There were snatches of conversation at home where I heard of the ‘New House’. Some how, it was always connected in my mind with my parents as well as with an elderly gentleman named Mr. KN Ghosh. He was the retired District Engineer of Jessore. The three of them would sit down in the Baithak and pore over large blue sheets of paper and talk about things I did not understand. What I did understand was that the elders were engaged in something that was very important to them.
One day Mr. Ghosh took my parents out with him in his car. He had a four seat soft top car with a shiny front grill and four lamps in front. I am not sure of the model but perhaps it was an Woolseley. The car stayed with him for a long time, perhaps up to 1939 or 1940. On this particular day, my mother took me along with her. We went to a place I was not familiar with. A biggish plot of land was being worked upon by many people. There were heaps of bricks and sand and gravel, there were heaps of limestone both crushed and in lumps, and there were mounds of earth dug up from pits all over the place. All in all, it was a nice place to play about. To my utter delight, I found Amulya, my father’s office peon and my favourite steed, waiting for us there with his bicycle. I was handed over to him and the elders disappeared beyond the mounds of dug up soil.
There were lots of workers working on the project. There was a man who was measuring gravel and limestone in huge mugs and was pouring them into a pit. When he was done, one of the mazdoors got into the pit and started mixing the ingredients while another of the mazdoors started pouring water over the mixture. There was a hiss and an outpouring of smoke that looked quite scary. I was moved back away from the pit by Amulya, but the two mazdoors went on nonchalantly. The hiss and the smoke died away and the mazdoors created a thick slurry out of the mixture that was quickly carried away in head-loads by women who appeared as if on a cue. I was quite fascinated and I wanted to know what all this was about. Amulya walked me around the heaps of bricks and took me to a place where the women were unloading their head loads. At this place, there were masons who were arranging bricks upon other bricks and were spreading this slurry between these layers. That slurry is called lime mortar, Amulya informed me. This is how the walls of your new house are being raised. I looked on in amazement as the walls inched up through layer upon layer of bricks and mortar.
Do you know that Saheb has decided to name this new house in your name? Amulya asked me in a conspiratorial whisper. I did not know that houses could have names. How will the house know that it has a name? I countered. Amulya then got into a full flow of story telling. He knew that Saheb (i.e. my father) has decided to call the new house by my name and has even ordered a large marble slab to be inscribed with that name. The marble slab was to be put up on the forehead of the house so that every one will know the name. I found the story quite amusing. All of us had names, I said. You are Amulya. Should I write that name on your forehead? But it was not easy to defeat Amulya in a war of words. I am a man, he said. If anyone asks me my name I can simply say that my name is Amulya. The house cannot speak. Therefore, he said, Saheb will have its name written on its forehead. I had to concede his point and decided to check up with ma.
The elders came out of the construction area and we were soon back home. However, such visits to the work site became quite regular, and I learnt how to tiptoe around obstructions and inspect the growing house. Ma had confirmed readily that indeed the new house would be named after me and that confirmation had thrilled me. The knowledge that Mr Ghosh had designed the house and was directing its construction filled me with a greater admiration for the old man. When I grow up, I decided, I will also become an engineer like my Dadu (my mothers father) and like Mr KN Ghosh.
Mr Ghosh was a regular visitor to our house. My mother had resumed her under-grad studies interrupted by her marriage ten years earlier and Mr. Ghosh was her tutor in this effort. He was quite elderly. As a matter of fact, his eldest daughter was close to my mother’s age. He liked academic work and he found the task of coaching this younger colleague’s wife to his taste. We, the kids, loved his visits too. There were toffees for us in his pocket every day. He was a wonderful story teller. After he was done with the day’s tuition, he would settle down on an easy chair with a cup of tea and would regale us with strange stories in his fascinating way of narration. His favourite source was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson became very well known to us. He was very indulgent to me and allowed me to ride his walking stick as an imaginary horse all over the house, even after I sat on it and broke it into two one day. He was however very strict about his tuition. We were absolutely prohibited from disturbing Ma when it was her study time. We were taught to address Mr. Ghosh as Jethamoshai, a form of address reserved for the elder brother of one’s father.
