Sunday, March 31, 2013

Chargola Chronicles!

Brevity  may be  the soul of wit.  Since this narrative is neither witty nor does it come with any baggage of soul, I choose to  describe things here in ‘vilavari’, meaning  lengthy detail in Tamil. Now, you can just skip the rest of this narrative at this very point and attend to better things.  Or you can struggle to finish reading the piece and then curse me.  But don’t say I did not forewarn.
Where shall I begin this final part of the trilogy? (Trilogy?  But of course! The term is fashionable and I like it.  Scroll back to my   'Ratabari Rishkawallah' and 'Memories of another life' and you now see why I call it a trilogy)  If it should begin at the beginning, then the Sugar Mill administrative Officer it should be.  Forgot the gentleman’s name, too bad.  Ungrateful it is to forget the good soul who arranges  a house for you at your first request, that too at a princely monthly rent of Rs.90/-. 
When I got posted to Chargola, I thought it was the end of my career life, even before it began.  The posting order was a bolt from the blue and it was a brutal wake-up call for me to go out and face life.  What splendid six months we five spent in Silchar and Badarpur!  What fun and frolic!  All that is going to end.  The joy of Ambicapatty and the lovely  land-daughters.  What the hell, I did not even have the faintest idea of where on earth Chargola was. Not many locals too had heard of the place.  Just as we had no idea of where Cachar was some six months back.  But Cachar was presently discovered by us and it needed no Columbus.  The Cachar adventure  was just a trailer, I realized later.   The main film was yet to begin.  In July 1990, the trailer abruptly ended and I was suddenly catapulted into the main film called Chargola.  I felt like crying when I received the transfer order but two things prevented me from doing so – the first being the age-old saying that ‘men don’t cry’ and the second of a more recent vintage  and more truthful, that crying in my Bank only begets more crying. 
To make things somewhat better for me and to prepare me for the solitary confinement   ahead, my friend Samal suggested that I move to R.K.Nagar and stay there with him  temporarily, till I found out a house in Chargola.    This Nagar (nagaro for sylhettis) was just 7 kms from Chargola and I can commute.  Doggy buses ply regularly between the two places.  The ones which took birth as trucks and gradually evolved into buses - the front will look like a run-down Benz truck and the rest of the creaky vehicle made of  tin sheets,  with holes gorged out on the sides.  The holes went by the name windows.  The seats were of back and butt breaking wood.
When Samal broached this idea, I asked him ‘Are there hotels in R.K.Nagar or Chargola?’  He looked at me strangely and I could as well have been from another planet, judging by his look. 
“Hotel?  Gaon hai bhai, gaon” he said and my heart sank.  Reluctantly leaving Silchar behind, we both caught the ASTC bus to Dullabcherra at 2.30 that fateful Sunday afternoon.    And alighted at  nagaro as dusk was beginning to fall.  Samal asked me to make myself comfortable in the new home.  He can say, because he already has made himself comfortable in a house in which he himself is a trespasser.  The original occupant was on a temporary transfer to some other place and he had allowed Samal to occupy his house till he was away.  And this Samal had kind of sub-let the house to me, even without asking the original owner! Good soul, Samal, he still is.  The perfect host, as I am to re-discover years later, at his Bhubaneswar home.

Coming to Calculus, sorry, Chargola,  I discovered to my amazement that my Bank’s Chargola branch  was not actually  in Chargola!    It was once in Chargola village, within the Cachar Sugar Mills compound.  The mill closed down, business floundered and thus the bank branch, ever the fair-weather friend,  shifted to a relatively busier place called Anipur.  But the name of the branch still remained Chargola.  RBI rules you know, branch can shift but name can’t change…The day I joined, my branch  manager heaped effusive words of sympathy on me. ‘Why they put you here?  That too as a Rural Development Officer?  How can you talk to the customers? You don’t even know the language.  How can you live in this place…”  with frequent interspersions of ‘Don’t worry, I will help you’.   Help he did.  The first day itself this gentleman, the administrative officer of the sugar mill (the first para wallah) walked in and my manager introduced me to him.  Narrated my plight to him and requested him to provide accommodation for me at the Sugar Mill quarters.

