff who had to work late to clean up would not feel lonely and left out.

After a sumptuous homemade lunch, we moved on to the other home in Thakurpukur. This one was bang in the middle of a congested locality, but felt like a haven of peace. Here too we were greeted by gentle welcoming smiles and wonderful warmth. One of the benefactors of this home is a young lad named Sunny. Still in his mid twenties, Sunny is one of those exceptional people who are sent to this world to spread love. He brought with him a bus load of people- young, old and middle aged to visit and spread good cheer on the Bengali New Year day. They brought with them a harmonium and thus the tone for the evening was set. Music, dance, chai samosa and smiles all round.

30708586_10156283632284253_6641795923988971520_oFor me, the highlight of the evening was this lady. She beckoned to me and whispered something in my ear. The music was loud, people were clapping and swaying and it took a few seconds for what she said to register. When it did, I dissolved into tears once again. For she said, thank you for today. Tomorrow, when all of you are gone and I will be alone again, I will think of you all and smile. Please do come again.

Is that too much to ask folks? That we visit them, share some love and banter with them, maybe take them something nice to eat? What will it cost us? A few hours, the cost of petrol and a few hundred rupees maybe? Come then- make a difference to somebody’s life, you will feel better for it.

These sweet old ladies do not want to speak ill of their loved ones even after all this, and so their memories fail them when they speak of those loved ones. All their children, siblings and relatives are apparently wonderful people who have good jobs and lots of money and if they are not caring for their mothers or aunts or sisters, it is only because they have no time or ability to do so. Does that sound familiar?


This simple unassuming lady is Sanghita Mondal, the life force behind Foke. It is her dedication and leadership that has led to the setting up of these homes, and more importantly her spirit that ensures that the homes remain a haven of love and care. Sanghita spreads joy and cheer wherever she goes- we need more people like her today.

Kosish- the story of a lone man’s crusade to bring peace to the dying

I spent a few days recently shadowing the intrepid Dr Abhijit Dam on his visits to terminally ill patients in their homes.  What started off as a way to understand palliative care better has opened my eyes. I have returned humbled by his generosity and compassion, and stunned by the scale and magnitude of the challenge he has taken on, all by himself.

Dr Dam is a very special human being. A multi-faceted personality, his work and dedication have made him someone who stands out in a crowd.  Unassuming and infinitely gentle, he nevertheless, exudes an air of confidence and authority that leave you in no doubt as to who is in charge.

As Secretary of the Indian Association for Palliative Care he speaks about the disconnect between urban and rural healthcare practices

Inside the hospital, he spends long hours in the Operation Theaters and wards participating in surgeries and post operative care at a government facility.  Outside, he is a messiah for the ill and elderly.

He travels unimaginably long distances, on unmotorable roads, deep into the interiors of Jharkhand, Bihar and Bengal, to reach their homes, eating whatever food they can offer, drinking water that many of us would not dream of touching and offering them spiritual guidance along with practical medical help that they could otherwise not have accessed. I had the privilege of accompanying him and witnessed for myself the nature of his work and its challenges as well as the faith, love and respect that his patients and their families repose in him.

Dr Dam sees a dying patient in her home- deep in the interiors of Bengal. Surrounded by her loved ones and family she will die untroubled and pain free when the time comes.
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Lunch and simultaneous consultation at a patients house- I do not know of any other doctor who can do this

Much of the care that the dying need is practical in nature. From simple tools that can help someone sit up in bed to teaching relatives how to wash a supine patient, to suggesting nutritional supplements made from the locally available food, to providing free medicines – these are instructions and ideas that no hospital can provide, simply because they do not know the circumstances in which the patient lives. It is only the doctor who makes the effort to see a patient inside her home who can even begin to understand who she is and what will give her peace of mind.

No- not the killing fields of Vietnam. This is just another days work for him- the way to a patients house

Below: All roads lead to his patients homes. Riding a bike when the going gets too much for the car.


In another avatar, Dr Dam runs Kosish, a long term care facility for the elderly & terminally ill. Constructed with funds pooled from PF loans and miniscule donations, every brick at Kosish is living testimony of what human determination, vision and passion can achieve. Sustained by the probono contributions of his wife, the untiring and ever cheerful Dr Nivedita (she sees close to a hundred patients a week just to pay the salaries of the support staff), Kosish is the story of one man’s struggle to go against the tide, to stem the wave of commercialism and insensitivity that has crept into medical care all over India.  This hospice aims to provide the same standard of care to rich and poor alike in their last days. Apart from the healing aspects, Dr Dam is now using Kosish as a platform to promote healthy eating habits and nutrition among the locals in the children of the area by organising Sunday lunches ( with his own funds of course), holding an OPD for gynaecology patients ( run by the wonderful Dr Nivedita) and organising vocational training for the young girls in the area ( managed by super efficient Usha- his right hand).