I remember my being asked my choice of colour for the house. Red was my unambiguous choice. I remember being thrilled at finding the house painted bright red one fine morning. There was a fairly large open area in front of the house. Four tall Deodar trees lined the front. There were eleven coconut trees around the perimeter. Two large jackfruit trees were along the western fence along with one guava, one Jamrul and two Mango trees. The main building was a two-story structure, with three rooms in a row in each floor. The rooms had large verandas at front and rear. A fourth room in each floor stood set back at the eastern end, half hidden by the front rooms. Two wide cantilever verandas with curved cupola tops were attached to each side of the front block. A wide flight of stairs stood at the western end of the rear veranda. A block of four rooms attached north of the staircase served as the kitchen block. The first was the dining room, the second the main kitchen. The third was the store room and the fourth was the special vegetarian kitchen for Thakuma. At the end of the Kitchen block there were two bathing rooms. The roof of the kitchen block formed a large terrace for the first floor. The Eastern fence was lined with two huge Simul trees flanked by two eucalyptus trees. One Jamun tree guarded the rear end of the eastern fence. The northern fence had a number of babul and other thorny bushes apart from its share of the coconut trees. The rear open space contained one more mango tree and one guava tree. An inner boundary wall ran for about forty feet from the end of the kitchen block then enclosed the north and the east end up to the eastern room thus forming an inner courtyard. One Bel tree stood inside the inner courtyard touching the rear veranda of the main block. A small Naukraan or servant’s quarter stood at the North East end of the inner courtyard while a twin dry sanitary latrine stood at the North West corner. A nasty looking tamarind tree leaned over the naukraan from outside the inner wall. And of course the house sported a large marble plaque with the words ‘Tapas Kutir’ written in big bold letters on its ‘forehead’ as Amulya would have it.
My memory of the early few months in the new house is somewhat vague. There must have been a big function for the inauguration of the house; but I have no recollection of it. I do not remember the actual shifting of residence. I have a faint recollection of Baba being unwell and his being hospitalised in Calcutta. I remember visiting him at the Medical College Hospital. I remember being taken up to the third or fourth floor of the hospital in a lift, some thing that I had experienced for the first time. However, the details and the sequences are all in a jumble. I do not know why it is so.
The memory however returns to sharp focus from late 1938. Thakuma, my grand mother came back from Barisal to take up residence with us permanently. Youngest of my aunts Kanika, my Moni Pishi, came with her. She had just finished her graduation. There was an election for the municipality. Lots of people came one day to request Ma to stand for election as a councillor. The aspiring councillor had to be a graduate and Ma had become a graduate a year earlier. The municipality had no woman member and it was felt by the townsfolk that a female presence in the municipal committee would be appropriate. The concept of Ma standing for an election created quite a commotion in the family. After some debate the family elders, both from Jessore as well as from Barisal, consented to her political debut and she was nominated unopposed as a councillor in the municipality. She was given the task of the Jail Visitor and was required to look after the welfare of the inmates of the district Jail. She had to visit them periodically. The Jail house was situated away from the town on the other side of the river Bhairab. To get to the Jail, one had to cross a bridge near Dora Tana over the river. I went along with Ma for some of her visits and was shown around the workshops where the inmates of the jail were kept busy with creation of handicraft. We sometimes bought a piece or two of their produce.
