Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Taki Diary II

We were woken at 5.30 AM – an unearthly hour as far as we’re usually concerned – by my mom banging on the door and yelling at us to wake up and come outside and see what a beautiful world we were in. So we did. And it was.

Early mornings in villages have a peculiarly fresh quality – it’s as if the world’s been freshly laundered. The breeze is soft, cool; people’s voices are muted, almost as if to not disturb the beauty of the dawn; the grass seems greener, the sky bluer; and that gentle, friendly river rippling and shining under the new sun made for a breathtaking sight. We stood on the balcony of my parents’ room drinking it all in – along with tiny cups of tea that materialised out of nowhere. My parents had already been out for a walk – my dad was still out, and could be seen in the distance, talking to a close friend of his who’d been out on his morning run. We decided to go for one too – I wanted to take K all over Taki before it got too hot to do any exploring.

Taki is bounded on all four sides by zamindar houses, all owned by the Roy Chowdhury family, most of which are crumbling now. Named after the four directions, they’re known as Puber bari (East House), Paschim bari (West House), Uttor bari (North House) and Dokkhhin bari (South House). Situated almost opposite our house in Taki is yet another, Ghosh bari; Puber bari has been claimed by the river; Dokkhhin bari was actually built on the embankment bordering the Ichamati. When it was built, a couple of centuries ago, the river wasn’t this close – climatic changes have led to this proximity, till the waves began lashing the great old house during high tide, and during the monsoons. Unable to withstand that onslaught, and the erosion of its foundations as the river came nearer, part of the house broke, and toppled into the river. Ten to 15 years ago the house was a dangerous, shaky affair – my eldest cousin was married into that family, and I remember visiting her once; most of what remained of the house was locked up, and they never ventured into the part that lay closest to the river. I remember peering down dungeons and being told to not even think of going down – most of the passages had caved in anyway, and there was constant danger of roof-falls. We have to pass this zamindar bari on our way into Taki, and I saw to my dismay that nothing remained any longer, except a boundary wall on the Taki side. The river had claimed most of it, and the family did not have the resources to restore or renovate the other half.

My grandfather was the village doctor. He belonged to that generation of educated Bengali intellectuals for whom participating in the nationalist movement and practising a Gandhian way of life came as naturally as breathing. I have never seen him wear anything but a cotton dhoti and kurta; he followed a rigid everyday routine and for the people of Taki and adjoining villages, he was nothing less than an incarnation of god. I remember him sitting on the verandah every single day from 9 in the morning till 1 PM, seeing one patient after another, and never charging anyone more than two rupees – most, stricken by chronic poverty, didn’t have to pay even that. They paid him in kind, though, when they could – mangoes or woodapples from their trees, fresh fish caught in their nets, a chicken. Daktarbabu was ‘bhogoban’, and daktarbabu’s family was equally loved and respected simply because we had his blood running through our veins. ‘We’re Taki’s first family,’ my mom says, laughing, and she isn’t exaggerating. Not much, anyway.

Ghosh bari
was where we spent most of our time during pujo. Each zamindar bari had its own pujo, and every morning we’d wake up to the wonderful sound of the dhaak – excited, we children would run out as soon as we could, and rush into the huge dalan through the enormous studded main door that was kept open constantly during pujo. The dalan was fronted by a big, grassy lawn, one corner of which was a depression meant for the kumro boli (pumpkin sacrifice) on Nabami – it is said that a zamindar once vowed some 170 years ago to not let a single drop of innocent blood be spilled within his premises, and so the ritual of animal sacrifice came to an end, in that household at least. It was replaced by a symbolic sacrifice, with the pumpkin standing in for the sacrificial vessel. That was probably one of the reasons I loved that pujo so much – Durga pujo is not usually a time for blood sacrifices, but some of these old zamindar baris and rajbaris still go in for it – being an animal lover, I hated the thought of innocent animals being killed for no fathomable reason. The dalan, built of circular red brick was at the other end; the pujo was a magnificent affair, and the entire dalan would have been cleaned till it gleamed. We’d run around the courtyard playing, or sit in the dalan watching the arati or the women cutting mounds of fresh fruit for prasad during the day. There wasn’t much left of Ghosh bari even then – just a few rooms at the side where the surviving descendants, poor as the proverbial church mice, still lived and scratched out a meagre living. There were apparently rooms underground too, but we never did find the entrance. And trust me, we looked hard.

