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Even I have a Village

Sepia-tinted picture-postcard images of children, my grand uncles and aunts, pottering around in the courtyard, elderly women fetching water transported me in time.

Kingshuk Mukherji
Fri, Jul 5 2013

Photographs: Kingshuk Mukherji

The views expressed by the blogger and the subsequent comments by readers do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of Prabashi Post

About Kingshuk

My thoughts are that of a wanderer in search of an address. Err, many addresses actually. And unique life experiences. I am an expert at nothing but curious about most things. If my writing provides a moment's joy or respite to a fellow traveller looking for a destination, I would have done my job.
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A torrent of confused, overpowering emotions chokes the narrative. After five days in Bangladesh I can’t figure out where to begin.

More than a hundred years ago, when nobody had imagined there would be a nation by this name, my ancestors thrived at Dhalgram, a dot on the map of the then Bengal Presidency. That was probably in the early 1900s. Year 2013, I went back to the same speck, felt the warm embrace of a lost uncle and saw a mansion that was once home to the Mukherjis.

Tarail Fukura, Dhalgram, remains just as hidden as it was then, amid mango groves, rows of swaying coconut and betel nut trees. In Gopalganj district’s Kashiani Upazila, a hundred-odd km north of Dhaka, the village is wrapped in green. A raised metal road, broad enough to take one mid-size car, meanders through.

Tin houses – tin roofs, tin walls, tin doors, tin windows – sit on either side. Most of these are hemmed by rows of big trees. The dwellings are in the shade for a large part of the day, the sun streams in through gaps in the foliage. The air is moist and sticky, the soil soggy and damp.

For a car to come by is rare, those who live here mostly ride cycles – the first such was introduced to the village by an ancestor who remains a legend in these parts. Women squat on the road chatting, grooming their hair, tending to grain they set out to dry in the mellow afternoon sun. Life’s unrushed. The children are out in the fields, playing cricket or football, some of them neck deep in ponds. A gaggle of ducks deep in conversation march by.

“Would you know if a Mukherji family ever lived here,” I tentatively asked a dark, bare-bodied middle-aged man tending to his garden. He had a dark face with a long free-flowing beard and no moustache, “Yes, only one Mukherji family here – Kaliprasad’s. They live at the end of this road. Ask anyone.” A Mukherji family still lives here, really? For all these years, I knew my ancestors had all moved out, there were no stragglers left.

I thanked him and set out along the serpentine, tree-lined track in search of one who could well be an uncle I never knew existed. Was this Kaliprasad related? Mukherjis abound, so many of them around. He needn’t be family at all. Would he give me a blank stare and send me away?

The walk seemed interminable. “Oh, Mona kaku (Kaliprasad’s pet name, I presumed). Saw him sometime back, headed for the bazaar,” a woman sweeping grain into a jute sack looked up to inform. My heart sank. Yeah? What kind of a house does he live in, old or made of tin? Aren’t there others in his family? “Very old, not tin…there are others, go ahead, check them out,” she said dismissively waving at a wall of tall trees in the middle of a flat sweep of green.

 Around the bend, on the right, was a biggish pond. Opposite, stood a marble tablet framed in red. It proclaimed: “Holy cremation ground of the Mukherjis”. Below this header was a list of family members who had been consigned to the flames there. None of the names, I knew.

Further ahead, under an expansive tree stood a man, his rotund upper body unclothed, sacred thread showing. He was lost in thought. Ahem, I disturbed his day dream. I too am a Mukherji…from Calcutta. Heard of Chandra Bilas Mukherji? Did someone by that name ever live here, somewhere close by? “Hang on, let my brother return, he’d know. Meantime come in, sit in the shade,” he replied.

The slushy track turned a bend and abruptly stopped in front of a crumbling brick mansion. The façade was reddish, weather-beaten and plain, a rusty tin shade standing on stilts running along its breadth. A small flight of broken stairs led to a narrow, uneven, mud-baked verandah. Along the blackish-red brick wall, arches gave shade to never-opened wooden doors and slatted windows.

 My host oozed warmth, handed me a tumbler full of tube-well water reeking of iron, once again asked me to wait, sat down in front, his searching eyes scrutinized me intensel, perhaps for that one point of recognition or familiarity.

Minutes later, Kaliprasad hurried in. An amiable man, he immediately put me at ease, called me in and sat me down on his bed. His ageing eyes peered at me from behind a pair of thick glasses, smiled and opened the conversation: “Bolun (roughly what can I do for you)”.

I’m probably a relative of yours, my great grandfather was someone called Chandra Bilas. I can go back further in time and tell you about Chandrababu’s father. I know of him too and his dad. “Stop,” Kaliprasad interrupted. “Your great grandfather was a famous man. He was the zamindar, a man who commanded respect.

Ask anyone around here and he’ll tell you. When Chandrababu ventured out of his mansion, locals stood clear, not out of fear but deference. He was an honorary magistrate, the first one to buy a bicycle here.” That sounds great, pretty much like the Chandra Bilas legend we’ve been brought up on, I responded. “What legend? Chandrababu was real, a personality, tall, muscular, handsome, well groomed and neatly turned out, always. His mansion stands to this day. His kuchehri houses the government revenue office.”

Is it true that he survived a murderous attack? “Oh yes, he did. Chandrababu was amazingly strong, a pahalwaan of sorts, exercised daily with heavy weights and dumbels, had biceps the size of columns. A local tough attacked him, stab him repeatedly. But the attacker couldn’t kill him. Chandrababu was way stronger. Let me also tell you this, later the attacker realised his mistake. He didn’t assault the zamindar out of malice or because he was vengeful. He was instigated by a band of local crooks.”

Did he not live in this house? “No, he was the zamindar, he owned all that you see here. He lived in a villa not far from here. I’ll take you there. But, first change into something more relaxing, take a dip in the pond, eat lunch, rest awhile…” No, I’ll have to leave before dark, must return to Dhaka today. “Fine then, let’s head for the villa right now, come back and eat,” he proposed.

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bullet Comments:

Nirmalya Nag (Wednesday, Apr 16 2014):
We all have roots (lost for most), to which we like to return from time to time. Some can manage to do it, some can't. The legend of Chandrabilas still exists even after so many years, I believe this visit of Kingshuk will add to the legend and increased its life manyfold.
Rajat (Sunday, Jul 14 2013):
My grandfather used to have an iron safe (sindook) which was handed over from one generation to other and finally brought by him from Dhaka to Kolkata during partition. Of course it didn't have any earthly valuables, but had precious collection of Zamindari stories in it. This story made me travel down the memory lane and remember some of those stories.


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