In our childhood (my sister’s and mine) Netaji’s name was associated more with fun than the freedom movement. While we knew everything that every Bengali child is supposed to know, by default, about the great leader - from his childhood in Cuttack to his disappearance during the Second World War - ‘Subhas’ meant principally ‘Subhas Mela’ for us. One of the high points of the winter season – the others being Saraswati Puja and the Book Fair.
The Mela (fair) started on his Birthday, on 23rd January, and continued for a whole month in our neighbourhood Park in Kankurgachi. It was not used much during the year, but it came alive in this one month. And we partook every bit of the fun that it could offer.
We would come home from school, change quickly and then go out with Ma to the Mela. Almost every day. We had our favourites, of course. The toy-train was absolutely top of the bill. Bengalis usually associate toy trains with Darjeeling… but then, since we didn’t know whether we would ever go there (my father was a very busy man), we relished this local one as best we could. At least I did. Then there were the stalls, all manner of them, many of them to do with domesticity: kitchenware, bedsheets and pillow covers and tablecloths, buckets and towels. Also clothes: sarees, dresses for young children and young adults. Ma mostly bought things for the house – just the odd item here and there. I had never seen her buy anything in bulk – a ladle here, a few spoons there, four tea cups once, two quarter-plates later. Everything to do with tea and snacks in our house were brought from Subhas Mela. Ma preferred the Mela for two reasons: things were cheaper there than elsewhere; more importantly, it was easier for her to shop there than ‘go out’ for shopping in Shyambazar or New Market or Gariahat. The Mela was practically right opposite our housing complex. It took us about five minutes from house door to Park entrance. And she could take us with her. That was the biggest advantage. She didn’t need to keep us alone at home and wonder whether we were doing our homework or busy fighting. Also, she could still manage to come back home and cook the dinner.
At the Mela, she indulged us with street food – ‘tomato chop’ or ‘bhel puri’ or ‘masala muri’. I loved the chop most, with plain muri. I also liked accompanying Ma (much more than didi) to do all her domestic shopping. The beauty of it was that Ma never did it with an attitude of doing a “necessary” thing. There was a certain excitement about it – even about buying those everyday things. It was not “Oh God, I’ve got to buy things again… there’s no end to these needs”. But rather, “Let’s find out what’s new and what’s the best price for it”; or “The weather is fine today, the kids will love going out”. And every time she bought something new, there was a transparent joy in her face. Come to think of it, so many things in the house were stuff that was bought at the Mela.
My favourite buy was a skirt-top pair – the skirt had a formal black-and-white cheque design, and tapered down to the knees; the top was a pristine white georgette piece, with a pair of high rounded collars, maggie sleeves and four columns of frills running down the chest. It was one of the smartest pairs I ever wore in school, a wonderful cross between dainty and formal. And it was so cheap! My next favourite was a household item - a bed-sheet, actually! I loved it because it always made our room look brighter. It was a double bed-sheet, but was not a single piece, rather two single sheets stitched together in the middle, with bright red flowers in oval boxes against a white background. It was super thin and yet, when you spread it, it didn’t wrinkle easily, but stayed neat and tight just like much thicker bed covers. It was also easy to wash and dry, and we used it for many years. My favourite-est items, however, were pictures of film stars (Mithun, Jaya Prada, Sridevi) that I bought with my pocket money at the Mela, at times on the sly when Ma was busy in a nearby stall. I had quite a collection! A stall that sold ‘Seasons’s Greetings’ cards, also sold those picture post-cards, and of course they had the maximum customers.
I started this piece talking of the toy train, which was a source of great delight for us. But what I was scared to death about was the ‘nager-dolna’. It was actually not a very big one – it had just four boxes, so it didn’t go very high. But just one experience there was enough for me! I went in and no sooner did the it start churning quickly, its tempo built by a few rotations, that I was screaming my lungs out and wanted to disembark right away! In fact, they had to stop early because of my scary screams – very different from the gregarious laughs of the other youngsters (mostly girls) who were enjoying the experience. Two decades later, in two different continents, I would experience the ‘roller-coaster’: I was sure I was dying in one (in Disney, Orlando) and managed not to faint in the other (the less terrible one in the Netherlands). I have photos of those… but none of Subhas Mela.
The excitement of the Mela kind of waned in the second half of the month, and definitely towards the end. By then, we knew every stall by heart and the element of surprise was lost. We knew what to expect in each stall, what they were capable of offering – plus, how much could we buy? Ma would try her best to protract the fun for us… but we were pretty satiated by the end of the Mela on 23rd Feb. That didn’t stop us from feeling a little sad, though, when it was finally dismantled. We looked forward to the next year. In the meantime, the Park would have another big ‘event’ in the autumn – Durga Puja!
Subhas Mela would shift its venue later, within Kankurgachi itself. But thankfully, we had grown up by then, hence didn’t miss it much. Much later in life, I would experience an equivalent of it, somewhat, in the Saturday market of Amstelveen - the suburb of Amsterdam where we first lived in the Netherlands.
Back in Kolkata, the malls - the new locus of socializing for parents and kids - have, for quite sometime, taken over the excitement of the ‘melas’. For those children whose parents can afford to give them that, i.e. It is highly ‘curated’, glitzy fun... but I have made my peace with it.