Usha in a moment of undiluted happiness

Unfortunately, deprived as it is of the complex fabric of grants, research projects, cross budgeting and donations that hold up other more visible and aggressive hospices, Kosish is struggling to survive. Unsurprisingly, always, at the eleventh hour, help does arrive. In the form of people- who have discovered inside themselves the desire to do more than just live. But a more sustainable way of keeping this effort alive must be found- and soon. More information about Kosish is available here: http://kosishthehospice.webs.com/ and on their Facebook page Kosish – the hospice.

In yet another avatar, Dr Dam is a writer. He has authored several books on spirituality, death and dying. A follower of Swami Vivekananda, his books are written in simple, clear language that force the reader to stop and think- about who we are, what we are doing and why we have digressed from the path of righteousness. These books are not morbid or sinister or even preachy- they merely explain the truths of life in a manner that everyone can understand. I would strongly recommend that my readers pick up a copy of his book and read it without prejudice- you will not regret it I assure you.

This doctor can cook too- he made khichdi for 40 children in under 30 minutes!

My shadowing experience ended all too soon. It left me thirsting for more- to understand palliative care better, to know more about what makes Dr Dam going-in the face of all odds and to comprehend how, we, as laypersons can help him in his efforts.  For help we must- not just for his sake, but for ourselves and our loved ones. We will all one day end up needing the love and care and compassion of one such as Dr Dam and for that we must prepare our minds and channel our actions in the right direction.

Mankind is terrified of death.  For it represents a state of cessation..of our individuality, our dreams, love, relationships and hopes. And it remains a mystery  for there are none who can give a personal account of death. My crusade is to remove the fear associated with death.My patients have helped me and inspired me to tread on this path which most of us abhor.. ( excerpt from Dr Abhijit Dam’s latest book Mrtyu, available on all the major online platforms).  His other books include ‘Wading through quicksand- Palliative care, Spirituality & Sanatan Dharma. 

In the spirit of service


I recently spent a weekend in Guwahati, Assam at a seminar organised by the the Indian Association of Palliative Care(IAPC) who have been promoting the cause of palliative and end of life care across the country.

This seminar saw participation of people from all walks of life. From Christian missionaries to students, doctors, hospital administrators, volunteers, NGO’s, medicine companies and people who were interested but ignorant about palliative care – they all came and took part in discussions on the various aspects of this form of treatment.

What is Palliative Care

Palliative care is for people living with a terminal illness where a cure is no longer possible. It’s not just for people diagnosed with terminal cancer, but any terminal condition. It’s also for people who have a complex illness and need their symptoms controlled. Palliative care aims to treat or manage pain and other physical symptoms and help with any psychological, social or spiritual needs. Treatment will involve medicines, therapies, and any other support that specialist teams believe will help their patients. It includes caring for people who are nearing the end of life. This is called end of life care.

The goal is to help the patients and everyone affected by the diagnosis to achieve the best quality of life. Palliative care can be provided alongside particular treatments, therapies and medicines, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

The benefits of Palliative care:

  • improves quality of life
  • gives relief from pain and other distressing symptoms
  • supports life and keeping people as healthy as possible, regarding dying as a normal process
  • doesn’t quicken or postpone death
  • combines psychological and spiritual aspects of care
  • offers a support system to help people live as actively as possible until death
  • offers a support system to help the family cope during a person’s treatment and in bereavement
  • uses a team approach to address the needs of the person who is ill and their families
  • also applies to the earlier stages of illness, alongside other therapies that are aimed at prolonging life
  • can take place in hospitals, hospices but also in people’s homes.
  • End of life care is an important part of palliative care for people who are nearing the end of life.
  • End of life care is for people who are considered to be in the last year of life, but this timeframe can be difficult to predict.
  • End of life care aims to help people live as well as possible and to die with dignity. It also refers to treatment during this time and can include additional support, such as help with legal matters.
  • End of life care continues for as long as needed.


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Dr Dimpy Mahanta, Associate Professor of Psychology at Cotton College spoke about how little awareness there is about something so fundamentally essential to healthcare. She conducted a small sample survey in Guwahati which threw up the astonishing fact that over 65% of the respondents had never heard of palliative care. Of the remaining 35%, a large number thought it had something to do with pain management while others only had a vague idea of this aspect of health care. Most people interviewed thought that they would not be eligible for palliative care.

Father Johnson

The truth is actually the opposite. Palliative Care touches upon every aspect of keeping a patient comfortable, enables them to lead a dignified life upto the point of death and can be administered even while active treatment is going on. Everybody has a right to receive this support.

Almost every one of us is going to need some form of this treatment at some point in our lives. Death is the only guarantee in life and palliative care should begin from the very moment that a person is diagnosed with a terminal or life threatening disease.