As K and I walked down the lane that led in front of our house to the dalan, I was telling him all of this, and much more. Just before reaching the house we met one of the Taki women, who I call pishi, who said she’d show us around. I saw to my shock that there was almost nothing left of the zamindar bari – the great door was shut, and still there, but barely; the rooms at the sides were no longer there; the boundary wall had met with a similar fate; the courtyard was all scruffy; and the dalan was dark and dank, and wore a forlorn and desolate look. It had lost its roof, and the floor was dull and dirty. Imagining the place as it used to be, I was almost in tears – a few years later there will be nothing left of the once beautiful and imposing palace. There must be countless heritage sites falling into ruin all over the country – and with every house that falls, a part of our history dies. The pujo still continues, though, and so does the kumro boli – that charred depression is still intact.

In a sombre mood, we walked down the road that swung to the left a little way ahead, and turned into a narrow lane that led to the cremation ground. The river embankment was to our left, and as kids we’d clamber up its rough sides and down the other to the shores, where we’d play or watch the fishermen ready their boats and nets for a day’s fishing. At high tide those shores became dangerous, and the boats were pulled up high to escape the enormous waves – but we knew just when the tides came in and kept out of its way. The Taki cremation ground is very old, and has an ancient banyan tree at its centre – that tree must be at least 300 years old. We gazed at it in awe, while K took several pictures. In my childhood, the shashan had a spooky feel to it – we’d saunter nonchalantly as close as we could get to the smouldering pyres – if there were any – in an attempt to prove our courage to the others. There’s a silly, modern plaque in the middle of the shashan now, which quite spoils the atmosphere – any self-respecting ghost would have retired in disgust at the sight of that eyesore. (There’s one that’s still supposed to live there, though, in the banyan tree – he’s called Kelo bhoot. If I was him, I’d take serious umbrage at that ridiculous name.)

Flanking the shashan is Didi’s house – we met one of her brothers there. The highlight of our pujo holidays was Dashami, when we’d all go out in boats for the bhashan (immersion ceremony). Didi’s father would take us out in his big boat – I still remember him standing pulling the oars at one end, while I sat between my parents, chattering away with my cousins, occasionally leaning out to trail my hand in the cool waters. When we returned home, we’d change into fresh clothes – we wore old ones for the boat ride, as the shores were often muddy – and tuck into the goodies that Amma would have got ready for us. There was this Dashami ritual that my grandparents had instituted – big bowls of fruits, sweets, and corn sweetened with jaggery would be prepared by my mother, aunts and Amma, and soon after sunset, scores of the poverty-stricken people from Taki and beyond would start making their way into the house for their share of the food. And it was our responsibility to make sure they got enough food. We enjoyed that – at least I know I did – and we’d seat ourselves importantly on the wooden benches in the verandah, waiting impatiently for the first people to walk in. My grandparents wanted the children to do this because it would teach us the importance of giving, my mom told me. And to teach us how lucky we were to have a home and regular meals, and to always try and do our bit for those not as privileged as us.

