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The Puja Spirit
by Ramendra Kumar

"Sudhir," It was Jagan's voice. "Come on, yaar. We have to go for collecting Durga Puja chanda."

Jagan and Sudhir were best friends. Both of them were class nine students of Municipal High School. While Jagan was the President of their club - 'Tarun Shakti Club' or TSC, Sudhir was its treasurer. Sudhir put on a clean shirt and stepped out. Jagan and the rest of the gang were waiting for him. Durga Puja was just two weeks away. This was the busiest time of the year for the members of TSC. They had already got the receipt books printed. This time they had decided to enhance the minimum Puja donation from Rs 10 to Rs 15. After all the price of everything had gone up, so why not the cost of devotion?

Their job was now to go from house to house and shop to shop in their locality collecting chanda. Normally no one refused them. Some tightfisted persons would try to escape by mumbling, "We don't have any change. Or the master of the house is not at home" or even that "there is no money in the house..." etc. Sudhir and his gang were used to all these excuses. They would quietly go away and promptly return the next day or the day after. Nine times out of ten their efforts would be successful.

However, there were a few elusive misers like Seth Kishanlal who owned the neighborhood grocery store. Getting even a rupee out of him was like stealing a banana from a ravenous gorilla. Last year he had refused point blank.

"Get lost. I know what you fellows do with this money. You blow it up on food, movies or gambling."

This remark had really stung Sudhir and Jagan. They were aware that while members of some of the other clubs did use the Puja chanda for seeing movies, gambling or even drinking, their gang was not that sort. Every pie was accounted for. Sudhir submitted the annual accounts for scrutiny to Sen Babu, the head master of the Government High School, who was the advisor of their club. And everyone knew how honest and straightforward Sen Babu was. He would never tolerate any hanky panky.

"Let's teach this fatso a lesson," Jagan told Sudhir.

That evening, after dark, Jagan and Sameer went to Kishanlal's shop. Fatso was busy counting his day's earnings before closing. They quietly slipped away to the spot where Kishanlal had parked his moped under the shade of a huge banyan tree. While Sudhir kept watch Jagan took out a sharp nail from his pocket and punctured both the tyres. It was quiet dark and no one noticed anything. Their mission accomplished they slipped away and stood under the awning of a nearby shop which had closed for the night.

Ten minutes later Kishanlal waddled out. After unlocking the handle, he started the moped and sat on it. It was only then that he noticed something wrong. He got down and looked at the tyres. They were as flat as chapatees. He looked around. On cue Sudhir and Jagan emerged and seeing the pathetic expression on Fatso's face started laughing uproariously.

"You rascals, I'll get you for this. I'll tell your parents. I'll complain to your headmaster," Kishanlal shouted shaking his fist at the two pranksters who scampered off, giggling away to glory. This time when they approached Seth Kishanlal he quietly gave them Rs 15 without a murmur of protest.
"Last time we lost out by a few points, but this time we have to win," Jagan declared. The meeting of the TSC was in progress in Jagan's father's garage. Jagan's father was a car mechanic. Every Friday
afternoon he would shut his garage and the TSC would use the premises as a meeting place.

The construction of the Puja Pandal was to begin and all the members of the club were naturally agog with excitement. Every year Spectrum Paints organized a competition in different localities of the city. The most beautiful Puja Pandal was given the 'Spectacular Spectrum Shield' by the sponsors. Last time TSC's Pandal had come a close second with the first prize going to the Puja Pandal of Navjyoti Club. "You are right Jagan. This time we have to go all out to bag the shield. We have already made a good start. Last year our collection was Rs 17, 500. This year it is Rs 22,350. Moreover, Manikda has agreed to design the Pandal."

"That's terrific news. With Manikda's design we will definitely have and edge over our rivals," said Anil the Secretary of the Club.

Manik Chatterjee was Sudhir's cousin. He was in his final year architecture and was also a talented artist.

"Is the design ready?" asked Jagan.
"I had gone to his place last evening. He was adding the finishing touches. It looks great. I will be collecting it today."
Sudhir was on his way to school when he heard the sound of someone crying. The wails seemed to be coming form Babla's hut which was just behind the bus stop. Babla's was a ten your old boy who worked in a local tea shop. His father Bhola was a dhobi. For his literacy project Sudhir had taken Babla as his student. Babla would come to his house every evening after eight and study for an hour. Sudhir found him to be a bright, inquisitive child ever eager to learn. He had started with the alphabet and very soon moved on to reading and writing. However, since the last few weeks Sudhir had not seen Babla. Sudhir had assumed that either Babla had lost interest or couldn't take time off his job. Sudhir himself had got too busy with his first term exams to think about anyone or anything else.