In a (rare) departure from the usual routine where a group of members from the medical fraternity simply gathers and  decides on what patients need and how it should be given to them, this seminar invited a range of stakeholders to share their experiences and suggest actions. The missionaries and sisters who serve the most backward communities in remote areas spoke about various challenges they faced in their hospitals including patients running out of money, transportation issues, dealing with fear and treating children. I spoke about the helplessness of families, their perspectives and their exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous doctors and nursing homes. It was distressing and painful to recall  how specialist doctors refuse to send a patient for palliative care because it may dent their ‘business’. Forcing exorbitantly priced chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments on patients who are clearly unable to bear it anymore continues to be a practice in private hospitals. I also highlighted the difficulties patients face in getting quality time with their doctor. Between 2 and 5 minutes seems to be the standard right now- which is certainly not enough to share any views or thoughts at all.


Many doctors themselves are unfamiliar with the concept of integrating palliative treatment with regular treatment and refuse to refer patients because they feel that it is akin to ‘giving up’ on the patient. Nothing can be further from the truth.


Doctor Nagesh, a retired surgeon from Bangalore discussed the difficulties that palliative care doctors face- both within their own fraternity as well as in dealing with patient expectations.  A gifted speaker with a penchant for humour, he shared some ideas on how to break bad news to a patient (they have turned it into a management exercise by the way- see the SPIKES note below), what not to say, the dilemma of whether to share the truth with the patient or not and continuing support to families after a patient dies and dealing with grief.


Dr Abhijit Dam who runs a wonderful little hospice named Koshish, in rural Jharkhand, spoke about the disconnect that we have when drafting policies with the reality of India. Indeed, the real India lives in big and small villages across the country where roads, clean drinking water, access to safety and food security remain hauntingly large issues. He described in detail the difficulties he has faced in treating patients who live in deep remote areas with little or no access to insurance and other support services. This man is truly an unsung hero- and one who makes no bones about his irritation with the semantics and the whole you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours attitude prevalent among the medical fraternity. Old school? Yes indeed!

Several other speakers covered various aspects, such as physiotherapy for cancer patients, helpful tips such as the best way to shift a patient from a bed to a wheelchair, and the necessity of spirituality in treatment.

The issue of inclusiveness remains a major hurdle. No one is consulting patients and their families when drafting policies on end of life care. This is, to me, a major bone of contention, because without inputs from the last mile beneficiaries, any policy amendments will be isolated and distanced.

The  participation of government is also of primary importance in this discourse. The Government is the only organisation in India that has the ability and capacity to scale up interventions and take them to the last mile, i.e. reach out to the poorest of the poor and provide services in remote areas. Therefore participation of government in every dialogue and discussion becomes very important. Merely throwing around names of senior ministers and officials, as some at the IAPC are wont to do, will really not help. The real transformation will be brought in by the humble GP at the primary health centre, the joint and principal secretaries of the state health departments, the BDO’s and the DM’s. Reach out to them, engage and convince them and half the job is done. They will convince their superiors once they believe in the cause.

In order to scale up and succeed, the IAPC management will have to set their (monumental) egos aside and move away from their back patting and self aggrandization to reach out and engage with state and central government, civil servants, patients and caregivers,medicine companies, journalists and young people- a tough ask from what little I have seen of them. At the moment the IAPC functions as an independent body with an us vs them approach- this activist mindset must change.

A move has been made to be more inclusive. Hopefully the future holds much more transparency and a commitment to achieving public good. The presence of dynamic and dedicated young doctors like Sanghamitra Bora, Dimpy Mahanta and Abhijit Dam makes me want to believe that a change will come about. Ably guided by the vast experience and knowledge of veterans like Dr Nagesh Simha and Dr Sukdev Nayak, these young men and women have an opportunity to change the destiny of several thousands of people in this country from dying in misery and despair to passing away with a smile on their lips. Let us all support them in any way we can and hope for the best.

Important :

If you would like to know more about palliative care, these websites provide good information.



If you any specific questions on palliative care in India, you could contact the following doctors for advice.

North East India: 
Dr Sanghamitra Bora, sanghamitrabk@gmail.com

East India
Dr Abhijit Dam, Secretary, IAPC  ratuldam@yahoo.com


N.B: Here is the management slide on breaking bad news. Tell me what you think of it. I will reserve my views ( but you may have already guessed what I think of it).

Breaking Bad News- The SPIKE way.

S: Set up the interview

P: Assess the patients perception

I: Obtain the patients invitation

K: Give knowledge and information to the patient

E:Address the patients emotion with emphatic responses

S:Strategise and Summarise

More on this here: http://theoncologist.alphamedpress.org/content/5/4/302.full



Garia- A disaster in the making

Some disasters can be prevented. Others can be caused. It is all in our hands. We must do as we think fit. I have decided to speak up about a disaster that is waiting to happen in Garia due to the unholy nexus between politicians, local leaders and land sharks  – join me if you feel as strongly as I do.

Today is Independence Day.  The day when India was unyoked from the shackles of colonial rule and started governing herself.  The day that all our patriots and martyrs gave up their independence and lives for.

