Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Ghost that changed shapes and A Tortoise that came home

I first saw it in the stories of my husband’s boyhood: when he told me about fishing in the rivulet with his bare hands and when he described the tough climb of the adjoining hills; when he told me about the ghost that changed shapes, and the tortoise that came home. There were also times when my imagination failed me: how could I, a girl born and bred in cities, imagine wild elephants walking into paddy fields, or a pair of dead twins appearing on the river bank? Does the place even exist or is he making it up? I would often wonder.
I got my answer soon after, when I first reached there on a cold winter night, as a bride. With only the headlights of our cars illuminating the dark serpent of a road slithering between hills and forests, the hour long drive from the station seemed endless and eerie. All I could make out in the faint light of the car were the neat little cottages and the smell of the trees, apart from the deep darkness of the night. The bright rays of the sun next morning finally showed me what I had only imagined until now: lush green hills and fluorescent green fields, huge trees and thin rivulets, and among them a neat little township – my husband’s home. The only sound I heard was the sound of birds and the only noise was the noise of the train that chugged along the horizon every few hours. The days passed quickly: there was another wedding in the family, guests to be looked after and a huge feast -- our reception -- to be organised. Soon it was time to leave. 

I went back only ten months later, for my first ever Durga Puja as a Bengali Bou. During the holiday we -- my husband and I -- spent our mornings listening to the chorus of the birds of the large jamun tree in the front yard and the afternoon lazing on the cool grey floor at home. In the evenings we strolled to the marketplace – a complex of barely ten shops – and had our fill of the local junk food: fat jalebis, spicy chops and tangy puchkas. Some days we walked to the other parts of the colony where he showed me his old house (which had once been flooded), his primary school (where he earned many a scar), and the large field (which, during pre cable TV days, was duly transformed into an open air theatre every Sunday evening).

When we were bored (its not easy for city dwellers to live the laidback life of a township), we drove to a quaint railway station called Rakha Mines, a few miles away from home, beyond a small barrage on Suvarnarekha. Set among paddy fields and hutments, with only a ticket window and a tin roof, the tiny station is actually an important stop for most passing trains. On our way back from the station we stopped by at the puja pandal outside the colony where the locals dressed in their festive best, would be going about their puja business: shopping at the stalls and thronging the only ‘hotel’ in the area.

The ten days there passed slowly and quietly, very much like that in the stories I had heard.

In the years that followed father-in-law retired from the service and settled in town. We continued going home but the point of going back to Jadugoda, even for old times sake, never arose. Was it the fear of discovering that the place -- and its people -- had moved on, or that it was no longer home, or was it just detachment, I cannot say. And so, even though only twenty kilometers away, Jadugoda became more and more distant every passing year, until last year when I persuaded husband to take us there for the sake of our daughters: they ought to see the place they hear so many stories about.

We finally reached Jadugoda on a pleasant Sunday morning after a gap of ten years. The long drive had made us hungry and we went straight to the sweet shop. I had expected to feast on fresh breakfast of singhara and ghugni, but the shop that once fed us smoking hot jalebis and chops had nothing other than stale sweets and warm cola to offer. We bought the children some chips from the stall next door and walked around. Most shops were shut and the few that were open were in a state of disarray. The people who kept these shops had also changed. And nobody, other than the old tailor's son, seemed to recognise husband and his brother. The other parts of the colony looked similar: buildings had not been painted, fields had not been cleared, the road had potholes and the footpath had weeds. The place was not even a faint shadow of its former self.

I had expected this image to overrule all other images of the place in my head. But this morning when I read about the Supreme Court's order of shutting the Jadugoda mines – the company that feeds the colony—the first image that came to my mind was not of the impersonal, unimpressive township that I had seen last year, but the magical land that I had witnessed on the dark December night, twelve years ago.

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