Delhi’s Bong Paradise: How The ‘Bengali Bhadralok’ Came To Be In C R Park

Posted on August 7, 2015 in Culture-Vulture

By Archisman Misra:

It has been almost 18 years since I moved to Chittaranjan Park and quite frankly the place still intrigues me. I’ve met many a person who told me its tale, about their personal experiences while living here. I’ve celebrated Durga Puja here with as much zest as I have in Kolkata, I’ve even enjoyed the gastronomical delights with as much fervour. Not many know of the history of this place, quite often when I tell someone that I live in Chittranjan Park, the same vacuous comment comes my way, “Don’t you get really good fish there?”. Hence I must write this article, to make people see, to make them understand that C.R. Park is about so much more.

Image Source: Archisman Misra
Image Source: Archisman Misra

How Chittaranjan Park came to be

After the partition of India, the intelligentsia and civil servants of erstwhile Bengal found themselves divided into East Bengal and West Bengal. While West Bengal stayed a part of the Union of India, East Bengal went to Pakistan.

The intelligentsia and civil servants migrated to the Union of India and began demanding a colony for themselves in the capital city, Delhi. In 1954, a handful of these individuals got together and formed the East Pakistan Displaced Persons Association and started lobbying to the Government for a residential neighbourhood.

In the 1960s, land was assigned to these individuals, in the then far flung southern areas of the capital, uninhabited and forested. The Members of E.P.D.P. were required to provide some documentation of their residential status, and were required to be “already residing and gainfully employed in the capital”. Based on this, around 2000 people were given plots of land, which then became the blocks A through K, along with space for Markets and Cultural Centres. During this process many Bengalis from the surrounding are as, who had not been displaced during the partition, migrated to New Delhi.

The late Mr.Chakrabarti, one of the first 100 residents, often told me tales of the nascent days, “The entire area of Chittaranjan Park was surrounded by the Jahanpanah Forest and we could often hear wolves howling in the night.” He had to walk many a kilometre to even buy the most basic necessities. In the centre of the locality lay a small hillock, atop which a few residents had placed an idol of Shiva, lit by a single bulb.

This soon became a temple to the goddess Kali and by the late 1970s the residents started celebrating the annual Bengali festival of Durga Puja around this temple. By the late 1980s, there were three temples on the same ground, dedicated to Kali, Shiva and Radha Krishna and, it soon became the religious hub of all Bengalis in Delhi.

In 1980 the E.P.D.P. association petitioned for the colony to be named after Chittaranjan Das, a prominent figure in the Indian Independence movement, which led to the renaming of E.P.D.P as the famous Chittaranjan Park or C.R. Park. A decade later, 8 more blocks came into being, housing a further 700 families.The 4 markets and cultural centers quickly blossomed into hubs of Bengali culture and cuisine, and the area became home to one of the city’s main markets for freshwater fish, an important part of Bengali Cuisine.

Mini Kolkata or a world unto itself?

In essence Chittranjan Park is a small haven for the Bangali Bhodrolok (prosperous, well-educated and well-mannered Bengali) who want their Aajkal, a Bengali daily, flown in from Kolkata. Bhodrolok, like to have their evening tea in front of the market, along with cutlets in the company of friends, and discuss the political affairs of lands unknown, sprinkled with a little bit of football. You can quietly go and sit in the courtyards of the Kali Mandir and contemplate about life, or go watch a play in the Bangiya Samaj.

From banana leaves to Cookme Masala, you can easily find every bit of Bengal here, but the people are different, for it is not Kolkata.

While CR Park becomes mini Bengali Culture Hub during Durga Puja, I wouldn’t call it mini Kolkata. It’s an unfair comparison to make. Chittaranjan Park is in Delhi and no matter how hard you try, you cannot take Delhi out of it. There is a certain alien feeling that no matter how hard you try, you can’t put a finger on.

If you’re thinking about Bongs, It’s hard not to think of Durga Puja

There is a saying, that if a group of Bengalis are living near each other, a Durga Puja will happen, be it in New Delhi or New York. Quite essentially, a Bengali cannot exist without Durga Puja.

The moment you enter C.R. Park during Durga Puja, everything changes. The sun coyly shines, spreading just the correct amount of sunlight and warmth. The smell of Shiuli flowers (night-flowering Jasmine) is in the air and there is a sense of gaiety and splendor everywhere.

You enter a pandal and Delhi stops existing for a while, all you hear is Bengali being spoken constantly, Bengali music playing all around and the unmistakable smell of incense that goes with the rituals. The Kali Mandir is a solace for the vegetarian among us, as it is full of small makeshift stalls selling rolls, chaats, bhelpuri, ghughni (dried yellow peas cooked in gravy) etc.

As you walk towards the bigger pandals like B-Block, Co-Operative and Mela Ground, you’ll find that things suddenly become a bit commercial with IFB Fisheries, Karim’s and Mother’s Dairy and this is where Delhi somewhat manages to peek through.

The moment you step out from C.R. Park, you’re back in Delhi with the mindless traffic and obnoxious drivers where life goes on as normal. In Kolkata, however, it is relentless, there is no going away from the Puja, and the city is full of madness and celebration.

Image source: Archisman Misra
Image source: Archisman Misra

C.R. Park gives you a cursory glance at what the world of Durga Puja is, a sampler of what you’d get in Kolkata at the same time of the year. It gives you a chance to gauge your preparedness in case you ever wanted to go see Durga Puja in Kolkata.

Looking to the future

The Colony has often received unfair flak about being cultural posers, sometimes from writers, which may or may not have been an attempt at humour.

The locality has been home, at different points of time, to Phoolan Devi, Swapan Dasgupta, Santanu Moitra and others.

The cultural diaspora of the area has diversified quite significantly over time, due to aging residents and further immigration to various countries for study or work. Decades from now, we might get to see a Chittaranjan Park devoid of Bengalis, where veg cutlets might make better sales than the fish fry. Surprisingly, however there has also been an influx of Bengalis who shift here, from Kolkata to pursue a life in the capital, and the fish here does not disappoint.

The younger generations have been slowly moving away from Bengali cultural. They speak a version of Bangla that is a broken-mix of Hindi, English and Bengali. Averse to the typical Bengali home food; the youth prefers butter chicken over shorshe eelish (Hilsa Fish cooked in Mustard). But when Durga Puja begins, you’ll find the same youngsters obsessing over khichudi and payesh and performing the rituals of the Puja with equal fervour.

Located in a city obsessed with modernisation, fault lines have started to appear in the hub of Bengali Culture i.e. Chittaranjan Park, but whether it becomes just another locality in Delhi still remains to be seen. For now, Dadu’s Cutlet Shop is still frying the cutlets deep brown, Annapurna Sweets still sells roshogollas by the bucketful and Tabu still fillets the bhetki to perfection. The grandfathers still sit on the park benches and discuss politics while the grandmothers fuss over their grandchildren. The temple bells still ring every evening in the Kali Mandir and the luchi and soojir payesh has never tasted better.

For a person having seen the best and worst of both worlds, I’m quite content with my belly full of grub and, gelusil always in my pocket.