Today is India’s 70th birthday. A day when each one of us who boast of being citizens of this great country should stand back and take a long hard look at ourselves. Are we worthy of being Indian?

When Appa bought a flat in Ananda in 1987, we entered a world that was completely different from the urban jungle we had lived in. Verdant green fields, beautiful ponds with a thriving ecosystem, majestic hawks and kingfishers lived around those ponds and fishing in their cool green waters on Sunday mornings was a relaxing pastime.

Those pastimes and those birds are all long gone – and we accepted that fact as we have all the other rigors that are heaped on us each day.

Today’s situation is such that only two of the fourteen water bodies in the stretch between Garia Bus Stand and Mahamayatala are visible. Twelve of them, every one of them essential to the drainage of flood water, survival of important aqua species and necessary for the absorption of the waste of several hundred apartment buildings have been illegally filled up and constructed upon by unscrupulous promoters. The safety and durability of these matchbox like buildings is suspect to say the least.

I wrote a paper on the illegal filling up of water bodies in Garia when I submitted my PG thesis years back and shared a copy with the Rajpur Sonarpur municipality. Of course no one ever contacted me subsequently and the issue remained clandestine. Over the years, the modus operandi has become clear:

1) the owners of the pond and the promoter sign a JV agreement to build with the collusion of local leaders, thugs and fixers
2) Money changes hands and miraculously, the character of the water body becomes waste land in the books of the Municipality
3) Each night, between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., trucks belonging to the Municipality and/or the promoter, sneak in, loaded with the garbage collected during the day and quietly dump it. Simultaneously, a liquid or powder chemical is also mixed into the water which forms a red film and kills all forms of life in the pond.
4) Within 3 months or so, the vibrant water body turns into a stinking garbage dump that local people happily contribute to, by dumping their garbage, defecating there and burning their rubbish.
5) The thuggish promoter now swaggers in and begins selling his half constructed palace for crores of rupees.

All of this is happening openly, under the noses of locals who for some reason choose to tolerate their own slow poisoning. The local club Garia Mitali Sangha situated on prime land in the middle of the locality have sold their souls for pennies and focus their energies on a Durga Puja rather than burning issues like protecting the land and reporting drug dens. This inspite of the fact that they are led by a rather influential policeman who looms above them like a benign deity.

Local politicians too have sold their souls, case in point being the filling up of the pond right behind the Councillor’s house. Rich apartment owners zoom past in their swanky cars, oblivious to the threat to their very existence while the poor toil at these very sites, unaware that they are digging their own graves.

Is anybody listening? Is there anybody at all who cares? Who can do something about this insidious threat?

Chandannagar – City of Lights

About 100 years after Vasco da Gama landed on the west coast of India in 1498, European traders began to engage with Bengal. Chandannagar, 50 km away from Kolkata became a French bastion which, unlike the other European colonies of Bengal, remained under French control even after independence and only became a part of India in 1950. Once known as Farashdanga, it was well known for it’s local handloom industry. Farashdanga Dhoti saris were famous not only in Bengal but all over the world. The industry still exists but is dying out slowly.

Once a beautiful town with French masons and boulevards, Chandannagar has lost much of its past glory.  A few of the French buildings have passed the test of time and remain standing today as a reminder of a glorious past.The largest concentration of colonial buildings is along the Hooghly, on a stretch known as the Strand.

Some of the heritage structures that have survived include the Sacred Heart Church and the Durgacharan Rakshit Ghat. Built in the 1920s in honor of Durgacharan Rakshit, the recipient of the French award of Legion d’honneur, the elegant looking pavilion consists of slender columns with decorative stucco work. Also along the river lies the Duplex’s Mansion, now the Chandannagar Museum & Institute, housing a rare collection of French artifacts, including personal collection of Duplex, the French Governor of Chandannagar.  Just in front of the museum is an elegant mansion called the Patal Bari (Underground House) as a portion of the house is submerged by the Hooghly River.

Chandannagore is home to some of the finest artists of street lighting. They play with light, creating everything from fireworks in the sky to an entire circus filled with performing animals, dinosaurs, monuments, gardens filled with beautiful flowers and angels in paradise. Indeed, their nimble fingers have magic in them. Artists from Chandannagore have travelled to decorate Durga Puja pandals the world over and the demand for their work has increased by leaps and bounds over the past few decades.


It is indeed heartening to see the artists and their work getting the recognition they so richly deserve, but there is still much more to be done to help preserve this intangible cultural heritage of Bengal. There is no formal training available and this skill is passed down from generation to generation and of course younger generations do not find this work adequately glamorous or well paying.

Every year, between May and July, motley groups of people from across Bengal make a journey to Chandannagore. Coming from all walks of life – from tea vendors to merchants,  hoteliers, politicians, policemen and bankers, they come here together, carrying a huge responsibility on their shoulders. They are the Durga Puja organisers-  tasked with planning and organising one among the world’s largest festivals. The artists look forward to their arrival – because they come bearing large cash advances and orders that will put food on the plate for the rest of the year.

