BABA died in January 2012. He had developed septicemia, following a cataract removal surgery. The infection spread through his veins, like a multi-pronged assault, switching his organs off, one by one, with unsparing certitude. It was over in less than twelve hours.
I rushed back – from Beijing, where I lived then – to Calcutta, almost a year after my last visit.
There weren’t too many visible changes though, except that the party offices (often improvised shades with rattan and bamboo walls, and corrugated tin roofs) which had mushroomed every kilometer or so now displayed banners and flags of the victorious Trinamul Congress Party, instead of the familiar hammer and sickle-crested red banderole.
Unlike Chinese cities, where tearing down and rebuilding existing structures is the most visible generic motif, Calcutta seems to be in the grip of an eternal stasis, the big freeze, as it were. The approach roads to the shiny new shopping malls are overwhelmed by filth and stench. Pavements disappear. Garbage vats overflow. Patients are made to lie on the floor in public hospitals, as beds are in short supply. In peak hours, the roads resemble the setting of a pitched battle, with every contraption on wheels eager to put its seal on the last inch of public space. Those manning the front offices in government departments are derisive or angry, ready to give it back to anybody who dares engage them in a conversation. Certain neighborhoods in north Calcutta do not seem to have moved an inch from the throes of bewildering squalor and abjectness that Kaliprasanna Sinha wrote about in 1862. In Calcutta it is possible to slide under this algae cover of delectable inertia and not be affected by the sight of urine-stained swaddling clothes drying on the fencing around the sculpture of a luminary of the Bengal Renaissance.
All of that had not changed. Unless one counted Tagore’s bearded visage, followed by a quote, appearing on billboards, at bus stops, and his songs bellowing from sound boxes at traffic intersections, round-the-clock. In his 150th birth anniversary year, the new government was determined to bring the poet closer to the people – trying to outdo their Leftist predecessors who initially rejected Tagore as a ‘bourgeois romantic’ and then reclaimed him as ‘aamader lok’ (he’s our man), in deference to public sentiment.
On this trip back home I discovered a recently-published article by my father – an essay about a deep emotional connect shared with the writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay since his pre-teen years. Baba wrote about how Bandyopadhyay’s enchanting world of un-hewn shrubbery – thorny hedges, creepers, groves of mango and jackfruit trees and intense thickets of bamboo that’s typical of a moist, dark green Bengal village scene – would often morph into his own ever-familiar Rajpur landscape. For Baba, indolent afternoons spent under the shade of close-knit trees in unkempt gardens — the still film of silence punctured occasionally by the cooing of domesticated birds – as Bandyopadhyay would describe it, was a lived reality.
In a few years Baba would find out that Bandyopadhyay once taught at the very school he was now going to, that he had been arm-twisted into leaving that job. Using recognizable figures from real life as models for fictional characters – especially if they were women – indicated a moral lacuna in a writer in 1940s Bengal and a potentially corrupting influence on the students. Bandyopadhyay had to go.
But the sights and sounds of Rajpur – the slime-coated steps descending into ponds where women came to wash the utensils acquiring a calm and a mystique under the ambient light after sunset – a landscape that Bandyopadhyay would sometimes revisit, had left an indelible imprint on his sensibilities and would often show up in his writing.
I had read ‘Pather Panchali’ (The Song of the Road) and ‘Chander Pahar’ when I was quite young – the typical plot-driven, uninformed reading that young people often do. This time I thought I would try and retrace the footsteps of the writer across Rajpur which, as my father’s article amply illustrated, resonated with Bandyopadhyay’s fiction, sometimes actually figuring in it.
Rajpur, which used to be a village traditionally peopled by high-caste Brahmin scholars and their Muslim/low-caste minions, when Bandyopadhyay was writing about it, in the early to mid-20th century, now has a Calcutta postal index number. An ill-lit cyber cafe with a grimy blue plastic-sheet-covered awning on its main arterial road – through which vehicles seem to ply with murderous intent – sells Internet connections over the counter. Early in the morning young boys dress up in white trousers and V-neck pullovers, carrying their cricketing gear in branded kit bags for a net practice.
