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A charming family-run Durga Puja in London

world Updated: Sep 27, 2009 14:50 IST

Amid a growing number of well-funded and gigantic corporate-style Durga Puja celebrations in London, there's one that stands out for its smallness.

The 'Nirmal Mukherjee and Family' Puja, run from a modest community hall in the northwest London suburb of Wembley, has attracted thousands Bengalis for over 30 years. But it remains resolutely small, exuding an old-world charm that could have come right out of one of the traditional homes in Mukherji's native city of Kolkata.

It is unique among the 20-odd Pujas spread across the British capital.

Some of them attract up to 1,000 people a day - the largest at Camden Town boasts twice the number - and a few benefit from sponsorships by wealthy NRIs such as Swraj Paul, Lakshmi Mittal, Nirmal Sethia, Raj Kumar Bagri and S N Gourisaria.

In the style of Pujas in India, they compete for the finest singers from Kolkata.

But Mukherji says he isn't into competing.

"This is not a baroari (community) puja," he says. "We are a family-run puja: what is important for us is to make sure that each of our guests is made individually welcome, has a good time, and does not leave without eating a hearty meal."

"When we say 'family-run', we mean an extended family that includes many hardworking and generous friends," Mukherji, a retired accountant said.

Held in a small community hall - unlike the huge town halls preferred by some of the other Pujas - Mukherji's Puja still succeeds in bringing an autumn bustle to the busy high street of multicultural Wembley.

Every day, it attracts some 400 people - many more if the puja falls over the weekend - who are lured not only by the homely atmosphere but also by Mukherji's famous bhog or the free meal.

Cooked to Bengali perfection by 'Joshiji', a retired chef hailing from Nainital in Uttar Pradesh, the puja's khichuri, labra (vegetable curry), chutney, luchi (poori bread) and alur dum (potato curry) draw devotees and foodies alike.

Mukherji himself leads the puja ceremonies - helped by his two sons since they were eight years old - often translating the mantras into English for the many children who turn up.

"If someone asks me to conduct an Anjali (prayer) for them, I will do so. My last Anjali on Saturday was at 10.45 pm. I shut the doors only after conducting the last Anjali," says Mukherji, who funds the Puja himself but accepts cooking material donated by friends.

Mukherji says he doesn't mind competition.

"It's wonderful that there are so many Pujas in London today, but I only wish they were less competitive and fought a little less among themselves," says Mukherji.