One such group set out from Garia, a few weeks back. And yours truly was also there. This story is of a visit to Chandannagore by the stalwarts of Garia Mitali Sangha, the organisers of the Nabadurga Puja.


It was a perfectly ordinary Sunday morning when NK very casually asked if I wanted to go to Chandannagore with the Puja organisers.  Sensing a golden opportunity to add to my list of destinations visited, I agreed happily.

We set out from Garia at about 4 p.m. A fleet of three cars had been requisitioned for the journey and I found myself in the not unenviable position of being the only female in the group. Not surprisingly, this turned out to be a privilege and I was soon safely ensconced in the front seat of the biggest vehicle. A grumpy NK, who had not expected to be forced to escort me was pushed into the back seat along with a few others. Much shifting and running between cars, identifying drivers and filling of fuel took place while I sat in the air conditioned SUV just outside my house and munched on peanuts produced by an obliging Swapanda.

We eventually left at 5.30p.m. – in a good mood that lasted all the way till Tollygunje. At this point one of the veterans in the back seat realised that we did not know where to go – i.e. we knew we were going to Chandannagar but we did not know the name of the artist or the locality we were to go to. Much frantic telephoning started and it was then discovered that only one person knew- he was in a different car – and that he was depending on Googlemaps to guide us there.

Off we went again, gliding smoothly over the gorgeous new Ma Flyover that swoops down so effortlessly onto the Kona Expressway. Once we crossed the Kona toll gates, we pulled to one side and settled down to wait for our fleet. Twilight was setting in and the evening sky was turning a gorgeous shade of turquoise with thick grey clouds floating above us. The new West Bengal secretariat and Chief Minister’s office ‘Nabanna’ loomed up ahead like a beacon of light. The road was smooth and well lit and vehicles zipped past us like blips on a radar. We sat there and waited for a good hour and half and I settled down to start writing this piece. The atmosphere in the car was lighthearted with the men ribbing each other good naturedly. Even NK relaxed considerably – and I got a glimpse of the NK of old – laughing and joking without a care in the world.



Finally, our lead vehicle appeared in the distance and the lights of the two cars held a private conversation. We were off now  – streaking past familiar towns and landmarks.  All three vehicles were doing a good 100km p.h. and the wind whistled in my ears. We passed small little towns with familiar names- some names that I had seen only from the train windows over the years. Dankuni, Baidyabati, Salkia,Belur, Barrackpore, Bhadreshwar – my heart was bursting with a strange feeling of freedom and joy.


We entered Chandannagore town at about 11 p.m, naturally through the wrong road. This road took us through the town centre and onto a narrow lane adjacent to the railway station. Somehow all three vehicles managed to get onto the wrong side of the road and create a mile long holdup. Tempers frayed and soon we were surrounded by irate motorcyclists and pedestrians baying for our blood. The older members of our group got off, pacified them and somehow managed to get us out of the clutches of the mob without incident. We were now inside Chandannagore and I sat ready with my camera to catch glimpses of all that I described in the first few paragraphs of this piece. It was almost midnight, the shops were closed and there was nothing at all to distinguish this town from the hundred other such towns in West Bengal. Disappointed, I scan the roadside for something – even a single French colonial building that will make this trip worthwhile- nothing. The houses here are large, sturdily built and have some open space in front of them. But that is all. No particular architectural style jumped out at me.

Even as I sat there, thinking my disappointed thoughts, the vehicle was stopped by two young men who stood in the middle of the road smiling and waving. The taller of the two was Dibendu Biswas, the artist we had come in search of. He did not seem in the least put out at the nocturnal intrusion, welcomed us effusively and guided us into his workshop cum residence. This was a small piece of land, and a shed  with a tin roof. Scattered around stood remnants of achievements past – the head of an angel rolled languidly on the floor while a bird with one wing stood forlornly in a corner. A huge oyster made of plastic pearls took centre stage while stacks of aluminium sheets dotted with LED bulbs lay in another dark corner. In the midst of all this, hidden in the shadows, stood an old lady with a lamp and a beaming smile. At first I mistook her for a piece of lighting too – but she turned out to be Dibyendu’s mother- equally welcoming and at ease at 1a.m.

She seated everyone in a tiny little room that was bedroom cum reception cum award display, did a silent head count with practiced ease and headed off to the kitchen to make tea.  She also made note of who needed milk, who did not want sugar etc- and our group had no hesitation in articulating their specific demands either.

Dibyendu sat in the middle of the group and the conversation began. I had a little difficulty in understanding the subject being discussed at first but then it dawned on me that the artist had offered dinner to the entire group (at least twenty people) and that they had accepted. Horrified at the blatant intrusion and lack of consideration, it was all I could do to still still while each person placed his or her food preference and the young assistant noted it all down. My own option of not taking anything was lost when NK summarily announced that I would eat veg food. A debate then followed on what construed vegetarian food with some people insisting that veg meant meat and non veg meant no meat. Eventually they all decided that I would eat vegetable biryani from a local all-night restaurant.