A word or two about the Sugar mill,  Sugar mill employees and the Sugar mill quarters.  The sugar manufacturing plant was put up by the State Government some 15 years back, in that backward village of Chargola.  Sugar cane cultivation was encouraged to be taken up all around the village.  Our bank opened a branch right inside the mill complex.  The bank extended finance for all the sugarcane cultivators.  Paid all the salaries of the huge army of staff at the mill.  Extended personal loans and all such stuff to the staff.  After a few years, you guessed it, the mill went sick, got into ICU and one day was very dead.  Production halted completely. Machinery went into rust and disrepair.  Our bank’s loans went kaput, cane cultivation stopped.  In short everything dropped dead. But the staff remained!  Not a single worker was retrenched or sacked, and not a single worker took retirement. ( no, Assam was not ruled by the Communists then). They all happily remained on the rolls on subsistence wages i.e. some minimum salary for not reporting to work.  Everyone had some private business to keep the kitchens running.  They need not even come to the mill office and sign the muster, not even on pay day, because pay was automatically credited to their bank accounts with our branch.  They were provided with staff quarters when the mill was running and they continued to remain there with families.  Two of the staff quarters were allotted to the bank staff and even after the mill stopped, the quarters continued to be occupied by us. The bank and its staff were just extended family for the sugar mill people. 

It was one of those quarters the administrative officer was kind enough to allot to me.  I was in seventh heaven or cloud nine or some such numeral-tagged place suspended in space when I got the allotment letter, but I should have known better.  I should have contemplated on why that particular quarters remained unoccupied all these years.   When I landed up after office at that ‘quarters’, I was shell shocked.  For one, the quarters was not any quarters at all.  It was a ramshackle, dilapidated Assam type hut complete with a thatched roof, bamboo fencing and cardboard walls.  The entrance door was just a functional swinging contraption fastened to metal hinges to ensure some opacity from onlookers outside.  It did not even have any pretence of trying to prevent a burglar from entering.  It needed no lock, there just was no point.  For, with a push and a light shove, it would give away, the lock remaining in tact.    But there was no need for me to bother, since I had nothing to hide from the burglar, even if he entered.  My earthly possessions at that time would have made a sadhu- sanyasin blush.
I paid Rs.20 to a maid (who eventually would become our kajer lok, our mashi..) who cleaned up the interiors.  The hutment had one hall, a bed room and a small kitchen and the toilet.   It had not seen any repairs or upkeep for the last 15 years ever since the mill was set up.  Not a single time the straw  on the roof was changed.  When it rained, it poured cats and dogs.  Inside the house, I mean.  Another lesson learnt.  The thatched roof was just to block sunlight and it had no wherewithal to block heavier stuff like rain.  Countless rainy nights were spent inside that house with my single cot moved to the centre-island  of the ‘hall’ and I blissfully asleep, not bothering about the pouring rain water all around me.

Chargola abounded in snakes.  At night, strange creepy sounds would emerge from the rooftop and with my heart in my mouth, I would wonder what’s causing the noise.  It was no ghost, I was sure, since even ghosts deserted the place when the mill shut down.  Some said it was cats and others said snakes.  Having seen no cat during day time, I was pretty sure it was the reptile variety making those noises right over my head.  Had they fallen on my head, I would have attained martyrdom at the age of 23.  They did not and so here I am, penning these lines, quite alive. I immediately bought mosquito nets and felt safe, ensconced within its confines at night.  The mosquito net doubled up for me as a snake-net.
A word about the landscape of the colony.  Each dwelling unit was so thoughtfully conceived and beautifully executed.  Imagine this picture-postcard scene.  A velvety grassy meadow, hillocks yonder, a small stream flowing,  blue sky, birds chirping, the setting sun, no vehicle, no pollution, a scene not very unlike the famous vistas wallpaper of Windows. On that meadow, trenches dug alongside the circumference of a circle.  With a space of about 20 feet separating two trenches.  Houses built on those trenches.  From the  ground level up from the meadow, the individual houses would be barely visible, as they spring up from some 10 feet below ground level.  Imagine something like this.  And imagine I was staying in that piece of heaven for about 2 years.  By paying a pittance.  The only flipside being I had snakes for company.

