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The Bosepukur Sitala Mandir Durga Puja pandal is difficult to miss. From a distance one can spy the spherical structure looming above the tall fencing of corrugated sheets on the Rashbehari Connector in south Kolkata. The space is cordoned off from public view, but inside, it does not take much effort to locate Kajal Sarkar. The secretary of the puja organizing committee is where all the action is.

It is late morning and Sarkar is showing a joint inspection team around the pandal. “Sir, we have two gates, for entrance and exit, and in case of emergency there’s another small gate out there." His voice echoes inside the hollow metal sphere as he speaks to Rajeev Mishra, the joint commissioner of police (headquarters), who is leading the team comprising members from various government departments.

Wearing an over-sized shirt hanging loose over blue trousers, Sarkar goes past half-clad workers digging a ditch, upturned pedestal fans aimed at welders precariously perched on bamboo scaffoldings trying to fix artefacts on to the interior of the sphere, and deft wood carvers creating poetry with their chisels, one eye on the cloudy sky.

“This is Ma Durga," Sarkar tells Mishra as the entourage stops in front of a huge wood-carving. “This is in the Orissa style, based on the concept of award-winning artist Narayan Maharana."

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Sarkar in a meeting with the committee members

Soon it starts to drizzle. Sarkar is bunking office again. “There’s no way I can go to office with so much work still to be done," he says as he settles for a tea break at the “puja committee" office. “Thank god my colleagues are very understanding," says the Group-D employee with the Military Engineer Services.

As a security guard, Sarkar is in the lower rungs of the official ladder and unlikely to wield much power at his workplace, but at the Bosepukur Sitala Mandir Sarbojanin Puja, he’s the boss, leading a team that puts together one of the most talked-about puja pandals in Kolkata. “I’m just a foot-soldier. I’m a pujo-pagol (puja fanatic) like the others and together we work to make ours the best puja of the city." Sarkar is 55 and has been associated with the 64-year-old puja “ever since I can remember".

The phone rings. “Yeah, I’d been trying to get through to you. Was wondering when we can talk about installing the closed circuit television cameras," Sarkar says on the phone. His workplace for the moment, the puja committee room, contains a pell-mell of objects. An Orissa-style scroll-painting lies on the table depicting the 10 avatars (incarnations) of Lord Vishnu. A carrom board stands against one wall, against another a medical examination bed. An eye chart is mounted on the wall opposite. “This is a local club and we run a charitable health centre here in collaboration with the National Medical College. During preparations for Durga Puja, our committee meets here."

“Our theme this time is from the Bamana Purana," Sarkar says, sipping tea—his “umpteenth" since morning—from a tiny bhar, or disposable earthen cups (kulhar) that Lalu Prasad unsuccessfully tried to introduce in the railways in 2004 when he was the rail minister. The Durga Puja at Bosepukur Sitala Mandir enjoys an interesting relationship with the bhar. In 2001, the organizers built an entire pandal with bhars, a concept that brought them several awards and put them in the league of prominent pujas of the city. “We’ve bagged so many awards in the past 12 years that it’s now an important landmark with an average footfall of 3-4 million on the four days of pandal-hopping."

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A carver at work

“The interior of the sphere will be decorated with kharams—wooden slippers symbolic of the Baman avatara," says Sarkar. Some of these have come from Puri in Orissa and they are the reason why Sarkar’s day started before sunrise. “I woke up at 4 because I had to go to the bus terminus in Babughat to receive the consignment from Puri."

Sarkar’s phone is ringing again. “This is the best rate that I can work out for you. You’re an old-timer. Trust me. I’ve earmarked a very nice position for you. It’s got the best visibility," he tells the caller, possibly an advertiser. The puja budget is 25-30 lakh and raising money through sponsorship and advertisements is a major part of Sarkar’s job. An employee from a water-purifier company, a prospective sponsor, waits patiently for Sarkar to finish his phone calls but the phone keeps ringing and visitors keep coming. It is half past noon by the time Sarkar manages to take him around and show him the possible display locations.

Theme artist Bibhash Mukherjee arrives and Sarkar and other committee members—working president Bijan Mukherjee and joint secretary Samir Mukherjee—go into a huddle with him. But they are soon interrupted by policemen from the local police station who are treated to soft drink and polite conversation.

Presently, there are dhak-beats outside. A paint company is doing a road-show and puja committee members are invited to join in. Amid the rhythmic beats, the speaker announces on the microphone that the Bosepukur Sitala Mandir puja has been shortlisted along with 23 others for the best puja award, even though the pandals are far from complete. Sarkar is invited to speak a few words. Photos are clicked.

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With wife Ruby

“Finally home?" his wife Ruby remarks as he walks through the dilapidated gates to the single-storeyed asbestos-roofed house a few blocks away. “He hasn’t even had breakfast today," she complains, stifling a hint of pride in mock indignation. “By the time he comes home, it’s almost midnight. And it’ll only get worse in the next few days." She serves him his lunch—rice, dal, vegetable stir-fry and fish curry—and takes stock of the day’s happenings while he eats sitting cross-legged on the floor.

“Organizing a good puja is the work of a whole year," Sarkar explains. “I already know what will be the theme of our puja next year. But the main work of executing the ideas takes about four months. By the end of the pujas, I invariably lose my voice," he says, sounding a bit hoarse already.

At 4pm, Sarkar has just finished his lunch and is set to commute across the city, meeting sponsors and puja organizers. His day is still not over.

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