Show me the village

Soumya Mukherjee | Updated on July 17, 2020 Published on July 17, 2020


A chance visit to a childhood oasis apprises the writer of the other side of development

The cries rang out as our white Ambassador car lumbered off GT Road near Kolkata to a narrow and unpaved country road flanked by bamboo groves and waterbodies. “Babuder jamai eiche, keu paray khobor de — the babu’s son-in-law is here, inform the neighbourhood.”

We were going to our grandparents’ country home in Panagarh, an annual ritual in winter, when the harvest came in, the weather was cool, and the mood festive. My grandfather was a retired civil servant, a relic of the British Raj, who spent his winters playing landed gentry.

This little break from our daily routine in the urban jungle of Kolkata was a breath of fresh air, when we met Bharat at close quarters and filled our lungs with the clean air of the countryside. The scent of earth was far from the stink of sooty urban pollution.

The farm had no electricity, the roads were kuchcha and my grandfather’s house was the only brick building in a village of thatched mud huts, interspersed by bamboo groves, ponds and deep green shrubbery.

We spent the winter days playing hide-and-seek among the haystacks, learning to climb trees, exploring the fields and tasting guavas and sugar cane. It was also a gastronomic holiday with umpteen preparations of fish of diverse varieties and vegetables from the kitchen garden.

In the days before joining college, I spent a month of summer in this idyllic retreat. I learnt to swim in a pond, which, let me assure you, is a vastly different skill from swimming in a sanitised swimming pool. I also learnt to shoot a rifle as well as arrows — the latter was courtesy grandfather’s farm hands. I devoured every book in the library. I also introduced the village children to cricket and badminton. In exchange, I learnt kabaddi and gulli danda, games that were strictly rural in those days.

After moving out of Bengal for college, my work kept me away from home for the next quarter of a century. Then one day, around 10 years ago, while on my way to meet a client in an industrial township in Bengal, I found myself on GT Road again. Driving down that familiar stretch brought back fond memories.

Flyovers had sprung up over the towns on the way and there was far more construction along the route. However, the names of the towns on the way revealed that I was close to my childhood oasis of bliss. I kept a sharp lookout for the cupola of the family temple that used to be visible from the road. That was the sign for slowing down and getting into the dirt track. When the car reached the next major crossroads, I realised that I had missed the turn. I asked the driver to reverse the car and slow down. After a while, I found a narrow metalled road between rows of shabby brick houses next to a general store flashing a cola ad. On enquiry at the shop, I discovered that this street was the new incarnation of the country road I was in search of.

Going down the lane, I found that the bamboo groves and ponds had been replaced by houses and sheds. My grandfather’s house, at the end of the lane, looked like it was going to crumble any minute.

Someone came out seeing the car and I recognised him as the middle-aged version of a young boy who worked on the farm. He said he was the manager now. The cowsheds, haystacks, kitchen garden, backyard and pond were all gone. There were only barrack-like structures, which, the manager explained, were hostels given on rent to factory workers in the area.

Another middle-aged man came and introduced himself as the boy who would take the cattle out to graze when we were young. He now ran a video parlour and had a cable TV business. The large lake — our source of fish — was now the site of a telephone office. The bamboo grove, which was used as a toilet by the village, had had a respectable makeover — in the form of an English-medium school run by a man who got his first lessons in the language from me.

A matronly lady turned up and introduced herself as the young girl I played cards with. She added that she had married a bus driver during my stay there and I was the official photographer at the wedding, thanks to my Agfa Click III camera. My black-and-white clicks are still prized possessions in her family album, I was told.

I could not stay long — in fact, I did not want to. As happy as I was to see the economic progress made by the village, I mourned the loss of the idyll of my childhood and youth. I see the same signs when I visit Goa, the Andamans, Darjeeling, Puri, Shimla: The holiday destinations are now overbuilt marketplaces chock-a-block with people. But it really hurt to see that this rural retreat had gone the same way. I felt choked.

Is there no place I can come up for air?

Soumya Mukherjee is a blogger based in Delhi

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Published on July 17, 2020
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