Niceties out of the way, the discussion began in earnest. Dibyendu wanted to design a circus themed set for this year’s Puja – this suggestion was met with murmurs of appreciation. He then pulled out his book of drawing and showed everyone his plans- again met with immediate approval. I intervened timidly to ask if the circus lighting would include clowns and jokers- he whipped out his mobile phone, connected to Youtube and showed me a sample of his work – the innovativeness and beauty of which are unforgettable. I could not find that particular link but here is another one of his works for you to enjoy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJH3lJUQb0o


Designs agreed and questions answered, it was now time to agree a price. Dibyendu held firm at his asking price – the group held firm that they would only pay half of what he wanted. The negotiations continued long into the night – neither group would give in. Eventually after extensive haggling, a mid-way price was agreed upon – a large sum of money indeed- but to my mind, a price worth paying for the quality of work that was being procured.



We wrapped up at 2.30 a.m. and were escorted out to the vehicles by the entire family. Our meals had been packed carefully to be eaten on the way home – mine was marked with a large V to signify my unique status.


We left the town by another road- a beautiful flyover flanked by banana plantations on both sides. Tall lights adorned the road and the silence was overwhelming in its magnificence. The cars sped along and hit the highway within minutes. Lorries and trucks made way for us as we began the long journey home. The Hooghly river glittered with a million diamonds while both banks looked calm and dignified. The lights of Millenium Park waxed and waned with the ebb and flow of the water while those of Belur and Dakshineswar shone steadily like beacons. The second Hooghly bridge and the Howrah bridge have never looked as beautiful as they did that night – and I sent up a silent prayer of thanks for having been able to see them as they were. Inside the city, the roads looked clean and well maintained – vehicles moved effortlessly over them. Alert policemen stood every few hundred yards – an emergency ambulance stood to one side of the road near the Race Course – everything looked so well coordinated.

This journey once again brought home to me the reasons why I love this city so much. There is something so warm and so soothing about my city, that no matter where I go, no matter how wonderful other places are, Kolkata beckons to me and I run back into her comforting embrace. My identity is intimately linked with that of Kolkata and this is where I belong.


NB: Garia is located on the Tolly’s Nullah that connects Kolkata to the Vidhyadhari River to the east. Always a peaceful residential neighbourhood, Garia remained relatively untouched by the violence and unrest that pervaded Bengal in the 1900’s. Partition changed the fabric of the area when refugees arrived in hordes and settled down in the farm lands and country houses of the rich landowners of Garia, increasing the population of the area by many thousands.

Peace reigned in the area despite the upheaval and pressure on resources and gradually, over several decades Garia has become an important urban hub on the fringes of the city.

The Garia Nabadurga Puja was started 78 years back by local landowners in a modest way.  Over time, as businesses grew and the young men and women of the area started getting exposure to modern ways, they focussed their energies on making the Durga Puja a community affair that embraced all the residents. Several lakhs of people visit this Puja today and the atmosphere is carnival like in nature. The wheels of administration have to churn non-stop for several months before the Puja in order to ensure that every possibility is accounted for – from security to healthcare arrangements, recruiting volunteers to crowd management, from transport arrangements to liaising with government agencies for permission – the list is endless – and nothing but commitment and devotion can motivate anybody to do so much. Inspiration comes from the Goddess herself.

The Goddess in all her glory

Churu: Take a step back in time

The Silk Route was an ancient network of trade routes that were for centuries central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting the East and West from China to the Mediterranean Sea.Situated on a branch of the Silk Route that connected to the port of Khambat (then Cambay), the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan was known for traders who dealt in high volumes at low margins.Local merchants and canny businessmen benefited from the activity and quickly rose to dizzying heights of prosperity.

The Shekhawati region is a semi-desert expanse comprising Jhunjhunu, Churu and Sikar district and derives its name from its ruler Rao Shekha.In the middle of the 19th century, with trade weakening on the Silk Route branch through Rajasthan to the port of Khambat, and the strengthening of the new British ports of Mumbai and Kolkata, the traders began moving to other parts of the country, initially going east towards Bihar and Bengal. Later, they would fan out to other parts of the country, including Delhi and Mumbai.Though it was initially the men who travelled, leaving families behind, over time entire families began to move. Over time, the region began to turn into a ghost town, with abandoned havelis and monuments the only reminder of the golden age it had let behind.

