Mamata Banerjee clearly enjoys the company of thespians. Actors and actresses – usually Bengali movie stars – are often captured in photographs sitting by her side on stage at public meetings. In these photos she appears cheerful and friendly, very unlike the grim, angry images which the nation is used to. Just in the last one week the Bengal newspapers were full of pictures of the CM with myriad celebrities including Paoli Dam – who has become famous after her daring nude lovemaking sequence in a Sri Lankan film – and Bengali matinee heroes Dev and Jeet. In fact, she attended a screening of Dev’s new film Khoka Babu. Afterwards she told the actor that he was hotter than Hrithik Roshan. “Tumi Hrihik keo chhariey gecho,” she beamed, before going onto compliment him on his physique. But then her fondness for film stars is not new. The claim to fame of several of her MPs and MLAs – Tapas Pal, Satabdi Roy and Debashree Roy – is that they are film stars. In fact, she has inducted one into her own cabinet: thespian Bratya Basu, who is the education minister. If Shakespeare was in Calcutta now he would have said: All of Bengal is a stage and all the MLA and MPs are merely players.
Calcutta has no dearth of fraudsters pretending to be fortunetellers. But it’s not every day that you come across one – or in this case two – who gets caught accepting a cheque of Rs. 15,000 for palm-reading. That’s what happened to Sitaram Senapati and his assistant Abhishek Samanta. A man named Soumen Samanta heard about how Sitaram and Abhishek duped many hapless customers out of large sums of money with the promise of changing their fortunes for the better. Soumen and a friend decided to do something about this. Earlier this week, they landed up in the palmist’s chamber. Soumen pretended to be mute seeking a cure for his “illness”; his friend pretended to be a jilted husband, trying to get his wife back from the man she had run away with. The saffron clad soothsayers assured them these problems could be solved…for a miniscule fee. 2500 for the wife’s return and ‘only’ 15,000 to cure the muteness. The fortunetellers evidently failed to tell their own fortunes. Because soon they found themselves being led away by the police.
Another major fire in Calcutta – this time at a gas station – exposed how petrol pumps in the city ignore basic fire safety regulations. While no lives were lost, thanks mainly to the fire department’s prompt action and also local residents who helped douse the flames by providing water from their residential overhead tanks, the fire could have been major if it had spread to the basement which stored tanks of petrol and diesel. Bharat Petroleum officials however denied that there was any danger of that happening. They insisted that there was an in-built fire-preventive system in the storage tank. “Unless there is a major Japan-like earthquake, it is unlikely that a fire on the surface can reach the reservoir. But of course, during decantation, we are extra careful as even a tiny spark can spell doom,” general secretary of Petroleum Dealears’ Association Surojit Koley said. While a probe has been initiated into the cause of the fire, it is has been reported that most of Calcutta’s gas stations are only equipped with portable fire extinguishers and sand buckets. They do not comply with the National Building Code of India (2005), which makes it mandatory for petrol pumps to store 5000 liters of water in overhead tanks, a manually-operated electric fire alarm system and yard hydrants with accessories and foam components and a 30-meter hose reel. The city’s petroleum dealers have reportedly claimed that many of these regulations are not practical because of space and other constraints. Luckily for them, no one died in the fire. Because if they did, these petroleum dealers would be saying such irresponsible things from inside a jail cell.
One of the best ways to feel the pulse of Calcutta is to travel by public transport. Calcuttans are generally gregarious and able to strike up conversations with absolute strangers. Sometimes these begin with innocuous comments on the weather and then move gradually on to more personal things. Like how much salary you draw. Or why you aren’t doing anything about that nasty cold. There is no better place to get a feel and flavour of the city than on say the local train, the mini bus or the auto rickshaw. Sometimes hawkers hop onto the bus or train and sell their fares using a variety of persuasive techniques that can give top advertising executives a run for their money. Sample the following: A boy barely out of his teens is hawking a product which he claims can remove every stain under the sun…except one stain. Without telling us what that one stain is, he enumerates, in one breath as it were, the hundred odd stains it can remove. These include: “chayer daag, paaner daag, holuder daag, ghamer daag…” (tea stain, betel leaf stains, turmeric stains, sweat stains…). He then pauses, clears his throat, and announces, “Shudhu, ekta daag tultey bolben na…moner daag.” (“Except please don’t ask me to remove one stain…the stain on your character.) All the passengers laugh. So far he has been standing in front of the bus like a stand-up comedian facing his audience. Now he begins slowly to move inwards, handing everyone a plastic bag containing two tiny plastic bottles holding some suspicious looking liquid. “Dekhoon na,” he insists, “dekhtey toh poisha lagbe na.” (Check it out. It doesn’t cost anything to look.”) There is general merriment on the bus by this point. Everyone is sold. No one returns the plastic bags. “Ten rupees only,” the boy smiles. By the time he alights in the next stop he has sold at least 20 to 30 bottles. I spilled some coffee on my white shirt. Can't wait to try out the liquid. Though it looks kind of dodgy. The results, if you are interested, next week.