Monday, October 22, 2007

Home is where the heart is

For 65 Bengali families, Kochi is much closer to them than far-away Kolkata, as they celebrate Durga Puja

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Dr. Nibit Purkayastha, 49, the Chief Medical Officer of Nicholas Hospital, Eramalloor, was studying medicine in Rangaraya Medical College, in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, he became friends with the Malayali students. When the MBBS course was over, he followed them to Kerala, because he “wanted to avoid the hustle and bustle of Calcutta”.

One of his friends, Dr. Ranjit Isaac, arranged a job for him in the Holy Cross hospital in Aroor in 1984. Later, he moved to the Krishnagiri hospital in Chandiroor. “After six years, when I left for a better job at a nearby hospital, there was a mass of people who requested me not to leave,” says Purkayastha, as he sits on a cement ledge just outside the Rabindra Bhavan auditorium in Gandhi Nagar, Kadavanthra, on a Saturday night. “Some ladies were crying. I cannot express the feelings I went through at that time.”

Today, 23 years later, Purkayashtha is one of the leading lights in Aroor. He owns a hospital and was made the first Charter President of the Rotary Club of Adoor. He mediates when there are family disputes in the area and is the president of the Keral Banga Samskriti Sangha. The Sangha was established in 1971 and the Rabindra Bhavan auditorium was built in 1995. There are about 65 Bengali families in Kochi, with a total strength of 200.

Having been in Kerala for so long, Purkayashtha, who speaks Malayalam fluently, has a keen idea of the psyche of the Malayali. “I find the people very soft,” he says. “They don’t have outbursts and fighting like there is in other places in India. I have seen many controversies erupt over the years, which have been solved without catching anybody’s collar.” Adds Kajol Banerjee, a teacher: “It is a very safe place for women.”

As for the similarities, Purkayastha’s wife, Mahasweta, a teacher in Our Lady of Mercy School in Aroor, talks about the common bond nurtured by the songs of Salil Chowdhury. “The song, Poove va, poovinte makkale va, from the film, Neelaponman, has a Bengali version called Dithang, Dithang bole which was sung by Hemanta Mukherjee,” she says.

Husband and wife keenly remember the unforgettable music of Chemmeen and the famous Manna Dey song, Maanasamaine varu. “When I came here, the first film I wanted to see was Chemmeen,” says Purkayashta. Mahasweta gives another example of the cultural bond. “The film, Ore Kadal, which stars Mamooty and Meera Jasmine, is based on a novel, Hirak Deepthi, by famous Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay. In the many Malayali houses that we have visited, we have seen the novels of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay.”

As they talk, all around, there is a voluble conversation by men and women, while children run about in gay abandon, just days before the biggest festival for the Bengalis, the Durga Puja (October 17–21). On the darkened stage, a group of girls, who hold small diyas in their hands, are doing a dance rehearsal to a Rabindranath Tagore song, Aguner Paresh Mani. The dots of light create a surreal effect. In the middle of the hall, in a semi-circle, sit the members of the organising committee, as they clear last minute hitches for the programmes in the upcoming week.

And there is one man in this crowd who is a blur of activity. “For the first time, the younger generation is handling the organising of the Durga Puja functions,” says Amit Sarkar, 29, who works as a key account manager in Bharti Airtel. He is a second generation Bengali who has been brought up in Kochi. His father used to work in Essar Constructions. “I feel very happy in Kochi,” he says in fluent Malayalam. “I have built my house on Chitoor Road and I am getting married soon. I like the Malayalis very much because when there is an emergency, they rush forward to help.”

Outside the auditorium, Bandana Roy Chowdhury, 18, is strolling around with a friend of hers. And it is impossible to believe that she is a Bengali. She speaks and looks like a Malayali. “I don’t have any problem of roots,” says this Class 12 student of Campion School. “I was born and brought up in Kochi and I like it here. In fact, I have more Malayali friends than Bengali.”

Even Purkayastha has more Malayali friends. “I told my friends that when I die, my body will not be flown to Kolkata. My last rites will be done here,” he says, with a laugh. Yes, he loves Kerala with a deep intensity and this becomes evident when he speaks about the unemployment problem. “There are so many educated youths here,” he says. “Why can’t the government bring in investment? Even West Bengal, a Communist state like Kerala, is pulling in so much of investment from America and China, so why should we lag behind? You go anywhere in India, the Malayalis are in the top positions. So, why is the government allowing this brain drain to happen?”

These are pertinent questions, but, unfortunately, our corrupt politicians lack the moral integrity to answer them.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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