Wednesday, October 26, 2011

IN AN EARLIER TIME


Last week I suddenly had  the opportunity of spending some time with Ma- Baba at home in Kolkata and I scanned and enlarged  some photographs from Baba’s  old Black and White albums and spiral bound the A4 size computer printouts into a sort of book…. grainy B/W images that transport you to an era long past….

 But even with the full page images, it was painful to watch Baba struggling to see them, holding them close to his eyes and scanning the photograph, section by section…

 I could feel  a lump in my throat as I watched him, vainly trying to decipher some of the old images and his childlike joy and enthusiasm when he recognized them, bringing back a flood of memories connected with each image… how young and handsome and sprightly everyone was… and how heartbreakingly time had taken its toll …many of them are no longer with us… and of the ones who still are, looking at their photographs in the prime of their lives, who would have imagined that they would change so much with age… and become so frail and old… and yet, perhaps that remains one of the most abiding and indisputable truths of human life…

 The other thing that had changed dramatically since the time those photographs had been taken, were the wide open spaces, the sparse traffic on the roads, the absence of crowds … the general feeling of a relaxed, less competitive, less clamorous time as I like to say…

Looking at one of the photographs Baba was reminiscing about Dadu’s old Government quarter at Purnia , where he lived as a small boy...  there was a graveyard  on one side… and a jail on the other… and nothing else for miles around…. they could see a hill in the middle distance… and the jungle surrounding it…. and sometimes, there would be leopards prowling around in the vicinity…

There was no electricity then, and lanterns the only source of light after nightfall…. by eight o’ clock everything would be absolutely still and the slightest sound would carry for miles… sometimes in the distance, they would hear the leopard calling….

 Purnia town, such as it was then, was a small settlement in three different pockets, with   woodlands in between… he remembers cycling home from his Maths tuitions after Dusk… there were no streetlights then… his cycle had a small battery powered lamp in front and a tree with overhanging branches at one of the  corners would suddenly, in that uncertain light , look like a bent old man in a cap, waiting… hunched over and menacing… enough to send him pedalling furiously…

I read an interesting story this time at home, called ‘Sport in Lower Bengal’, in the Oxford Anthology of Indian Wildlife, written by Edward Braddon, a Britisher working with a mercantile firm on Clive Street
at Calcutta, more than a hundred fifty years ago.

He writes about a “pre – railway time, when the Moffusil beyond Barrackpore was only to be reached by slow and wearying travel by palanquin, or slower journeying by river in the old time boat house of India  - the Budgerow  (anglicised version of the Bengali word ‘ Bojra’ – meaning a large houseboat with sails) – the large majority of Calcutta men passed their lives without penetrating into the interior further than a buggy would carry them; the E.I. Railway , which for many years had its terminal station at Howrah, was not then, or had only recently been , constructed. The Hooghly had not, then been bridged  (By the iconic Howrah Bridge ),and one made one’s way from Calcutta to the jheels (lakes) of Howrah by dinghy across the river and then about a mile on foot.”

This sounds amazing, almost inconceivable, to the modern day Calcuttan and yet Braddon also talks about “the great metropolis of Calcuttawith its busy social circuit, its trading firms and offices, its “hunting and pig sticking seasons” and of the “colonels” with their tall tales. He also speaks about hunting in the “Tiger Country along the Ganges between Bhaugulpore and Maldah in pursuit of Big Game.”

To someone like me who has lived in these places, these are fascinating accounts of a bygone era which I just couldn’t resist incorporating in my write up, to give it a true perspective on how these places have changed and evolved over the years….

