Jatugriha is the word du jour in Kolkata for the last two days.
The fire that engulfed a market in the dead of night, killing 19 people sleeping there, has evoked echoes of that burning palace of the Mahabharata in television channels and politicians alike.
Jatugriha reads the ticker on a Bengali television channel. How many more jatugrihas are there in Kolkata asks one politician. Is the whole city a jatugriha asks one overheated anchor. Tonight at 7.
It’s an obvious parallel but an ironic one.
The Jatugriha in the Mahabharata was actually a luxury mansion fit for kings. It was built with ghee in its plaster and a door made of lac but it was touted as “The Blessed House” resplendent in appearance even though a fire trap in reality. The Surya Sen market that went up in flames was an illegal mezzanine crammed into twelve foot gap between floors. It had dingy rooms that served as dumping grounds for paper, thermocol and plastic. It had a cheap hotel, also without licence. It sheltered not princes in exile, but young men who worked in those shops and hotels and had nowhere else to sleep or had missed the last local train home. One man who survived told the story of how he had made a bed for the night among pieces of cardboard and packing boxes.
The story of the Jatugriha had a happy ending. At least for the Pandavas. They were forewarned about the plot against their lives. They had dug a passage from the middle of the building through which they could escape into the forest while the palace went up in flames. They had an exit strategy.
At the Surya Sen market there was only a fire trap, no fire exits, no fire licence, no fire safety mechanisms. The doors were fastened from inside. There was only one stairwell that connected the mezzanine with the rest of the building. Once that was blocked with fire and smoke there was nowhere to go. One man braved the fire to try and find his elderly mother who was sleeping at the family shop. “I knew Ma was there. I kept calling for her… She managed to reach (the staircase) but unfortunately it was the area that burned the most,” he told the Times of India. The firefighters found her charred body at the staircase, the only woman among the dead.
The real parallel with Jatugriha is in the story of the Nishada woman and her five children who were lulled to sleep with wine and food in that palace. They paid a heavy price for that. Their dead bodies were taken to be those of Kunti and her sons, their unwitting sacrifice allowing the Pandavas to escape and live to fight another day.
The Nishada woman and her son are footnotes of the Mahabharata. The victims of Surya Sen market are footnotes as well. But they do have the dignity of names. Names like Jitendra Sharma, 17 of Kevla, Bihar, Lalchand Purkait, 26 of Lakshmikantapur, West Bengal, Vicky Ravidas, 50, of Barju village, Jharkhand. They had professions like potato trader, pavement eatery owner, sweeper.
Mamata Banerjee has done what she always does best in the situations like these. She became the neighborhood Didi, taking charge, standing shoulder to shoulder, setting up camp at the morgue. But despite all the promises of commissions and compensation the Jatugriha of Surya Sen Market will probably yield little lasting change.
The mythological Jatugriha was an exceptional event. The entire city of Varanavata came to lament that fire and bewail the fate of the Pandavas. Fires in a city as congested as Kolkata are not exceptional. In fact, the great blessing of the latest market fire was that it was not worse. If any of the 56 gas cylinders stored in that building had burst, and if the fire had spread to the congested streets and tenements nearby that would have been a real inferno. Kolkata has had huge fires like this over and over again from the Nandram Market fire in 2008 to the Hatibagan Fire in 2012 which gutted 80 percent of the market to the fire in New Market in 1985 which blazed for 48 hours.
The purported victims of Jatugriha were the Pandava princes. Their deaths mattered. The fire at the high-end AMRI hospital in 2011 shocked Kolkatans who had assumed that fancy hospitals at least took care of basic amenities such as fire extinguishers and evacuation procedures. But no one is shocked by the dangling wires and dilapidated meter boxes in markets like the Surya Sen Market. The minister in charge of fire services might fulminate that this was an illegal market that came up during the Left Front.
But legal or illegal, few markets here are safe from what happened at this one. A television crew going to other markets found few with the requisite buckets of sand handy. And in a city as crowded as this one, all of them have men and women who sleep in their stores at night, eating sleeping and working in the same place. The man from East Midnapore who burned to death in Sealdah because he slept in his uncle's shop to save on rent because he was saving money for his young family is not an unusual story.
Mamata has announced yet another commission to look into what happened at this market. Each fire comes with its commission. One member of one such earlier commission told the Ananda Bazar Patrika “The problem is elsewhere. The committee can make recommendations and demands. But who will take legal action if the demands are ignored?”
After a fire blazed in another illegal market during the Left Front rule, many political parties came together to save its seven illegal floors from demolition despite court orders. “The demolition could not be carried out because of lack of political will,” a corporation official told the media. Make that civic will as well.
The mythological Jatugriha is part of a story of political cunning and great wars. This one is just a sorry tale of run-of-the-mill callousness and empty promises.