The main hall of the 46-year-old memorial institution, Chittaranjan Bhawan, echoed with a spirited laughter on the evening of March 8 as about 20 women came together to narrate ‘her’ story of C R Park, the Bengali enclave set up in the 1960s to rehabilitate those who had been displaced by the Partition. “Even though so much has changed over time, we feel very blessed to belong to Chittaranjan Park,” says Manju Moitra. Moitra was part of a discussion series titled ‘C R Park story: A retelling’, organised by theatre and social activism group Shapno Ekhon. The session on Friday themed ‘Voices of Women’ was organised in celebration of International Women’s day.
“The first Durga Pujo here was held in 1971. Then in most Pujo committees 40-50 per cent of the members were women. They would be involved in all aspects of the fiev-day event, starting from taking care of the puja and serving khichuri bhog to organising the cultural events,” says Sreemati Chakraborty who was part of the first generation of house owners in the neighbourhood. Chakraborty moved to C R Park with her parents in 1971 as a final year college student. “I remember that the Poush Mela started here in 1974, and my mother would wake up early in the morning and go to the Mela ground. All the women would come together and make pithe (a Bengali dessert made during the festival of Makar Sankrarti) and stay there till late evening,” she recalls adding that it was mainly through participating in various forms of cultural activities that women contributed in the building of a community in C R Park.
The South Delhi neighbourhood was established in 1964 to accommodate those who had moved to Delhi from East Pakistan during the Partition. By the 1960s Delhi already had a thriving Bengali population. When the department of rehabilitation announced the creation of a neighbourhood specifically for those displaced from East Bengal, a large population of Delhi’s already existing Bengali population was found eligible for land allotment there.
“Many of the Bengalis who moved in here, might not have been active culturally in more cosmopolitan neighbourhoods. But in C R Park, they got an opportunity to showcase their talents,” says Chakraborty.
There were others, however, who had a different experience of moving to C R Park in the 1970s. “I used to live in Kashmere Gate which was the oldest hub of Bengalis in Delhi,” says veteran actress and singer Ruma Ghosh. “Having grown up there, and having participated in all kinds of cultural programmes there, I was used to a certain quality of functions. When I came to C R Park everything seemed a bit out of sorts. I did not think that it was at par with what Bengalis of culture should be doing,” she says, adding how things then started picking up. “This was a newer colony, Kashmere gate of course was a much older settlement,” narrates Ghosh.
Sharmila Sinha moved to C R Park in the 1990s from Tagore Park, another neighbourhood with a Bengali population. “I remember when my husband first told me about moving to C R Park, I was very averse to the idea because my father-in-law used to say that this is a more crass side,” says Sinha with an embarrassed laughter. Today, of course, Sinha is actively involved in the cultural development of C R Park and has been carrying out a number of initiatives to preserve food and environmental heritage. “But through the years I have come to love C R Park,” she says.
As a young adult, Chakraborty too had seen heated arguments between her parents when the idea of applying for land in the newly declared Bengali enclave first came up. “My father would tell my mother that you will hate that place. There would be jackals howling at night and mosquitoes,” she recalls adding that her mother was very persistent they should apply. “Finally he applied on the last day and we were the first ones to be allocated land. Thank God my mother forced him to apply,” says Chakravarty.
But the travails of the initial days have long passed and all those present in the discussion agree that the allure of C R Park lies in its ability to create a sense of ‘belongingness’. “There would be so many activities, book discussions, dance, music and theatre. I guess this is what happens in any new neighbourhood during its growing years. This is what C R Park means to us,” says Sushmita Chakravarty who moved in the 1990s after having spent her childhood in the JNU campus where her father worked.
But apart from cultural activities, women in C R Park have also been involved in several social and developmental projects. “I remember when in the 1970s some women wanted to form a ‘Mahila samiti’, the Bangiya Samaj and Chittaranjan Bhawan agreed to allot them a room. But these women were adamant that they wanted an independent establishment,” reminisces Dasgupta who is an active member of the Purboshree Mahila Samiti. She narrated how this group of women initially carried out their meetings in a small garage. Overtime, the organisation grew in its size and scope and have been running a charitable clinic, a sewing class for domestic helpers, a physiotherapy wing, and a marriage bureau.
Asked if a women’s group is necessary to build a neighbourhood, Chakrabarty replies with firm confidence: “Of course, a neighbourhood is actually formed and nurtured by women”. “Even now whenever there is any kind of problem in the neighbourhood, people immediately reach out to the women for help,” says Maitra. Chakraborty on the other hand, remembers that earlier the Mahila Samiti had a wing called the ‘action committee’ which would take care of issues related to domestic violence. “I remember there was a dowry related case in B-block and the action committee had intervened to solve the matter.” But the committee died away gradually.
There are other things as well that had changed or withered away with time in the ‘mini Bengal’ of Delhi. “I remember sometime in the 1980s when I was taking a walk in the park, I heard for the first time some discussion about an Antakshari programme in Durga pujo. That was anathema to me. We used to have plays, Rabindra Sangeet and dance. But then things change over time,” says Ghosh. “Even social relationships have changed over time,” says veteran theatre personality Shipra Das. “When we were young there was a close bonding among the inhabitants. We would refer to one neighbour as ‘pishi’ (paternal aunt) and someone else as ‘mashi’ (maternal aunt). Today everyone is simply ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’,” recalls Das with a sense of foreboding.
Despite the changes and outside influences, the women are sure that there is a special sense of pride and closeness they feel towards their neighbourhood. “Even today if someone asks me where I live, I feel very proud to tell them Chittaranjan Park,” says Maitra.
The event on Women’s Day was part of Shapno Ekhon’s oral history initiative, ‘Neighbourhood Diaries’ and would be a regular feature of the dynamic non static Neighbourhood museum being envisaged by the organisation. They have been working closely with the residents of C R Park and in collaboration with historians Swapna Liddle and Narayani Gupta to create awareness and preserve the history and heritage of the over 50-year old locality.