Churu is an offbeat choice for a weekend getaway. Located on the edge of the Thar desert, it is blessed with an enchanting topography and is encircled by large shifting sand dunes. it’s main claim to fame today is the extreme temperatures it faces. The region boasts record temperatures ranging from below freezing point in the winters to over 55 degrees in the summer afternoons. Before dawn in the months of December/ January people have found ice in small waterpots or frozen water dew. Yet one may find that summer nights are cooler and winter days are warmer. There is a great variation in minimum and the maximum temperature of Churu. It does not even  have much to offer by way of entertainment either- no traditional Rajasthani dances or musicians here. It is however, only 4 hours from Delhi by train on the Gurgaon-Bikaner railway line- and therefore a somewhat attractive proposition.

And so we set off on a chilly Christmas morning.  Stepping off the Delhi-Bikaner Intercity Express, the Railway station felt exactly like the hundreds of small junctions that we see on our train journeys. As we walked out of the station, into the crisp morning sun, we were immediately swallowed up in a chaotic confusion of honking buses, autos, rickshaws, cycles and camel carts- peppered with cud chewing cows in the middle of the road- the classic image of India.

It took us about two minutes to negotiate a deal with an autorickshaw and then we were off to our hotel. The auto ride cost us a princely Rs 50/- for a 1.5km drive through the crowded lanes of Churu town. Ten minutes later we were deposited in front of an unassuming iron gate, about ten feet high, with a small sign proclaiming its identity: Malji Ka Kamra. The auto driver himself rang the bell and ushered us inside when a small panel in the large gate was opened from inside.

Stepping in, we were greeted by the sight of a huge green mansion set at the far end of a green, landscaped lawn dotted with statues and garden chairs. A few men greeted us with smiles and ushered us into a room built into the gateway itself- the reception. Checking in took five minutes and then the manager himself escorted us to our first floor room. It took some time for us to realise that the entire staff of the hotel had actually gathered at the gate to welcome us.


Built as a guesthouse for the Maharaja of Bikaner by Malji Kothari – one of the richest Seths of Churu – Malji Ka Kamra is over 100 years’ old. The place was used as an entertainment house for visiting dignitaries with artists being called upon from all corners of Bikaner riyasat to showcase their arts. In fact, one of the rooms still carries an original painting of Ganga Singh Ji – who used to stay in that particular room during his frequent visits to Churu. The present owners carried out the restoration of this heritage building after it had reached a state of partial collapse due to neglect in last few decades.  The main building showcases a unique combination of Italian style construction combined with ingenuity of local architects. The hugely impressive stucco work on the exteriors and Shekhawati style murals painted in the interiors are some of the finest examples of art prevalent in early 20th century. Several statues repose on the façade of the building …Lady carrying a pot on her head,  Lord Shiva in Rudra thandav pose, and many more. All of them were so realistic .We were very impressed with a statuette of  a monkey playing a snake charmer’s flute.The naughty  expression of the little monkey was very amusing.

A very loyal set of employees take care of the  maintenance and upkeep of this property now. Spacious, rooms, at least 20’x20’ and beautifully decorated fresco paintings on the walls took our breath away. It was splendid to see how these frescoes had retained  their colour and freshness even after so many years. This three storied building has at least a hundred ornate doors- some of them are actually windows while others are merely a façade. Our own room had eight doors, one of which opened out into a large semi circular balcony  overlooking  the green garden.

A late lunch was served for us in the grand main dining hall- once upon a time the inside courtyard of the Haveli. We were the only guests there, and were offered a selection of tasty, simple vegetarian dishes cooked in the local style. Kair sangri wins my vote hands down.

As we ate, an unassuming man approached us and politely stood to one side. When I looked at him, he proffered a large album and stepped back. This album turned out to be a coffee table book of photographs of various ancient havelis, taken by one of their former guests. He softly informed us that he had written the foreword in this beautiful book.  This gentleman was Lal Singh Shekhawat- guide and historian par excellence. A post graduate in Political Science, his love for the art and architecture of his native state compelled him to remain long after his peers had left for greener pastures, and he spends his time showing hotel guests around the town. In a trice, we finished our lunch and set off on the Heritage walk around the town.

The streets, lanes and bylanes actually were dusty, crowded and congested.  We saw several dozen Havelis- unfortunately they are now in ruins because of sheer neglect  and ill maintenance.  Almost all of them are empty, save an elderly caretaker or two camping in the outhouse. Lalsingh used his good offices to let us into a few of them and what we saw left us wondering how majestic they would have been in their heydays … with their enormous ornate gates, horse and camel stables, gardens, statues, Italian marble floors, Belgium glass entrances and massive chandeliers. A strange sadness came over us as we realized that what we were seeing was the wilful destruction and loss of Rajasthan’s built heritage.

From the Havelis, Lalsingh took us straight into the market, a crowded, congested and traffic filled nightmare. There, in a tight little corner, almost in the path of a variety vehicles, we drank sweet milky chai made by Puneet- the fifth generation to run this tiny little teashop that was started in 1890.   Several locals stopped by to say a friendly hello as we sat there. They were open, warm and welcoming and it was nice to sit there chatting cursorily with them.On the way back, Lalsingh regaled us with local lore, tales of romances and the historical importance of Churu ( the town lay on the original Silk Route). We also dropped into a beautiful Jain temple that he said was built in 1915.