Besides snakes, I had a few interesting people too for company. Talking of company, what is a colony without the people in it?  Opposite my villa, to the right,  was my manager’s  house.  A typical Dr.Jekyll and  Mr.Hyde, my manager.  Inside office, he was ever the serious, poker faced manager Sen Babu out to extract his pound of flesh from recalcitrant borrowers.  By 4 p.m. he would shed his official cloak and transform into a typical Bengali fish lover. Office was officially till 5  but at 4 the fish-sellers would start spreading  their day’s catch right below our Bank.  We would shut the bank, and troop out to the balcony.  Sen Babu’s countenance would brighten up.  “See that Hilish, ki darun… Aajke ki nebo….Ki ba kotho kore?”   He would marvel at the varieties on display.  Slowly saunter from one vendor to another, to ensure the catch is real fresh and no seller dare double-cross him. After a great mental struggle, he would decide on what variety to buy and make the purchase after tough bargaining.  By this time, it would be 5.  Ayub Ali would be waiting for us at the rishkaw stand and perched on his chariot, we would majestically make  our way in the cool evening breeze to the quarters about a mile away.  Time for Sen Babu to transform from the gourmet to the artistic and poetic Ananto Da, after reaching home.  Ananto Da was an exponent of Rabindra Sangeet.  He was very shy and reserved and it took a lot of cajoling and pleading to make him agree to render a song.  The way he would close his eyes and render soulfully a ‘Gagane, Gagane, aapnor mone, ki khela…” would bring tears to the listener.  As it did even to me,  one quite clueless about Rabindrasangeet and Bengali.  Most of the evenings were spent in this Sangeet mehfil environment.

Consider my  company to the right. The wife-beating Sarkar, despite him being the only unemployed in the household and his spouse being the real earning member, notwithstanding the pittance the male Sarkar got every month from the mill.  But you have to see the way he talks to us bank folks.  Very polite and respectful,  always part closing his mouth with his left palm.  I initially thought it was out of some feudal-type respect but later on realized that it was to block the odour of alcohol.  Where on earth in Chargola he managed to get his regular supply from, I used to wonder.  (It was quite a while before I figured out where from.  The discovery did help!)

Or, the company to my left?  The Banerjees?  The  company  that impacted me the most  during my two year stint in the sugar mill quarters (refer last paragraph for more graphic details).The boisterous man with a lovely wife and an adorable kid.  He was the primary school teacher in Dullabcherra Govt. school.  Off to school whenever he pleased and  out of it, again, whenever it suited him.  (Teaching profession in India was and still is one of the best jobs in the world!)  Banerjee Babu could talk about any subject in the world, he was the veritable chatterbox Chatterjee, rather the blabber-box Banerjee in that colony. He would be there, sitting on the porch and watch us enter at 5 o’clock.  Invariably his welcome question would be “Nomoshkar, mohan babu, aajke ki – mach, mangsho or dim?” (What today, fish, meat or eggs?) I first used to think he was kidding since he knew that I could not cook.  Later realized that this is the most common greeting of  Bengalis.   Not without reason, someone remarked that the easiest way to the Bengali’s heart is through his stomach.  Banerjee could have given Sarkar a run for his money in  wife-beating, for I could daily overhear (no need to actually overhear, our houses' walls were made of wooden sheets so it was not even windproof, let alone sound proof) the high pitched quarrels the husband and the wife exchanged every night.  But wife-beating he could not actually accomplish however much he apparently hated his wife, for two reasons – for one, his wife was actually lovely and beautiful (as most Bengali ladies are) and second, his wife never feared any one and used to pay back abuse with abuse.  She could well have been the lone husband- beater in that complex, well, but what happened between those four walls, who knew?

Or the company right opposite?  The soft-spoken post-master of Anipur Sub post office, Taslimuddin Khan?  The density of population in his quarters was the highest in the entire complex.  While I had the entire 500 square feet of my villa (!)at my single disposal, he had to share the same space with 7 of his family members.  One wife  and six children.  The eldest of his offsprings appeared to be his younger brother and the youngest, his grand-son.  I used to marvel at his ability of accomplishing what he accomplished within that 500 sq. feet of space.  Who said it needs privacy to procreate?  Now all this is in a lighter vein and truth being told, Mr.Khan was one of the finest gentlemen I have moved with.  A man of few words and belonging to that rare specimen of Govt. servants who toiled eight hours in office.  Imagine the sub postmaster of Anipur village reaching office daily at 9 in the morning and toiling away till 5 in the evening.  And by the way, his family members numbered 7 when I entered Sugar Mill and it remained at the same number when I left.  Again quite an achievement for Mr.Khan, against all odds. Did I say when I left? Yes, the last paragraph is coming very soon.

