“Netaji r telebhaja” – the term Netaji, while being misused often nowadays, is mostly associated with one person in India and beyond. And the fact that he had a telebhaja shop is something that will amuse most. Yet it is known as Netaji r telebhaja. And people from all walks of life have sometime or the other come over here to cherish Netaji r telebhaja.
When Kshetu Shaw came in from Gaya and set up this shop exactly 100 years ago in 1918, he wanted to earn his living by feeding Telebhaja to a city which slowly was transitioning into strife and unrest. Telebhaja is no specific item. It is anything which is deep fried in oil and is mostly associated with the street-side shops creating a coating of besan (gram flour) in which is the stuffing can vary as widely from mashed potato, brinjal to paneer or can be simply some onions and green chilli. The closest term in English can be fritters. Little did he know, that apart from many fans for his telebhaja, he will be able to make the emerging man of Indian Freedom struggle one of the most hardened loyalists of his telebhaja.
Subhas Ch Bose used to drop in to this place to pick up their telebhaja (often fuluri) to go along with muri (puffed rice). He continued this practice even when he was a mayor or Congress President. It is said, the same fuluri used to be delivered to the venue of his meetings, as eating something is sacrosanct with meetings. Allegedly, even for secret meetings, fuluri used to get delivered but those deliveries were carried out only by Kshetu Shaw himself.
He named the shop after his son Laxmi Narayan. He himself was an ardent follower of Netaji, having met him during the days Netaji was in college, well before he became a loyalist of their shop. All his life he collected as much documents, memoirs of Netaji as he could, and preserved them as mark of intense respect for Bose.
Earlier everything was handmade. With time, and with emerging mechanization, they have moved some part of their work onto machines, like grinding of masalas or beating of gram flour paste.
It was January 1941, Bose escaped from under British surveillance from his Elgin Road house in Calcutta. This historic event and his disappearance might be the reason Kshetu Shaw decided to celebrate Bose’s birthday from 1942 onwards by distributing free fuluris on 23rd January, an item, Bose was so fond of. It is said that between 1918 to 1941, Bose celebrated two of his birthdays at this place. However, till independence, this distribution of telebhaja on 23rd January used to be secretive in fear of police atrocities on people known to be close to or followers of Subhas Bose.
This practice continues even today carried out by the grandson of Kshetu Shaw, Kesto Gupta (they have changed their surname). The haves and have-nots, all queue up for this. For some, it is an occasion where they will get some food to satisfy their hunger. For some, it is celebrating their idol or hero by tasting the same fritter that their idol loved so much. Some would still be clueless and queue up just because many has queued up. Maybe unknowingly they are following Netaji’s saying:
“We cannot sit still because we “cannot” or “do not” know the Absolute Truth.”