K and I climbed on to the embankment – there’s a narrow path along the top and earlier, you could make your way down it from the shashan all the way to the guest house, beyond the Puber bari. But since most of that house fell down the sides and into the river, that way has become impassable – you can only walk into Taki along that road now. Steps have been cut on the sides, and little shaded enclosures built for the convenience of trippers – Taki is a favourite picnic spot, and the scenic river has made it the preferred haunt of various commercial film-makers. We walked along the path in single file – there was a scary bit where the path became crumbly and narrow, and the tiled roof of a mud hut built into the embankment took over most of the space; holding on to the bamboo beams of the roof, we gingerly edged past, hardly daring to breathe lest we topple down the other side. We clambered down at a point where the embankment led into a lane that opened out just in front of our house – it’s a pretty lane, lined with trees on both sides, and houses behind them; there was the ubiquitous pukur (lake), where we saw an elderly man and a women standing in waist-deep water, scooping something up in nets from the bed of the lake. K asked me what they were doing and I told him they were digging up snails – the poor people in the neighbourhood often dig up snails and molluscs to eat – they’re free, and plentiful. Isn’t it ironic, K said, that snails should be a delicacy abroad and cost the earth, while it’s the only food that doesn’t cost these people anything here? A little further down we heard someone calling out to us – to our left, I saw a man and a woman standing by a tubewell outside a house – I didn’t recognise them, but their voices were familiar, and a childish memory of being carried around in someone’s arms rose to the surface. These were clearly more people who’d seen me grow up – addressing me in the familiar ‘tui’ form, they demanded to know why we weren’t staying longer. Unconditional affection such as theirs still makes me marvel – they might be ordinary, unremarkable village people, but I’m glad I know them, and am part of their lives.

My parents were at the house with Chotoma when we arrived, talking to various people who’d gathered around. K took the opportunity to see all around the place – the back yard with it’s huge tree where a brahmadotti (some sort of nasty tree goblin with big feet) was said to live, according to Gita pishi, who used to cook for us when we were children – an attempt at climbing the tree to see if he really lived there got two of my cousins and me roundly scolded – and the front garden, all dilapidated now, but which once used to be my Dadu’s pride and joy, where the cousin nearest my age, and the one I was closest to, and I had once found a baby frog that we decided to adopt. (That frog grew into an enormous creature and was quite happy in its enclosure.)

We left for Sodepur soon after, and departed for Kolkata later that evening. We promised to be back soon, a promise we intend to keep at the earliest.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Taki Diary – I

My father hails from a picturesque little village bang on the Bangladesh border on the banks of the beautiful river Ichamati in the South 24 Parganas region of West Bengal, named Taki. For the first 16 years of my life, Taki, for my cousins and I, remained the symbol of happiness – the spot where the entire extended family would congregate to celebrate that most special festival for Bengalis the world over, Durga Pujo. My grandparents’ big rambling house became the backdrop of our various adventures and misadventures; and the gardens and roads that we’d run wild on during the daytime would become dark, creepy (there were no streetlights) and forbidding come evening, and the only sounds to be heard were the fireflies buzzing, the crickets chirping, and my grandmother’s gentle voice telling us ghost stories while we snuggled as close as we could get to her and listened wide-eyed.

My grandparents died within three months of each other when I was 16, and those happy, carefree holidays came to an end. I, too, was going through the typical self-centred, adolescent phase, and apart from the sadness at my grandparents’ deaths, I don’t think I missed the childhood I’d left behind in Taki very much. A couple of months ago, after exactly 16 years, I returned to Taki, along with my parents, my aunt, and a very excited K, to meet a cousin of mine (my dad’s eldest brother’s son), who’d built himself a house in Sodepur, a hamlet situated about 10 minutes from Taki, and was now about to open up a small shib mandir (temple dedicated to the worship of Shiva) within the compound. We were to stay at my cousin’s place for a couple of days. On the day of our departure, after kissing the cats and Didi (who’s been with our family forever, and pretty much brought me up – she’s from Taki too, and told me to show K their house) goodbye, we piled into a rattling old Tata Sumo driven by a skinny, friendly young man with a singularly dreadful mullet (seriously, what is it with Bongs and mullets? Clearly Mithunda still reigns supreme) – my dad glowing with happiness at the prospect of going back home, my aunt (who’s usually great fun to travel with, as she can leave you in splits of laughter with her crazy sense of humour) and mom chattering and laughing like magpies and talking about the last time they’d been there, the various people they’d met, who they were likely to meet this time, etc., K., crouched uncomfortably at the back with the luggage, but still very excited at finally going to a place he’d heard so much of, and I, happy, yet somewhat nervous – things would have changed, and one never does like one’s sacred childhood memories desecrated.