There was  still a lot of wildlife in that area till some years back and there used to be a stone tablet just outside Jamalpur Railway station near Munger (Monghyr  then, in Bihar), dedicated to a young British railwayman who had perished in an encounter with a Tiger, just outside the famous tunnel cutting through the hills… as kids what a thrill it was when the train entered it and suddenly everything grew dark….till we emerged again in the daylight on the other side… what wonder there was in such small things then…


Baba remembers the old Railway Stations when there wasn’t so much of Electricity and the only source of light used to be huge petromaxes or Hazacks as they were called, hung up high above the platform normally, only brought down by a Pulley barely half an hour before the arrival of the train…. The station itself usually being the only Pucca, brick and  mortar building in the vicinity for miles. After the train had left, the lights would be extinguished, plunging the area into darkness… people were disciplined and uncomplaining… resources were scarce… especially in the war years…


The Engine Searchlight used to be on the sides those days so that it could light up a portion of the Platform as the train came in and there’d be lamps over the doorway of each compartment to assist boarding or alighting passengers….but none inside…the lamp over the doorway was so positioned that some light would fall inside the compartment as well…

The other facilities were pretty spartan too … the third and ‘inter” class compartments had no fans…inter class had the luxury of a toilet…third class had none…Second and First class compartments had fans and toilets and at some of the bigger stations the Railway staff would put a container of ice below the fan… and this was probably the precursor of the AC compartments of today….

Railways were privately owned initially and bore different names, till the Government took them over later.  The main Delhi –Howrah line was called the East Indian Railway (EIR), headquartered at Howrah, Calcutta and  then there was the Oudh and Rohilcund (O&R ) Railway, the RKR – the Rohilcund Kumaon Railway from Lucknow to Kathgodam, the BNR or  Bengal Nagpur Railway from Shalimar station at Calcutta to Nagpur  in central India, the MSMR, or  the Madras South Maratha Railway to the South of India and the BB & CIR, the Bombay, Baroda and Central Indian Railway to the West and of course, the exotic, narrow gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway or DHR that ran from Kishangunj to Darjeeling at an altitude  of 6714 ft  in Himalayan North Bengal.

Even today, so many years on , if you have the time and the inclination, you would perhaps, still be able to search out a small plaque that says “ EIR” at the busy Mughalserai junction station on the Delhi Calcutta route… a reminder of an era gone by.

He spoke of the massive Munger earthquake of 1934 which measured 8.4 on the Richter Scale and is said to have killed nearly 30,000 people in Bihar and Nepal.The towns of Munger and Champaran were reported to have been completely destroyed. Like other Government officials, Dadu ( grandpa) lived inside the ramparts of the old fort and almost  all houses in that area collapsed on that fateful day. Dadu was unwell and was at home…when the tremors started  that winter afternoon long ago, he didn’t want to come out and kept on saying that it was nothing and they were getting unnecessarily alarmed. Dadi (grandma) and Shejo jethu ( Baba’s elder brother), only managed to pull him out, minutes before the house came crashing down….

 Outside, the ground wobbled in waves and they couldn’t stand without falling….

 Choto pishi, Baba’s younger sister, had gone to school that day and miraculously, their school building survived and she was part escorted, part carried home by someone, probably a teacher, amidst the debris and rubble of the ravaged town… she was shocked to see the home she had left in the morning, no longer there when she came back….

Dadi kept going back inside the debris and the tottering ruins, time and again, unmindful of her own safety…to pull out foodstuffs, blankets and warm clothes. It was the 15th of January and very cold at night under the open sky…They also got out some cots which they arranged to make a temporary shelter against the wind…


Within a day or two, the Administration (my grandfather a part of them, he was a Deputy Magistrate), had set up tents and restored water supply and food was being cooked in large community kitchens.

 Choto Pishi  remembers that after five or six days, two of their cousins, came walking down to Monghyr, all the way from Bhagalpur, nearly sixty kilometers away, to find out if they were safe…

And she also remembers dadi, who had been such a pillar of strength through the whole ordeal, crying quietly to herself, late at night, when she thought everyone was asleep….


Baba remembers the Doctors of that time… often Physician, Surgeon, Dentist rolled into one…because there were so few of them they couldn’t afford the luxury of confining themselves to one Speciality… or even to ask for investigative tests, relying mainly instead, on their own clinical sense and experience, most of the time. Dedicated and unselfish, they were like Gods to the sick and would often not charge their patients even for private consultations, because many of them were simply not in a position to pay… and for most of their patients, the mere sound of daktarbabu’s voice would bring about a 50% cure.