“So Bapi-da, what’s the vibe around here? Now that change is a reality?”
Bapi, whose forefathers were Brahmin priests, officiating at Hindu ceremonies, drove an auto-rickshaw along the Sonarpur-Rajpur stretch. He has been part of the feeder service that mostly used – as indeed elsewhere in Bengal – vehicles without a valid license to carry passengers to the Sonarpur Railway Station for nearly thirty years now. Bapi was dropping by on a customary visit to a family in mourning.
He shuffled conspicuously at the question, and started examining his feet, suddenly intent and coy, like a new bride. “You really want to get into all this?”
I wasn’t going to be put off so easily. Earlier, Bapi had told us amazing stories about his daily battle with the cops (who claimed their cut), the cadres (who claimed the mandatory donation to the Party fund) and kata tel (a toxic mixture of petrol, kerosene and naphthalene that damaged the vehicle and corroded the driver’s lung and yet had to be used as a cheaper substitute for oil if the enterprise were to make any profit at the end of the day). I was curious to know if any of that had changed since the change of leadership.
“The difference now,” said Bapi, finally, almost inaudibly, as if he were speaking to himself, “is that previously the people who ran the show had a semblance of education and good breeding. Now it’s just the pariahs.”
There were reports of school principals being heckled and terrorized by Trinamul activists in the newspapers. For thirty years Left-backed teachers had prevailed at academic institutions, often treating these as their personal fief. It was payback time now. A teacher like Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay – a victim of social ostracisation then – would be equally out of place in this atmosphere of prejudice and intolerance.
Following the leads in my father’s article I went looking for the locations that Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay had so cherished and apotheosised in his writing. The ruins of the derelict temple that belonged to the family of Dashani Choudhury – the local landlords in the 19th century – had not changed much from the way Bandyopadhyay had described them in ‘Chander Pahar.’ A thick mesh of weeds, climbers and aerial roots hanging from the trees growing randomly on its cornices obliterated the crumbling heap almost completely from one’s view. The moat around the manor – which has since disappeared – was now a sludgy canal, almost level with the rest of the land. The Dol Mancha had remained where it was – a raised platform adjacent to a Vaishnav temple that even now served as the venue for the ceremonial opening of the festival of colours in March. Bosepukur – a pond so huge that it could pass off as a lake – looked almost as serene under the morning sun as Bandyopadhyay had found it on a full-moon night, the coconut groves around it made lovelier still by the touch of white magic, slipping down its polished fronds in the breeze.
On a largish white board beside the pond Calcutta Wetlands Management advised the public to pre-empt any encroachment on the site, attempts to build on it or tamper with its character. It was evident from the repeated protestations in the message that this was a water-body eager realtors had been eyeing. The appeal to protect the pond and its adjoining wetlands – which, as the notice suggested, helped sustain a hundred plant species and forty odd varieties of migratory birds, rare mammals and near-extinct turtles – was written in the form of a couplet.
Sampad maney shudhu takakori noi
Jomi jol gaachpala poshupakhi hoi
Money isn’t the only asset you can claim
Land, water, trees, birds and animals make assets too
Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay would probably have overlooked the moral tone in the appeal to save the lake he had sat by in quiet afternoons – watching the sunlight jump in through the intense foliage overhead and enter the still waters like an unsheathed sword. He probably wouldn’t have minded the forced rhyming in the doggerel.
Chitralekha Basu is a writer of fiction, a translator, and a singer of Tagore songs. Her book, ‘Sketches by Hootum the Owl: a Satirist’s View of Colonial Calcutta’ – is a re-imagining of the first work of modern Bengali prose, written in 1861/62 by Kaliprasanna Sinha. She is interested in the comparative histories of Calcutta, her hometown, and Hong Kong, where she now lives.