The drive there took about a couple of hours and was, for the most part, beautiful – along a new road built off the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, which led through little rural hamlets and the bustling marketplaces of various suburban small towns. We passed through fields of that wonderful verdant green that you only see in Bengal, sparkling lakes given over to fish farming; and best of all were the glimpses we caught of houses and everyday life through the hanging fronds of trees that lined both sides of the roads. Every now and then the trees would thin out and we would be given a view of a tiny hamlet – small part brick, part mud houses clustered together, little children running around, playing, women washing clothes or dishes in the ubiquitous ponds – the men were presumably at work at one or the other of the various brick kilns that we could see in the distance – tall structures emitting smoke that hung forbiddingly over the sky, they were quite an eyesore, and reminded me for some disturbingly unfathomable reason of the chimney stacks at Auschwitz. I caught myself thinking, not for the first time, what the lives of these people – part of India’s teeming multitudes yet, for the most part, invisible, uncared for - must be like. This thought was to recur forcefully during my stay at Taki/Sodepur.

As we neared Taki I discovered, to my delight, familiar landmarks that were still around – my dad pointed them out to K, along with little histories of each old building we passed. And then we were there, except, instead of turning right into the lane that led to our house, we turned left, on the road to Sodepur. Our driver (incidentally, he, too, was called Mithun!) was asked to drive along the narrow path that curved dangerously beside the Ichamati river so that K could catch his first glimpse of it – and it was a sight to behold, really, that broad expanse of sparkling silver river, glittering in the sunshine, looking deceptively gentle. My cousin’s place was built along traditional lines – it was long, low, open on all sides, surrounded by land enclosed by a low wall, and, best of all, had a huge pond with stone benches beside it to the right. K and I, delighted at the sight of it, sat ourselves down on the benches for a while – despite being a hot day, a cool breeze blowing towards us meant we were eminently comfortable even out in the open. The day was spent mostly eating – the traditional Bengali breakfast of luchi-tarkari followed by a lunch for which all of Taki and Sodepur had been invited; meeting people – my dad, surrounded by people from his childhood days, had disappeared in the throng, and my mom and aunt, having launched themselves with shrieks of delight at various people (all of whom, incidentally, had known me since I was a baby, and continued to treat me as such; K, as jamai, was given more respect), were now talking nineteen to the dozen; and the puja happened at some point too, but we weren’t a part of that.

Come evening, and K and I decided to go over to Taki, to spend a couple of hours at home. My uncle lives there now, dad’s youngest brother, and his wife, who I call Chotoma – so along with her and several other Taki women, we clambered on to the primary form of transport – the van, which is nothing more than those cycles with wooden carts on wheels attached behind them that you use to transport goods in cities. I enjoyed my first van ride immensely, though I did find myself clutching the sides nervously now and then – and it was so beautiful, that quiet, balmy evening, trundling down a narrow, winding track with the river flowing softly beside us, the breeze wafting off it cooling the temperature, catching a sight of houses – mostly mud, or wattle and daub; Sodepur is a decidedly poor hamlet – people on the roads calling out to those on the vans (Kothai giyechile? Tomader gache aam hoyeche ebaar?) – and I felt all the tension, the stress that’s so much a part of our everyday lives, so much so that we aren’t even aware of it anymore, draining away, leaving me lighter, calmer, and happy, being here with people who were simpler, unencumbered with the stifling social expectations and etiquette that plague us every step of the way, people who were happy to see me simply because I was me.

After a couple of hours spent at home, where I rushed around nostalgically though K could see very little, there being a power cut, one of the major problems affecting Taki and adjoining areas, we returned on yet another van, this time in the pitch darkness so peculiar to villages – Ichamati gleaming silver on our left while lanterns glimmering through trees in the houses to our right and the occasional voice carried on the breeze provided the only signs of human habitation. Now and then we’d pass a surly BSF guy – because Taki is bang on the Bangladesh border, there’s a sizeable Border Security Force camp there, and sullen guys in the uniforms and high boots, with their rifles slung menacingly across their shoulders is a common sight. ‘They harass the local people a lot,’ my youngest cousin’s wife, herself from Sodepur, had told us. ‘We can’t be out on the road after 8.30 pm.’ Later, we were driven to the Taki guest house, where we were to spend the night, and I promised K that the first thing we’d do in the morning was walk across to Taki, and explore every inch of it.