‘Chaa khaabe?’ translated into courtesy “Will you have tea”, always made visitors feel welcome. Mostly milk-free, it was lal-chai, of deep red, a color that has almost gone missing in Bengal
By Nazarul Islam
Each one of us, who has lived in the subcontinent of India and the neighboring countries, has carried a bit of Huen Tsang, inside his being. This name always rang a bell for me. My (history) teacher in 1964, Mr. Nalini Sarker had extolled the greatness of the Chinese pilgrim who set foot in India, and captured the ancient images for historical record.
I remember late Nalini Sir’s rebounding voice, and powerful lessons: This was the Chinese pilgrim whose story, we read about in history books in school. He had crossed over to India in the 7th century to study Buddhism, traversed Tashkent to Takshashila to Kanchi in the south, and reportedly, stayed in India for 16 years.
Twenty- years ago, I had visited West Bengal for two weeks. Obviously, my journey was triggered by love for that place, and the fact that one knows so little about it. I mean, beyond Roshogolla, Gurudev Tagore, Satyajit Ray and the Bengal cotton saree, how well do you know your Bengal?
Would you know of ‘matir putuls’ the unmatched clay dolls of Krishnanagar in Nadia district? Or of the ‘mulmul’—fine muslin cloth, woven in Nabadwip and in east Bardhawan of Bengal?
Murshidabad’s silk, Bankura’s terracotta horses, Kantha work from Bolpur near Shantiniketan, Coochbehar’s Bhawaiyya music, the eco-fabric jute along the Hooghly?
Fast forward….In the context of present day Bengal—an election is as good a time as any to know about the state of a state. I asked my distant cousin who still resides in Tiretti Bazar Street Kolkata, to apprise me what was going on in the state, where my ancestors had once, worked and lived. And so his solo sojourn was planned around the time when political mud-slinging would peak and the people would speak. What has made Bengal tick? How has a state that led India in dazzling intellect, freedom consciousness, social reforms, literature and education, now let itself lag in industry and employment?
What was the price that the residents had paid socially and culturally, in the aftermath of Partition that can explain today’s huge border issues and religious divide? A fortnight’s stay may not be expected to magically reveal all the answers, but travel can certainly be the beginning of understanding.
And a journey through the land and waters has ever remained mystical. Rivers with names last read in the story book Amar Chitra Katha, like the Icchamati from where you can see Bangladesh while driving from Kolkata to an island on the Sunderbans. This was to Hingalganj, along with an old, retired teacher, Satarupa Mazumder, who was then building an English-medium school for tribal children.
My cousin J Noman, sent me a few pictures of homes and women whose lives were devastated by cyclone Amphan last year – and where they said that the ‘corrupt TMC workers’ never let relief reach – who are now being trained by an NGO to rear ducks to earn a livelihood. The ‘Shundorbon’ is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger; Noman did meet a quiet tigress, Archana Mridhha who is ‘mahasabhopati’ – the Panchayat president responsible for welfare programs in 100 villages in the North 24 Paragonas district.
Change seemed brewing quietly, despite the system. Noman described how he journeyed via train the evening Bhagirathi Express from the capital city to Buharampore, the Indian Railways coach buzzed with enterprise and entrepreneurship. From every Bengali’s favorite spiced puffed rice Jhaal Muri to ‘badaam’ (peanuts that were neatly packed and stayed crisp for the next 4 days) to fruits to even Bluetooth gadgets – the wares were packed neatly and vanished from the vendors’ baskets.
Visitors and travelers have been warned that in the politically explosive Murshidabad, It would be a good idea to not get caught in poll violence, while my cousin Noman was on the way to Raghunathganj anyway. Here, one saw village after village of women, 90% of them Muslims, who roll the beedi, the poor man’s cigarette, for household income.
The contractor pays them Rs 152 for every 1,000 beedis rolled. The men migrate, as the masons of this region are in demand all over India: A pattern unchanged for decades.
Noman has depicted a picture of acceptance—a status quo, that stood out in Murshidabad, where anger was the dominant emotion in the tea plantations of Darjeeling. “Our forefathers worked in these same tea gardens even more than 100 years back, and we are being called Nepalis?” Maniraj, a proud Gorkha leader, said, adding that the BJP wouldn’t get votes in the hills as “kuch nahi kiya” despite being given 3 wins in the past polls.
And my illustrious cousin’s further journey, this time by the state bus into the former princely state of Cooch Behar, got pleasant when the Bengali-speaking conductor lapsed into Kannada suddenly. It turned out that Bidyut had worked in Bengaluru as a security guard for 3 years but home had beckoned him.
Back in Kolkata, fiery speeches at street corners, students with purpose, hoardings of Didi-Modi everywhere met the eye. Names that would read Aunindyo, Ananya, Saraswati, but who were actually Onindho, Ononna and Shoroshhoti. Where the curd or dahi was by default mishti doi, sweet curd. Where the mention of ‘aami niramish’ (I am vegetarian) worried hosts who wondered what creature didn’t eat ‘mach’, fish.
But ‘Chaa khaabe?’ translated into courtesy “Will you have tea”, always made visitors feel welcome. Mostly milk-free, it was lal-chai, of deep red, a color that has almost gone missing in a state that now seems to have to decide between white-blue and saffron.
About the Author
The Bengal-born writer Nazarul Islam is a senior educationist based in USA. He writes for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America. He is author of a recently published book ‘Chasing Hope’ – a compilation of his 119 articles.