There were others – my beloved Mashi, my 60 year old house keeper-cum-cook-cum-well wisher.  This soul was also loaned to me by my manager babu, used to  loaning he is.   She used to work only in Ananto da’s bari but when I arrived, as usual, my manager took pity on me, on my inability to cook, inability to manage the house-hold chores and a general inability to do anything productive.  So Mashi was forced into doing part-time employment for 4 hours daily in my home, 2 hours in the morning and two in the evening.  The kind soul must have departed from earth even as I write these lines but she is one soul I would pray for anytime.  For she kept me from starving.  For she cooked me those lovely dal-bath and crispy parattas day in and day out.  She swept the floor daily, did odd jobs and never said no to any request, reasonable or unreasonable.  No sick leave or no kam-chori. 

Time to come to the last paragraph.  Two years passed since I moved into Sugar Mill quarters.  I had conquered my fears and cleared the cob-webs by then.  What looked like unsurmountable obstacles when I entered now seemed child’s play. I had learned to live with my snakes.  I had learned to live with 15 hour power-cuts.  (God knew, even at that time, that I would eventually settle down in Tamil Nadu, so he had prepared me well for the adversities).  I had learned to bargain with the fish seller.  I had learned to do the rounds of interior villages on Ayub Ali’s rickshaws  for my recovery drives.  I had learned to attend Gram Sabhas with the village Mukhiya.  More important, I had learned how to reject loan proposals, and was almost on the verge of becoming a well-rounded rural banker.    I had learned to spend hours of solitude night after night, without electricity, with only the moonlight  and Murphy two-in-one for company.  Listening to BBC’s  “This is London… Tattada tatta tattada tatta....”  lilting symphony that precedes the world news.  And Radio Bangladesh’s crystal clear reception of Tagore’s “Ami chini go chini tomake, ogo Bideshini..” and the static filled Akashvani’s 7 p.m. district news bulletin of Silchar radio station (Gothokhal Hailakandi jilai ,blah, blah, blah......…).    But all good things must come to an end.  My tryst with good times at the cachar sugar mills came to an end unexpectedly at about 10 p.m. on a winter night.  My left side neighbour plugged in a high watt bulb  in the outside verandah to the socket and switched it on.  The bulb shone for an hour or two.  And then it exploded.  He did not know.  He was inside the house, immersed in that night’s tiff with his beautiful spouse.  The small explosion (short circuit we later learnt) produced a small fire.  It spread fast.  I could spot it from my home immediately.  I rushed and immediately called out “Banerjee Babu, agun legeche.  Bediye ashun..” before he could hear me, gather his wits and rush out with his family, the entire thatched roof of his home had caught fire.  Within no time, it spread to my adjoining hutment.  Our only priority during those nerve-wracking 10 minutes was to remove the LPG cylinders from both the houses and whatever else we could salvage.  I could salvage my suitcase containing my important documents and certificates.  Could salvage nothing else as within 10 minutes the raging fire swallowed everything.     Within a matter of minutes,  I found myself without a roof, under a starry sky, in biting cold, with that solitary suitcase and the  lungi I was clad in.   All lost.  All my  earthly possessions.  My immediate concern was how to go to office the next morning.  For all my bravado, I could not dare venturing into office in a lungi, no not even in Chargola.

But I need not have worried.  For in all adversities during my stay in Assam, unsolicited help always came my way.  This time it was Senapati, my deputy manager, who took me into his house that very night, lungi and all.  The next day, I did manage to attend office in his oversized pants.  Later events can fill another story. Ah, did I say “last para” in the previous para?  Sorry guys, my tales don’t seem to end.  The last paragraph never manages to keep its promise of being the last.  What can I do?  Perhaps there is a case for another sequel to this narrative. A whole life can't be capsuled into three or four parts.  Sequels will continue as long as the journey of life continues....  Despite my warning in the first para of this being the last of a trilogy.  By the way, what do you call a four part narrative, a quadrilogy or a quadrology?.......