Food, fun and wisdom at Chandigarh’s Sector 26
Nestled in the backyard of the Sukhna Lake with golf greens next-doors, it’s a sector of many parts, serene and chaotic, upscale and rundown. Welcome to Sector 26, home to a large army of teachers and learners, men and women in khaki, spirited partygoers, and traders from all over India, not to mention the bounty of fruits, vegetables and timber.
Planned as an institutional arm of the city, this sector always had a mind of its own. Deepika Gandhi, director of Le Corbusier Centre and Chandigarh Architecture Museum , says Corbusier had marked it near Panjab University and PGI. “In the maps dated 1951, it’s slotted at the place where you have Sector 12, I don’t know how it moved to the western end of Chandigarh.”
Joginder Singh, Pendu Sangharsh Committee president, says the sector was carved out of a small village called Hamirgarh and parts of Nagla and Dalheri Jattan villages. “Large parts of it was forest land.”
Learners and teachers
The sector sprang to life in 1960 when Pierre Jeanneret, the first chief architect of Chandigarh, completed a building for the handicapped here. Senior advocate M L Sarin says then Punjab chief minister Partap Singh Kairon took one look at it and decided that it was better off as a school. Kairon then approached the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers at Calcutta, who bought 33 acres with the building for Rs 9,25,000 to set up St John’s. The all-boy school started with classes from grade I to VIII, and the kindergarten students were sent to Carmel in Sector 9. Today it boasts one of the most distinguished alumni associations of the country (see box).
Six years later, the Sikh Educational Society and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) bought 23 acres right across the school to set up Guru Gobind Singh college. Col J S Bala (retd), secretary of the society, says Kairon laid the foundation stone of this co-educational institute. On popular demand, they set up a college for girls in 1973 followed by a school and pharmacy college. Bala says the society has a history of distinguished alumni starting with Parkash Singh Badal who graduated from Sikh National College, Lahore, and the present Punjab police chief, DGP Suresh Arora and minister Charanjit Singh Channi.
The sector saw another wave of children when Sacred Heart school came up in 1968 under the tutelage of Sister Veronica, an Irish missionary from Seraphina Educational Society. Rupinder B Singh, who began teaching here in 1985, says it started as a co-ed school but turned into an all-girl affair after four years. Singh, who has fond memories of the school, says the sisters taught her the value of truth. “They are very pure, very clean, I am what I am because of them.”
After baby steps in the 1960s, the sector began walking tall when Ministry of Education gifted it a National Institute of Technical Teachers Training and Research, one of the four in the country, in 1967. The Chandigarh branch, which trained teachers from as far as J-K and Uttar Pradesh was special as it was run in collaboration with the Royal Netherlands government until 1974.
By the 1970s, it had become the go-to destinations for educational institutions. It was here that Society for the Care of the Blind set up the Institute for the Blind in 1972. Maj Gen Rajender Nath (retd), its chairman since 1982, says they try to give the students as normal a life as possible with their own books printed with Swedish technology and a software called JAWS that even helps them do Facebooking. It’s a testimony to their success that 140 of their 160 students have got jobs.
Strawberry Fields High School, which came here in 2004, is the youngest kid on the block standing out with its building by Stein Mani Chowfla, the architects who designed the India Habitat Centre. Atul Khanna, the director, says the eco-friendly building with a rainwater harvesting system and solar panels, says once the school gets over, it turns into a children’s club where families come to bond over a lap in the pool, a game of tennis , soccer or a class of Indian or western classical music.” But it’s the 300 underprivileged children studying in the school of 1800 who give him the maximum satisfaction.
Not far from the school is the butterfly park. Spread over 7 acres, it’s a well-kept secret of the sector boasting 35 species of butterflies such as Common Grass Yellow, Blue Mormon, Chocolate Pansy and Common Blue Bottle. With no entry charge, it’s a delight with its numerous fruit trees, flowers and a water body on an undulating landscape.
While the southern part of the sector has retained its quiet splendour, the showrooms facing the Madhya Marg have undergone a sea change in the last decade or so. Once known for supplying hardware, this stretch has turned into the tricity’s most happening hangout with almost two dozen bars, breweries, night clubs, cafes and lounges.
