Debraj Mookerjee journeys into the heart of rural Bengal
The perpetually potholed National Highway (NH) 35 going onto NH 34 en route to Assam from Kolkata mercifully trots off on its own as we veer left towards Shantipur in Nadia district after an exasperating three-hour drive from the metropolis. Passing through Phulia where Bengal handloom saris and a prominent ‘red light’ stretch are distinctive, we drive into Shantipur, just short of Krisnanagar. This is ‘klisht’ (difficult) Bangla territory, the area from which Queen’s Bangla, as it were, inherits its diction and tone.
From Shantipur, our sturdy SUV, a TATA Sumo, laden with as much family as it can accommodate, and followed by many other Sumos with much more of the same (family), makes the final left turn to snake the final five kilometres along a narrow lane (well-paved though) towards Haripur, where my ancestors from my maternal stock sunk their roots.
They also started a Kali Puja (a tantric variant of annual prayers to the goddess Kali) some 400 years ago. Kali is perhaps the most well-known of Indian goddesses, having made her way into poetry and song, most notably perhaps by Allen Ginsberg in his Planet News collection of poems, where he compares the destructive powers of the divinity to America’s cruelty towards the world, ironically embodied in the Statue of Liberty! The family may have preserved the tradition since, but the greater truth is that it is the tradition that has held the family together. Traditionalists, believers, non-believers, NRIs, apartment owners in Singapore, hutment dwellers in Haripur, pujari (priests), Bengali middle-class small towners, all somehow connected to the family, gather at the commodious, albeit somewhat ramshackle, house annually to partly pay obeisance to Ma Kali, and partly to charge their souls from the sap that flows up those ancestral roots.
I visit when I can. The visit under the description year marked my third. The show remains more or less the same. What changes is the nature of the attendance. Some are regulars, like those settled in Kolkata or other parts of Bengal. Also regular is the unlikely patriarch, my uncle from overseas, a much travelled, successful and sushi-loving internationalist. He is the star of Haripur. His half-German kids prefer to call the place ‘horrorpur’, but that’s a story we won’t get into. He pours his everything into Haripur, including trying to gather grants from his internationally renowned automobile casting company for the local school. The sight around the house on the morning of Kali Puja is enchanting, with about 200 kids falling over each other to collect one of those famous ‘Garman’ (German) balls. Let me explain this Haripur legend.
Some fifteen years ago, my uncle decided the tennis balls discarded at his tennis club could be useful in Haripur. Thus, began a year of collecting balls of the best make – Slazenger, Dunlop, you name it. Unfit to be used in matches, these were nevertheless better than anything these kids of Haripur had ever used for their game of cricket. These balls are the stuff of many a legend, their fame having spread far and wide. They last a year or more, they have great grip, the woolly fluff layer never really wears off, the bounce is consistent, and they never really pick up too much dirt when used on clay, and so on and so forth. It takes five able-bodied and very committed (I included when I’m there) volunteers to manage the crowd of intrepid cricketers in the making who storm Sovakar Bari (the Sovakar home) — my maternal side goes by the name Sovakar — for these legendary balls. The cousins coo about the lovely lessons their Nike-sporting kids learn from the humbling experience of having to watch these scrawny kids battle with each other for a mere used tennis ball.
I slip away one evening astride of a ‘thela’ rickshaw (fully pulled by the rickshaw driver — the only type available in rural Bengal) in the company of a locally acquired sidekick to watch a football match some two km from the village.
The game is good, save that all the action is on one side, the other having been turned into a veritable lake thanks to an unseasonal downpour. Tickets sell at Rs 3, and there is a 400 strong crowd. But for the rains it would be a 1000 strong. There are snack trolleys lined up just behind the touch line. ‘Ghugni’ (boiled green gram), ‘phuchka’ (puffed hollow patties stuffed with masala infused mashed potatoes) and something I’d never seen before completed the menu.
The last mentioned is a unique chutney, made by cracking the tough shell of the bael fruit, also called Bengal quince, Indian quince, holy fruit, stone apple, etc, and mixing the green innards with salt, sugar and green chillies (number to be specified by buyer). This is one great chutney and very good for the belly. If village water gives you the runs, the bael fruit guarantees a healthy stop to overenthusiastic bowels.
Then there is the waterfront. Actually, there are many. The Hooghly itself is narrower than the Bheel lake, some 500 yards behind our house. There a little fishing community lives along the embankment, with the waters washing into their homes on stormy nights. Tanku Halder is a mahajan (moneylender or simply put, the one with cash to invest) among the fisher folk. He has a 800-feet long fine net (for still waters), which on a good day can fetch 500 kg of fish from this very lake. And when you consider that a 4 kg carp sells at close to Rs 180 per kilo ($2.5 per kilogram) even to the wholesaler who drops in to lift the catch, you realise these people are pretty well off.
Of course, the one ubiquitous feature of the village is the household loom, the famous rigs where the well-known ‘Shantipuri’ sarees (Bengal handloom sarees have a unique history and celebrated provenance among buyers across India) are woven. Thread spinners make Rs 50 per day, weavers about two fifty (two saris per day at Rs 125 per sari). Of course, the mahajans make the big bucks and live in fancy homes. One wonders why the government has so far not stepped into the business of supplying thread at concessional rates, besides providing design support (controlled by the wealthy mahajans).
The two days surrounding the actual puja are spent in food, festivities and fraternising. The food is good, the festivities enlightening since local stage talent is a revelation, with the stage presence of some simply outstanding, and the fraternising, well, welcome after the hiatus of many years (for those who visit once say in five years, or friends of family dropping in for their first visit; like this year there was this lady who flew in from Dubai to be in Haripur, and a couple, related to some cousin, who, along with their daughter, dropped in from Mumbai).
Forty-eight hours in unhurried Haripur slows your clock down to an almost meditative tick. In these COVID-induced times, time itself is the subject of intense reflection. The torpor of quarantine does the work of a yoga mat. It stretches your mind out flat, receptive to anything happening to drop onto it. Into mine dropped those ‘bael’ fruit from Haripur. And these thoughts sprang out!
Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.
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