Back in our mansion, a quiet dinner of dal, roti and sabji and we were done for the day. The Kingsize four poster beds were so inviting and comfortable that within minutes we were fast asleep under warm blankets.  The next day, when we did not appear for breakfast till 11 a.m, a very concerned manager came knocking on our door to enquire. Since we were showing no signs of planning any activity at all and because two of us were still snoring away, he took it on himself to point out that we should not waste the single day we had in his town and suggested that we visit the Tal Chappar Sanctuary, a hundred kilometers away.

Within an hour we found ourselves speeding off on one of the most beautiful roads I have ever seen. Smooth, unblemished and solidly black, we seemed to be rolling up and down the dune like road at an impossibly high speed.  We passed through tiny villages and small towns at a smart clip- and the landscape around us, almost desert like but covered in bush lulled us into a stupor. Scenes from Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella came to mind. A little later we rolled into the idyllic village of Chappar. An unremarkable signboard proclaimed the office of the Forest Department. We paid a fee of Rs 50/- to an elderly man dressed in the traditional Rajasthani style and who spoke to me in the quaintest of Rajasthani dialects- I almost went into raptures when he said ‘ Thamb yahan apan naam likho aur yahan thamb ke pita ka naam’  and in we went.

A deep silence enveloped us as we entered the sanctuary through unimposing gates.  There was no one in sight. High blades of golden grass, large trees and a pretty little path through the wilderness. Not a soul in sight, not a sound to be heard except the chirping of birds. The growl of the car engine sounded loud enough to be heard miles away. We cut the engine in a small copse inside and looked around. And then we saw them. Hundreds, maybe thousands of enquiring eyes were looking at us through the grass. Their bodies almost hidden in the high underbrush, all we could see were those huge huge eyes and big black antlers.

For what seemed like an eternity, we all froze and just looked at each other. And then one of the deer moved. She emerged from the grass and made straight towards us. And then she came right up to us and standing on her hind legs, pushed her head through the  open car door.


We went into an ecstatic frenzy of photography of course. For some minutes, all that could be heard was the rapid clicking of camera buttons and the flash of light from the mobiles.  She, it seemed, had experienced this before, and patiently blithely waited for us to get over with it. She posed and preened, showing us her prettiest profiles- and then she got down to business. She wanted all the food in the car, every single bit of it.  So she ate cookies, chips and even an orange, looking up from her chomping to pose for a photo or two as well. When there was no more food left, she showed her irritation by butting me in the knees, so hard that I almost fell over.


This impossible spectacle was being watched closely by hundreds of eyes. It was obvious that they too wanted to join in, but instinct was holding them back. Finally unable to satisfy our hungry friend, we got back in the car and went ahead. What we saw in that sanctuary will remain in our minds for a long time to come. We were at a waterhole, where the still water reflected the clouds in the sky. Hundreds of  deer were drinking while a family of wild boars complete with little babies splashed in the pool merrily. A pair of kingsize eagles sat majestically at the edge of the water, watching the scene with a detached air. In the background, a pair of Nilgai lurked just out of sight. The proximity and unconditional trust of these animals left us praying that a certain famous person, known for his propensity to shoot black bucks, never finds out about this place.


Shutterbug frenzy finally satiated, we set out on our return journey. Stopping at an attractive wayside restaurant(dhaba), we sat down to an effusive welcome from the owner who promised us fresh home cooked food. Two youngsters got busy kneading dough while all four guests, driver included, promptly pulled out their mobile phones and started admiring the pictures they had taken. The food was heavenly when it finally arrived, steaming hot, fresh and cooked with love.  Our enthusiastic host regaled us through lunch with tales of local intrigue and the shenanigans of local politicians.

The next day morning, we were up bright and early. A spot of breakfast, a few badminton games in the lawn and we thought we were ready to go catch our 1230 train. Our manager of course had other ideas. They sauntered up and suggested that we go visit some local artists. We agreed, more to satisfy them than anything else, and again within minutes, an auto had driven up and off we went.  A long, long drive through the backyards of Churu took us to a village on the outskirts – the home of Pawan Jangid and his family. What a loss it would have been if we had missed this opportunity.

This spectacularly talented family of artists works with sandalwood to create magic. The entire family and several neighbours gathered in their single room to display their work and show us the many awards they had received.   These were no ordinary wood carvers- they were magicians. Intricate designs carved into the soft wood, ingenious little secret panels that hid tales of intrigue and adventure and beautiful little showpieces stunned us into mesmerised silence.


Finally, it was time to leave Churu. We bade good bye to the friendly staff and made our way back. The memories of our tiny trip to this step back in time will remain with us for a long time.

Write up credit: Ganesh Murthy and Prakash Singh