He is convinced our family physician, Sunil Babu (the late Dr Sunil Kumar Ghosh), had that effect on him, especially when he came in once well after midnight, to attend to Dadu, who had just suffered a heart attack… we used to sleep on the first floor and dadu – dadi on the ground floor of our old house at Bhagalpur and there was a call bell on our floor from their room below…
We would dread the jangling of that bell, late in the night…it  meant Dadi was calling us in an emergency…
And Baldeva would cycle down furiously to Sunil Babu’s place in the dead of the night and in no time he would be with us, with his little black bag, calm and in control, and we knew things would be fine…


Sometimes when it was touch and go, they’d sit with their patients, throughout the night… and it would be a rare doctor who would refuse a house call in an emergency, even in the witching hours, when there were hardly any lights and a cycle rickshaw or a bullock cart the only means of transportation to a distant villagers’ house…maybe they belonged to a different breed of humans and God Threw away the Mould after He Created these Men…

In any case, they would have been misfits in today’s world…

Baba spoke  about the small things that he’s noticed over the years at Bhagalpur, unfailingly, every year… the old  Neem tree in in our yard shedding its leaves year after year, starting almost always approximately on the same day, beginning with the same branches every year, on the same side of the tree, the small white flowers that would come at the same time year after year, followed by the bitter Neem berries that would ripen and fall to the ground, again like clockwork…without calendar or watch, Mother Nature knew exactly when it needed to happen…


 And the Birds,  would come and nest in the same branches of the leafy Kanthal        (jackfruit) tree every year… and shelter the young ones against the wind as they wedged the nest in a fork of the tree… and kept a keen eye on predators, doing their best to chase away any that dared to come near…and from his classroom window  at the college where he taught, he would often watch a  Blue Jay, or Neelkantha as they’re called here, coming to perch on the same spot on the Football goalpost every day and belligerently returning from nowhere to chase out any winged intruders who tried to usurp its vantage point when it was away…


He remembers having picked up this hobby from an English Doctor who lived near Dadu’s (Grandfather’s)  Govt  Quarters at Laheriaserai in Bihar, who would come back from his clinic in the evening and then start walking the  5 miles along the railway tracks towards Laheriaserai Railway Station each day, with a pair of binoculars and a camera slung over his shoulders. A quiet, taciturn man, he taken a liking for Baba who was a first year college student then and showed him what to look for. .. and where.

That was life then, quiet, unhurried, gentle… at peace with Oneself and Nature, to be savoured  and enjoyed and cherished …

Instead of the mad, headlong rush that it is today...

He remembers buying 64 oranges to a rupee at Bhagalpur… and three Penguin books… amazingly, also to a Rupee… and walking down to the Tilla or hillock in Sandy’s Compound to look at the Great Bear and other known stars, late in the evening… and he remembers exactly when the first winter chill would permeate the Autumn air… around the same time year after year… and marvel at Nature’s precision…


And he wonders why no one bothers about such things anymore… what’s the point in chasing Money and deadlines and corner offices…. if you haven’t learnt how to live in   the quiet that is within? If you don’t know and care what the past was like … If your life has not been enriched by the hundreds of little things happening unnoticed in Nature, around you…


And most of all, he wonders where has the innate simplicity of people gone, their gentleness and the way they cared… even for those who were not immediate family members…. 

But then perhaps, the only permanence in our lives is change… and that is the way it was Meant to Be…







you can reach me at arijitghosh7@hotmail.com

4 comments:

  1. Thanks Ashishda, glad you liked it.

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  2. I find your musings very poignant. Your cousin, Jay Sanyal, introduced me to your blog, and I check it out occasionally.

    Keep them coming :)

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  3. Thanks, sure will, maybe one next week. Do keep reading!

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