B.A.B.L.I’s Canteen: The story behind…
“Shohodeb-Babu” – the ‘mother’ of the project
It all began with the basic human need for nourishment!
A few months after the initiation of the project, sometime in 1989-90, the founding director Sri Bikram Sen hailed Sri Shohodeb Gupta, the only other local entrepreneur at that point, and asked him a simple question. He said, “Well my man, it looks like it will be just you, Dilip-Babu (the agriculture expert) and I who will be living in this barrenness by ourselves for some time! So, what are we going to eat?!”
As you can see in the photographs on the “About” and “Photo Album” pages, the project-area was just a vast, barren stretch of degraded and infertile soil, with practically nothing around it – no habitation, no houses, and of course, no shops.
So, Bikram-Babu entrusted Shohodeb-Babu with the holy responsibility of keeping the small unit fed and nourished – based on a few pots and pans, a kerosene stove and the very meagre supplies available at the local village grocery!
Shohodeb Gupta was born to a moderately affluent Boddi family (a Bengali caste that is just below the Brahmins, particularly renowned for their shrewd intelligence and quasi-intellectualism!) of village Dwaronda, the closest and largest village of the neighbourhood.
Most of his kin had organised their lives pretty well by village standards, thanks to their basic literacy and inherent ‘skills’, but Shohodeb was a fish out of a different kettle.
As a young man, he was more inclined towards cultural activities, rather than ‘school-education’. He spent much of his time singing and acting with local folk-theatre (Jatra) groups.
But of course, life doesn’t ever allow us our luxuries for too long! Soon, at the untimely demise of his father, Shohodeb-Da had to pick up the reigns of his family. With very little skill at hand, he had to venture into all sorts of odd jobs, from a ‘manager’ at a rice-mill right down to the rock-bottom as a daily labourer. But that is another story altogether.
When Shohodeb started his tenure as the ‘cook’ of the fledgeling project, all he knew was to boil rice and daal, with some vegetables thrown in. That worked fine, as long as it was just the three staff members that needed feeding…
However, within two years of project-inception, it became an imperative to generate a greater cash-flow, in order to sustain the project – and that is when BASA (BABLI SHANTI ALAYA), the project’s guest-house came into being.
Along with the guest-house came the need to feed the guests – and for them, boiled rice and vegetables just would not suffice!
Around the same time, Smt. Neela Sen, one of the partners of this proprietary company, came to live and work full-time at the project as a ‘working-partner’.
She, amongst other things, is renowned as an adept and highly creative cook – with serious expertise in various cuisines of the country and the world. But she is also renowned, amongst other things, for her inimitable impatience and quick temper!
The story of how Shohodeb-Babu, the village bumpkin, learnt and mastered the art of intricate, East-Bengali culinary wizardry from Neela Sen, the firebrand, multi-talented, urban super-woman, is a long and intricate one… It is best heard from ‘the horses mouth’.
Sri Shohodeb Gupta has been the primary entrepreneur for the Commercial Canteen that we run at BABLI. And our guests are usually full of praise for his culinary as well as social skills.
If you are visitting BABLI, you might well poke him a bit about his part of the ‘story’ – and you will see that he just loves to entertain anyone who is willing to listen, with his description of how he managed, through total love and devotion from both teacher and apprentice, along with a few pots, pans and ladles flying here and there, to achieve the impossible!