Images of Youthful Years
From our early childhood, we used to visit Jalpaiguri in North Bengal every summer or winter to visit our maternal grandparents and uncles living there. During the scare created by the Japanese bombing in Calcutta in 1942 and their advance towards India during the Second World War, my brother and I along with our mother stayed in Jalpaiguri for two years -1942-43. We went to the Government Zilla School there.
The journey from Calcutta, where we lived, was by train. It was a comfortable nine-hour overnight journey by the Darjeeling Mail. It stopped only in a few big stations and terminated at Siliguri, north of Jalpaiguri town. Starting at 9:30 in the night from Calcutta's Shialdah station, one reached Jalpaiguri early in the morning. I remember the train going over the Hardinge Bridge on the Padma River near Kushtia (then part of Nadia District). It had a long stop at Parbatipur Railway junction where a new engine would take over.
Mafussil towns those days had vibrant communities and had good medical and educational facilities. Most of these towns had electricity. Prominent and well-off people lived in these towns, enriching the town's life and culture. It was not the fashion for all to go and live in the crowded provincial capital, Calcutta, the second most populous city in the British Empire. I have many happy memories of the two years, living in the beautiful and clean district town of Jalpaiguri. There were many eucalyptus and coconut trees in front of people's houses, which provided a pleasant ambience to the town. The Teesta River passed close by the town and going to the Teesta for evening walks was most enjoyable. There used to be a large earthen mound near the river, which we used to call a 'dhipi'. In the old days, it used to be a shooting range for the armed police, which was later discarded. About forty miles away was the Duars area, with its dense forests and numerous tea gardens, and Darjeeling, a fine hill station was not far away. Even though the Muslims were a minority in the district, perhaps in the town itself, they were in the majority. If that were not the case, the Chairman of the Jalpaiguri Municipality (established in 1885) would not have been always a Muslim, my own grandfather being one for nine continuous years. On the other hand, the District Board Chairman was always a Hindu. The Muslim community in the town included professionals like lawyers or doctors and directors or employees of tea gardens.
Nawab Mosharraf Hossain, his brother Lutfar Rahman, Waliur Rahman and my grandfather, Abdus Satter, all related by marriage or by blood and all Khan Bahadurs, were the leading Muslim figures in the town. Some were practicing lawyers. Also related to them were Sir AF Rahman and his brothers, who were highly educated and well known in Calcutta and Dhaka circles. Sir AF Rahman became the third Vice- Chancellor of Dhaka University. Most of the above were involved in investments and management/ownership of tea gardens in Jalpaiguri's Duars area and in some parts of near-by Assam. Duars (meaning doors) was on the eastern side of the Teesta River and had six passes (or doors) to go into Bhutan through the Sinchula Hills. In fact, I remember going with family to Bhutan once by car and looking at the delightful sight of oranges hanging from the plants. From 1940, the city flourished on tea business. Due to the Second World War and its increasing popularity, price of tea, both in India and abroad increased, making the tea industry quite profitable. Among the prominent people in the Hindu community, the name of Rai Bahadur Bipul Banerjee, a lawyer and District Board Chairman and the Goenkas, big Marwari business family, come to mind.
We used to see some Nepalis in Jalpaiguri, in various small jobs, mainly as guards in houses and businesses. They were fierce and always carried a Kurpi, a small dagger, in their waist. The British found them stubborn, courageous and indomitable, recruited them for the army and formed different Gurkha units under various names. They were mainly from the Rais, Limbus, Gurungs and Magar tribes of Nepal. The Gurkhas were loyal to the British and made a great name in fighting for the British at home and abroad. In Jalpaiguri, they would sometimes be involved in ghastly murders if they felt dishonoured or in cases of personal enmity. Local people were a little bit scared of them. The city had a good cultural life. Even as a young boy, I had the good fortune of hearing famous singers visiting Jalpaiguri, like the blind singer Khrisna Chandra Dey in person and attending various plays and cultural functions during the pujas. Interdistrict football tournaments, which attracted teams from far and wide and also from Assam was very competitive and provided great excitement in Jalpaiguri.
Visiting the Duars and staying in the tea gardens was a real treat. The plucking of tealeaves, the so called 'two leaves and a bud' by indigenous and pahari women with huge baskets tied to them, was a wonderful sight. The rows and rows of tea bushes about four-five feet high with large shade trees neatly planted between these, provided a marvelous and unforgettable verdant panorama. The beauty, symmetry and the organisation of the tea plantations amply justified calling these 'gardens'. In my mind, these gardens had similarities with the Mugal gardens in Western India. The processing of tea in factories in the garden area was interesting - raw leaves would first be sun dried, and then machine dried and later toasted. The nearby area would be filled with an unearthly aroma. As the toasted leaves are then strained in screens to take out stems and other impurities, the resultant debris, which is called tea dust is then kept separately. The dust also had a market and sold separately -- nothing from good earth goes to waste. Staying a few nights in the bungalows in the garden was very comfortable and a real change from city life. Fresh jungle fowl or deer meat prepared by excellent cooks were popular delicacies. One could indulge in 'shikar'-- birds, deer and tigers and leopards were around. It was a bit scary at night, particularly because of stories of tigers coming around and occasionally killing garden workers and animals. Fortunately, senior family members always carried guns for safety and for hunting.
Going to the farmhouses belonging to relations was another attraction of staying in Jalpaiguri. We had our 'Mota Nana' (brother of our grandmother) living in a big compound opposite my grandfather's house. He was a stocky man, very fair, always wearing a short coat over his dhuti or trousers and shirt. At about 10 in the morning, he would amble along, sit in our baithak khana, which was a covered low wooden deck with railings, and smoke a few puffs from the hookah. Then he would speak to us, the younger ones, in rapid English, which though often incorrect, was quite interesting and the subjects were wide ranging. Almost every morning, he would visit the Nawab at his palace for discussions on the district's and Bengal's social and political affairs. After early lunch, a few days a week, Mota nana would go to his farmhouse in a fancy big bullock cart, with comfortable bedding inside, on which he would sleep during the journey of about an hour or so. We would know about his comings and goings because of the ringing of the big bells attached to the collar of the two bulls. Once I accompanied him in the bullock cart ride to his farm and merrily spent half a day in the wilderness. I also remember that once in 1945, about twenty of us going for a daylong picnic by car. I did not know how to swim, but most of our uncles and aunts jumped in, some in their saris, for a swim in the large dighi in the farm, in front of a small rest house. We all sat at mid-day on the ground under a tree for a lunch of chicken curry, fried eggplant, dal and rice on banana leaves. It was freshly cooked in an outdoor wooden fire. The atmosphere was wonderful and the food delicious to us who were visiting from Calcutta. I noticed that fresh banana leaves were cut and washed and we ate on the inside of the leaf, unlike the Hindu community who ate from the exposed side.
I wondered around alone, looking at the plants and the surroundings. While doing so, I came to a small river, perhaps a tributary of the Teesta River, which had little water in the wintertime. Small and medium size ivory coloured boulders with smooth surface were lying in the transparent and cold, clean river water. Though the Mount Everest was not too far from Jalpaiguri, I imagined what a distance the stones might have travelled from the Himalayan mountains and how many times it must have rolled to get that smoothness of surface. Nearby, I found a place for cremation of Hindu dead bodies, a Chitah Ghat. A few burnt bones and pieces of wood were still there--it looked like a recent happening. The image remains vividly in my mind even after six decades, and reminds me that we are all mere mortals and must all end up in the dust.
Azizul Jalil writes from Washington
(R) thedailystar.net 2006