BB Behl, a Congress politician who built Hotel President here in 1983, says he was the first to explore the hospitality potential of this sector. The name ‘president’, he says, proved quite prophetic for him. “I remained president of the city Congress unit for 15 years,” says Behl, who thinks it was lucky for former prime minister Manmohan Singh as well. “He lunched here in Room No 207 four days before he was anointed the PM.” he recounts. The hotel, says Behl, was a trailblazer in that it offered 24x7 food besides sauna and health club et al. “I remember then deputy commissioner Raghbir Singh would often comment that it was a beautiful place in a wrong locale. Little did he know I was just ahead of my time,” says Behl.
The police cantt
Come weekend, and all roads lead to this stretch, says a constable with the traffic police. Few revellers know that the police lines of UT run parallel to this happening street. Retired DSP SC Sagar says the police cantonment was conceived in 1977 when Gautam Kaul was the SSP. It got another shot in the arm from IGP V N Singh in 1988. “He set up a mess for gazetted officers and a police officers’ institute.” Singh also got a separate petrol pump for the lines besides setting up a family welfare centre. “Wives of policemen would make knickknacks for sale during the Diwali Mela or Rose Fest,” recounts Sagar.
Today the Police Lines has 350 flats, a stable full of horses, a dog squad, a hospital and an AC community hall. “It’s a sector within a sector, touching Bapu Dham,” says Sagar. “The cops who were sent for training to Madhuban or Phillaur police academy now get trained here.”
Food for everyone
If Capitol Complex is the brains of the city, the sabji or anaj mandi here is surely its stomach. Visit the mandi and you will be overwhelmed by the fruits and vegetables on display. The scent of spice in the air makes you forget the ubiquitous chaos. So do the pocket-friendly rates, almost half those quoted outside. Subhash Randhawa, former director of the market committee, says it was conceived around 1956 and covers 24 acres. “There are 180 licence holders in the vegetable market and 326 in the grain market besides 22 arhtiyas,” says Randhawa, telling you how they attract traders from all over India. “It used to be the largest apple mandi in India until it was shifted to Panchkula due to space crunch two years ago,” says Randhawa.
Sandeep Khosla in the timber market next-door adds another dimension to the sectoe when he tells you the market has played a big role in building the tricity and the region. “Ninety percent of our timber is imported,” says Khosla, whose grandfather set up business here in 1958. Besides teak, his personal favourite is the Malaysia Sal. “It is hardier than iron,” he claims.
Like this market, many denizens of Bapu Dham, the first EWS colony of Chandigarh set up in 1975, also claim to have built the city, brick by brick. Dalip Sharma, the councillor, says it used to be an overgrown cremation ground. Sharma, who came here from Saharanpur to study in 1984, says at one point there were so many killings in the area that it was called the Lanka Dham. Things, he says, have improved ever since the government school got a cricket stadium and academy.
Youngsters have begun to dream big. The academy has produced cricket stars like Rajni Devi, who represented Punjab. With IT park next-door, it may be time for a new dawn.
A class apart: St John’s Old Boys Association
February 1, 1960. That was the day ML Sarin, fresh from Shimla, joined the newly opened St John’s school in Sector 26. “We were 19 of us, nine in Class VII and 10 in Class VIII,” recounts Sarin. Kapil Sibal, a senior Supreme Court lawyer and former minister, was his senior. Sarin, whose family was amongst the early settlers of Chandigarh, tried to set up an alumni association in 1968, but failed.
“After two tries, I finally succeeded in 1980,” says Sarin. SJOBA came to life on July 19, 1980. Today it’s arguably one of the most active old boys associations of the country with a chapter in the US. Mumbai-based Sandeep Goyal, CEO of Mogae group who donated 1 crore to the school last year, calls it hyperactive. “I get a mailer from them every three days.”
Sarin remembers the compliment he received from Brother Phillip Pinto, who helms the Edmund Price Christian Brothers, when he visited him at the Vatican in 2008. Pinto told Sarin that theirs was the most active alumni body out of the 600 schools under the mission. It may be one reason why Pinto chose St John’s Chandigarh as his headquarters two years ago.
The secret of SJOBA’s success lies in its distinguished alumni, says Sarin. Nine sitting judges of the Punjab and Haryana high court are old boys. Many of the achievers were spotlighted in the silver jubilee coffee table book brought out by then SJOBA president Vivek Atray, a bureaucrat, in 2005.
SJOBA rally introduced in 1987, has become an annual event in the calendar of every serious rallyist in the country wanting to conquer the Himalayas. The old boys are now preparing for the winter ball and the get-together that has them honouring 10 distinguished alumni every year. “That’s never a problem,” grins Sarin, who hopes the Johnians will continue this tradition of excellence.