Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Memoirs of Tungeshwar

Gayatri Sen recalls her childhood in Bangladesh, the folk traditions of rural Bengal, and the harmony of the village folk which was upset by Partition.

Memories are usually like a river. They often don’t follow any pattern and frequently changes course. You remember some and you forget some. Growing up in two different countries, makes people all the more nostalgic, especially when they are victims of circumstances and the decision to relocate was never theirs. Nearly seven decades ago, agents and power mongers pimped a united India to foreign hands, which led to the single biggest exchange of population in world history. The scars of uprooting never healed, and in fact, has worsened over the years.

I spent my childhood in Tungeshwar, a small village of East Bengal, now in Bangladesh. It was like any other village of Bengal, with greenery all around. Summer evenings were pleasant and were a far departure from the hot and humid Kolkata of today. We never had to battle pollution that’s slowly gripping the villages near the city. Evenings meant sitting on the grass under the mango tree. The breeze that blew over the lakes and fields caressed our hair. Sounds of perching birds, the blowing of conch shells and the sound of bells from the nearby Tunganath temple signalled the descent of dusk.

The Shiva temple at Tunganath was built at a time when Kala Pahar, the Muslim general of Mughal governor Sultan Sulaiman Karrani, was plundering Hindu temples and monuments in Bengal. My father often told me that the Shiva Linga of Tunganath kept growing every day by several millimetres. Hundreds of devotees came to offer prayers every day, especially during the last five days of Chaitra (March/April).

The temple remained open from five in the morning until 11 in the night on Chaitra Sankranti. In the morning, saffron and ghee were applied to the Shiva Linga and it was bathed in milk. It was followed by the aarti. Ash was applied to the Linga in the evening, followed by another round of aarti. A one-day fair (called banni in the local dialect) was organised on the Sankranti on the open ground opposite the temple. 

The Sen family 
When I was about four, our caretaker, who was no less a family member, took me and my other siblings to the fair. I sat on his right shoulder while my cousin Sita, with large beautiful eyes, sat on the left. Monakaka, (Mona uncle), our caretaker, slowly began walking and we soon reached the temple compound. I don’t properly remember whether we entered the temple. But I clearly remember the colourfully decorated swings, merry-go-rounds and the many stalls that sold salty fried delicacies and sweets. It was the main attraction for all kids. Sita, only one and half years old then, didn’t understand much and was probably feeling uncomfortable. This was the first time she saw so many people around her. Most of them were from our zamindari (estate) and they all bowed before her. Sita found this hostile because she didn’t know why people were bowing. I took some sweets as nazrana (gifts) from the villagers.

People attending the fair sang traditional folk songs in their typical rustic voice. They gathered around a bonfire near the temple. One of the villagers crossed the charcoal fire on naked feet. A 10-15 feet high bamboo dais was constructed. Village boys, who had fasted the last five days leading up to Chaitra Sankranti, climbed up the dais, did a mid-air summersault, and fell on the ground filled with thorns. It was believed that the Shiva’s divine blessing helped them to stay far from injuries. These activities were all part of the larger Charak festivities.

As I grew up, attending the fair became irregular, until it stopped entirely. Bengal slowly became a hotbed of political activism and communal clashes became frequent.  They all led up to the Partition. It was innocence lost. My village and its neighbourhood was never the same anymore. Suspect and suspicion, largely on religious grounds, emerged among all those who had once shared food from the same plate.

I came to know much later that Chaitra Sankranti was considered very auspicious and many sadhus (ascetics) visited Tunganath temple on that day every year. They participated in folk songs at the fair without any fear of communal rebuttal. I heard these stories from the maids in our household but had no chance of witnessing these events. These stories always reminded me that my village folk had a strong endurance and will power to battle all adversaries, which later helped them to survive the agony of Partition.

Years went by and all my elder brothers left home to pursue higher studies. Mejda (second elder brother) used to come to Tungeshwar at the end of Chaitra and in holidays, and the house would erupt in activity. He was very popular among the villagers, always listened to their problems patiently, and tried to resolve them. Whenever Mejda got down from the train at Satiajuri station, he found many villagers from Tungeshwar and adjoining villages there to receive him. Mejda would use the wooden table in the platform as a dais, climb it and receive the flowers and greetings from the villagers. He would then address them and traverse the two-mile distance to Tungeshwar in a palki (palanquin).

Rangadi (fourth elder sister) was never present at Tungeshwar during festivals. She stayed with Mejdi (second elder sister) at Mymensingh for studies. I, Chhordi (third elder sister, also my closest friend), Sita, and another brother Tapas, would eagerly wait for Mejda because he brought us cakes and apples from Kolkata. Cakes were not available in villages and it was a new food for us. Around noon, we would all sit in a circle in a large room and eat lunch from a big brass plate, followed by a nap in the same room. In the afternoon Mejda met all the children of the house under the mango tree. Each one of us had to tell or retell a story as part of the afternoon exercise. We all sat in a circle and a small stone was passed from one to another, turn by turn, similar to the passing-the-ball game. Whoever held the stone in his/her hand, had to tell a story. Mejda taught us to be patient and serious listeners. Sometimes, he would ask us to repeat the stories we just heard. And thus I developed the habit to listen to stories in my early childhood. Each of the children was then asked to discuss the moral of the story.

