A Journey to the Roots
Six decades ago, in 1946, we were on one of our annual winter visits to the village, twelve miles from Dinajpur town. One had to take a train, early morning or late evening to go to Mangalpur station, four miles from our modest ancestral home. You could walk by the side of the rail line-took about sixty to ninety minutes, which was my father's preference. It was a bit risky but trains were infrequent in that section. Alternatively, you could take the bullock cart, crouch inside the bamboo cover on a not so soft bedding. This allowed luggage to go along with you.
We travelled with our mother in a bullock cart. The journey was long and slow, through winding and uneven roads. The cart of course had no shock absorbers and no headlights. It shook painfully because of large holes and depressions, often caused by wooden wheels and the weight of the loaded cart on the mud road. The local union council did not have enough money or staff to keep the roads in good repair. For a journey after dark, lanterns would hang in the front and back of the cart. The 'Garwan'(driver) would be challenged by night guards, mostly volunteers, as we passed by clusters of homes in nearby villages. After he announced the family identity of the passengers and their destination, he would be allowed to proceed. This was a security measure as dacoities at night in the remote villages were taking place even in the docile district of Dinajpur, where poverty was less pronounced compared to other districts in East Bengal.
Dinajpur, in the north-west tip of Bengal used to be quite cold in December, particularly for the 'Calcatians' that we were. Our Dadi would light a fire for warming us up on arrival. Even in the cold winter, people in the village got up early and the roosters in the house would inevitably start making their unique wake up calls. Suddenly the whole village consisting of a few cluster of homesteads, each one populated mostly by our relations of some kind, would become active all at the same time. Tea and breakfast would be simple -- muri, murki with hot milk (sweet country style cereal), hot bhapa pitha with gur and the like.
The sun would rise meanwhile and people, particularly the elders, would sit in the sun, wrapping themselves with aloans (shawls) and engage in talks about the weather, the health situation, prices and the prospect for the crops. Radios had not reached the villages at that time, and newspapers, if any, would come from the district town only after a few days. I am speaking here about those who had plenty of land (locally called jotdars). They had others to cultivate their land, some as direct employees for salary and food but most of the others on a sharecropping basis. The peasant's share would usually be half- called adhi (half). People of my generation would recall that in 1945-46 in the North Bengal districts of Dinajpur, Rangpur and Rajshahi, Mymensingh, the 'tebhaga' andolon was in full swing. With the communists helping to organise the agitation, the peasantry, many of aboriginal and tribal origin, demanded two-thirds share of the produce for their part of the agricultural activities, instead of sharing it equally with the landowner. The Nachol area of Rajshahi district became famous because of violent clashes during the 'tebhaga' between the peasants and the police, and its brutal suppression by government forces. Ila Mitra, who was directly leading the movement, was arrested by the police and suffered terrible humiliation and torture in their hands.
By about 11 am, it would warm up and we could take off our sweaters and go around on foot exploring the small village. We were a curiosity those days for others in the village as we looked and talked differently from the crowd of boys and girls who would follow us at every step. We would be warmly entertained at every house and asked many questions about our life and activities in distant Calcutta, which they had only heard about in that backward area but never seen. Some would start cooking a meal for our lunch by catching a loudly protesting Some would readily catch fish from the dighees (large ponds) next to their houses. No amount of excuses would be good enough -- you had to eat at their house or they would lose their 'sanman'(prestige). Those days, in the villages hospitality for visitors was a valued tradition for the rich or the poor.
Daylight hours were short during the North Bengal winters and we did not rest or sleep after lunch. We would visit the local school, then only a primary school, where my father and uncles had studied and talk to the students and teachers. Thursdays, I believe, was the local haat day in our village. An area near the school was designated for holding the haat. Except for a small teashop and later a flourmill, there was nothing going on there during rest of the week. Various small traders from all around would start coming from late morning and set up their shops in the Bamboo stalls and on the ground. You could bargain and buy most things- rice, wheat, chicken, eggs, sugar, salt, oil, both cooking and burning, fruits as well as crude sweets and toys. That was a once a week opportunity to buy things that you did not produce at your own house. It was a wonderful experience for us and though we bought little, it was fun going around and watching people trading, exchanging all sorts of useful and useless information and generally socialising in a festival-like atmosphere until late afternoon, when the hat would break up slowly.
One morning we were standing in the lychee garden belonging to one of my uncles. The trees were big and tall and the fruits, then turning brown in colour and nearly ripe, were hanging from the branches in thick clusters. There were lots of them and it was quite a sight. My uncle liked riding horses to inspect his many small farms in nearby areas. He asked me whether I would like to ride his big horse. I naively took the opportunity and to my surprise, my father, who was present, permitted the adventure. I had crossed thirteen but had to be helped to sit on the horse. I took the rein but had not quite put my feet on the stirrups, when the horse started running fast through the rows of lychee trees- in which direction- I had no idea. It happened very suddenly. It was difficult for me to hold on to my position without the support of the stirrups. The keeper of the horse ran behind and called back the horse. Fortunately, it listened and turned back. It is a good feeling to ride a horse- there is pride and majesty in it. You literally feel tall and in command.
Now to end, let us go from a village story to a tale many years later, which happened at the Civil Service Academy in Lahore. There in 1959, the riding master, perhaps to tease me, suggested that I ride the biggest horse in the academy named 'Gul Mohammad'. He knew I was not a good rider. I took the challenge and got on the tall horse, which had the reputation of being obstinate. We were practicing trot and what the riding master in his own English used to call 'fikra eit'(the figure of eight). Along with other probationers, I made a few turns to complete the figure of eight but at one turn, I tried to direct the horse to turn left when it forcefully disobeyed me and with a jerk, turned right. The motion threw me off the horse and I fell on my left wrist, which broke with a cracking sound. Obviously, I was not in command.
Azizul Jalil writes from Washington.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007