On an impulse Sudhir decided to go to Babla's house and check what the matter was. He walked up to the little thatched hut and called out Babla's name. After a few minutes Bhola emerged. His eyes were bloodshot and he looked utterly exhausted. It was as if he hadn't slept for days. Inside the wailing of a woman continued unabated.

"What happened Bhola?"

Bhola sat on his haunches with his head between his hands and poured his heart out to Sudhir.

Around six months back Babla had suddenly started losing weight and having recurrent spells of dizziness. Bhola had taken him first to the local doctor and when his condition didn't improve to the government hospital. Babla was admitted in the hospital for a week and then discharged. But his condition continued to deteriorate. The spells of dizziness increased in frequency as well as intensity. Then one of Bhola's relatives, who was a postman, had taken Babla to a very big doctor who owned a huge clinic in the main market. The doctor conducted many tests on Babla. Last evening all the reports had come. Bhola stopped unable to continue.

" anything seriously wrong with Babla?" Sudhir asked.
"Dada, the doctor said he was suffering from some kind of tumor. If he is not operated immediately....he....he will die," Bhola broke down, sobbing like a child.
"Then why don't you get him operated?"
"Dada the operation will cost nothing less than Rs 20,000. Where am I going to get that kind of money? I got my daughter Durga married just last year. I had taken a loan of Rs 50,000 which I have still not been able to repay. Dada, I don't even have Rs 200 with me. Where am I going to get twenty thousand?"
Bhola's face kept haunting Sudhir the entire day. He wished he could somehow help him out. But twenty thousand was not a small amount.
That evening Sudhir called a meeting of his club members. "Friends, I have something to tell you..." he began and told them about Babla.
"Bhola needs Rs 20,000 to save his son's life and he has no one to turn to. We should somehow help him."
"But how? asked Nagen.
"I have already discussed with Jagan and Anil. And they have agreed.
I propose that we give the money that we collected for the Puja to Bhola."
"But Sudhir, how can we do that?"
"Are you crazy?"
"What about the shield?"
There was a chorus of protests.
"Listen friends. I know we are all keen to win the shield. and with Manikda's design we have a very good chance of winning. But tell me is a prize more important than saving a life? If we don't help Babla, he will surely die."
"But Sudhir, we have collected the money for the Puja? How can we give it away to Bhola?" asked Prantik.
"Friends, can there be a better way of celebrating Puja than saving a human life. Haven't we learnt that service to man is service to God?"
"But will not the people who have given us the chanda object?" wondered Manas.
"No, Jagan and I have already discussed our proposal with Sen Babu. He said we can go ahead. In case there are any protests he'll take care of them."
"Then we are not going to have any Puja or prasad?" asked Mithu the youngest member of their club.
"Ofcourse we are going to have both Puja and prasad. Even after giving Rs 20,000 rupees we will still have Rs 2,300 left.
With that money we will instal a small idol, perform Puja and offer prasad to everyone. It won't be a grand affair but...."
The Community Centre was jam packed. Mr. K.R. Burman the Marketing Manager of Spectrum Paints was about to announce the winner of the Spectrum shield for the most spectacular Puja Pandal. On the dais with him were the other judges.

"Friends like every year, this time too the competition was tough. In fact the standard of Pandals in this Puja was a lot better both in terms of aesthetics as well as creativity. Every year the shield goes to the Puja Pandal which looks the most gorgeous. This year we are making a deviation. This year we are giving the prize to the Pandal which symbolizes the spirit of the Pujas. What are Pujas all about? Are they only about merry making, singing, dancing, and eating? Or are they about loving, giving and sharing. There is one club whose Puja Pandal is the simplest of the lot. There are no fancy lights, no elaborate structure, no ornate design, no bright decorations. Yet it stands out because of the magnanimity of its club members who gave Rs 20,000 from their Puja collection for the operation of a ten year old boy - Babla. You will be glad to know that the operation was performed successfully and Babla is well on his way to recovery thanks to the members of this club.

Ladies and Gentleman and my young friends, I am proud to present this year's Spectrum Spectacular Shield to the Tarun Shakti Club." As Jagan and Sudhir walked to the dais they saw Bhola standing in a corner. His face was wreathed in smiles and he was clapping the loudest. 

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