As dusk descended, Mejda would tell us scary ghost stories that were passed down through generations in the family, and were considered more as fact than fiction. Mejda himself, however, was largely sceptic of these spooky legends. One popular story went like this: Monakaka was returning home from a far-off village.  While walking through a forest between two other villages, the sky darkened and a storm began. The overcast sky added to the darkness all around. Monakaka lost his way and found himself alone on a road near the forest in biting wind and blinding rain. The hours progressed and he trudged helplessly. His umbrella was of no use and he was already soaking wet.  After having walked a few miles, Monakaka felt that someone was throwing stones on his umbrella, from up in the trees. He was frightened beyond his wits and went weak on his knees. Then he suddenly saw a simmering light at a distance. Believing that it could be the sign of some human settlement, he gathered his strength and ran towards the light. When he arrived near the light, he realised that it was coming from a hut. Monakaka entered the hut but found none there. He sat on the floor shivering in the cold and gradually dozed off. He woke up at daybreak next morning and found himself sitting in the middle of a cemetery. There was no hut or any human settlement in the vicinity. He started running and fainted just as he reached home.

I recollect a childhood prank in the year Rangadi got married. I, Rangadi and Sejdi (my third elder sister) were close friends. They told me that fairies appeared on full moon nights and on Chaitra Sankrati, and we could see them only after midnight, near the pond and in our courtyard. I, and some of my cousins, planned to go out secretly in the night to watch the fairies. We were under strict supervision of Bordi. She was still awake and we pretended to be fast asleep beside her. As soon as she started snoring , we climbed out of the bed and silently opened the window. There was no sound, except that of the ceiling fan and an old chime wall clock with its pendulum ticking. The howling of stray dogs far off in the village, would occasionally break the silence. We waited until the clock struck midnight and jumped out of the window. I led the team. We spoke in hushed tones and tiptoed to the courtyard. The entire village was asleep, except the five of us, excited at the prospect of seeing a fairy. There were mosquitoes everywhere and they were feasting on us. Our attempts to drive them away proved futile.

Soon, we heard a noise, followed by eerie silence.  We could only hear the wind blowing through the trees, and waited for another 10 minutes which seemed like hours. Then we saw the branches of the guava tree swinging at a distance. First we thought that it was a bat looking for prey. But the size appeared bigger. It couldn’t have been a bat. Its wings were of lavender colour . We couldn’t see the face but noticed something that resembled a couple of legs. It must be a fairy queen.

By now, Sita was scared and started running, making a lot of noise. The fairy also disappeared in the shadows. I, Pijush (cousin), and Chhordi felt bad and angry because we thought that Sita’s screams must have scared the fairy away.

We tried to search for more fairies behind the guava trees and the nearby shrubs, but could not find any. We stayed awake the whole night and talked among ourselves.  The moon finally tilted to the west and the rooster was up soon after. Disappointed having failed to spot a fairy, we retired to our beds but couldn’t manage much sleep . Day broke. Monakaka, meanwhile, was out in the courtyard and shouting: “Who tore the sari and left the powder packets behind the guava tree?”

Bordi immediately summoned us. She had her suspicions about what had happened, and expectedly so, because she understood us better than anybody else. Rangadi and Sejdi, started crying and spilled the beans.  We were let off with a mild warning because it was the early hours of Nôbobôrsho (the Bengali New Year). “Aar amonti korona (never do that again),” was all she said.

Tungeshwar in the 1940s
Nôbobôrsho was, and still is, one of the most auspicious occasions of the entire Bengali community. We rushed to the Khowai river along with the maids for a bath. We were already late. From there we went straight to the Basudev temple. It was colourfully decorated with flowers. The ashtadhatu (a combination of eight metals) Basudev idol and the gold statuette of goddess Lakshmi were kept on a brass throne, decorated with juhi and bakul flowers. The fragrance of these flowers purified the atmosphere. We attended the aarti and bhajan.

We returned home from the temple to dress in festive attire. Women and young girls wore beautiful red and white sarees with flowers tucked in their hair, and vermillion their forehead. Men wore white dhotis and kurta. Worshipping shakti (power) was a very popular tradition in our zamindari civil court, which had a collection of over 400 ancestral swords. These were brought out for worship on Nôbobôrsho. Young men indulged in stylised military dances, fencing, and other acrobatic stunts. Fruits, clothes and sweets were distributed after the puja.

Baba (father) returned home on Nôbobôrsho from his place of work. We sang the popular Rabindra Sangeet—Esho He Boisakh (welcome thee, oh summer)—and touched the feet of elders to seek their blessings. Bordi, Rangadi, and myself taking the lead. My soft-spoken and ever docile mother would then serve us sweets and pithas in separate brass plates with our individual names engraved on it. (To be concluded)

For the concluding part: Memoirs of Tungeshwar (Part II)

The writer is a freelance contributor. Comments personal

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