All the elders were of the opinion that the new house had brought us a lot of luck. Certainly, moving into that new big house must have enhanced Baba’s social standing in the town. There were many other indicators of affluence and happiness too. Apart from Ma’s graduation and her entry into the municipal committee, many other things were happening all around us. One day Baba went off to Calcutta for a day. When he came back, there was much anticipation and talk about the furniture that were to arrive. Sure enough, after a couple of days, lots furniture arrived on a bullock cart. Did the bullocks walk all the way from Calcutta with the furniture? I was assured that it was not so. Ma took time out to explain how items could be packed and ‘booked’ into the railway’s care, how those items were loaded into the ‘parcel van’ of the railway train, how those were unloaded at the destination station and were stored at the ‘good’s shed’ and how the recipient could claim it from the railways by producing the receipt. The bullock cart had only fetched it from the railway station. The whole process sounded quite fascinating to me. To let the lesson make an impact, I was taken to the railway station by Baba on a subsequent day and I was shown around how goods were transported by rail. The new furniture included a big bed for Baba and Ma, a set of sofa and teapoy tables for the ‘drawing room’, a set of office table and chairs for Baba’s baithak, a bureau and a chair for ma, and most unfairly, a set of study tables and chairs for the two sisters. There was no furniture for me! Such injustice could not of course be tolerated. After some tears and heartache a compromise was reached. Ma’s youngest brother, who was then a lad of fifteen, had outgrown his study desk. That piece of heirloom furniture was passed on to me. It arrived by train and I was allowed to fetch it from the station along with Amulya. I was thrilled.
Another major event took place soon that impressed and excited me no end. One day Baba came home from the office in a car rather than on his bicycle. It was a black Chevrolet four seat four door soft top; a 1928 model. It had large round mud guards over the front tyres and a spare wheel strapped to the body at the rear. Along with the car came a driver as a permanent employee. He was very aptly named Nirapodo, which translates in Bengali to a ‘safe person’. Thakuma was very happy with the name and hoped that Nirapodo would indeed live up to his name. The car had a large horn attached to the driver’s door. I could reach the big rubber bulb of the horn and press it, albeit using both my hands, if I stood on the footboard running along the side of the car. Nirapodo soon became my best friend displacing Amulya, much to the latter’s displeasure. Nirapodo was keen to stay in the naukraan permanently, but his request had to be rejected. The naukraan was already full. Our whole-time man servant Niranjan and the whole-time cook Jeev Nath Dube had staked their claims for that place already.
Following the new house, the new furniture and the new car came the news of a new baby expected by September 1939. Thakuma was excited, Baba was pleased and Ma was radiant with her expectant motherhood. Everyone in the house got on the job of getting me emotionally prepared for the arrival of another sibling. The constant talk by all the elders got me so hyped that the growing child in Ma’s belly became my main concern for the next eight months or so. I was quite determined that the expected one would be a little brother. I was quite satisfied with the supply of sisters I had already had. I fantasized how the little one will play with me and share my toys and would obey only my commands to the exclusion of every one else’s. I shared my fantasies with Ma and she agreed with my dreams, as she always did.
Excitement never died down in the new house. Just as the news about the new baby became old, there was new excitement about a marriage proposal for Moni Pishi being finalized. Unknown to my little world of a five year old, a lot of political activity was going on in the country. The Government of India Act 1935 had been promulgated and a general election for the provincial assemblies was to be held. However, the main political party in the country, the Indian National Congress was in a state of confused dither. The GOI Act 1935 was not up to its expectation. All suggestions for its modification had been nixed by the British authorities who had gone ahead and announced the plan for elections based on that act. The INC in its wisdom had decided to boycott the elections. Many leader of the INC however felt that boycott of the elections would be a wrong step. They felt that if the new constitution was to be wrecked, it would be easier to do so from the inside after forming a government. These leaders, with C Rajagopalachary in the lead, used a front named the Swarajya party (that was formed in 1924 for that specific purpose by CR Das and Motilal Nehru) and decided to field like minded Congress men for the election. The INC went along with this plan. In the election that followed, the INC men swept the polls except in Bengal and the Punjab. Both these provinces were predominantly agricultural. In the Punjab, the land owners group under the banner of the Unionist party became the largest party. In Bengal, a socialist group under the banner of Krishak Praja Party of AK Fazlul Haq became the largest party. In both these provinces, coalition governments were formed. In the other nine provinces, governments were formed by the parliamentary bodies of the INC. The Swarajya Party just faded away.
In preparation for these elections, the GOI had started releasing politicians from jail. A cousin of mine from my mother’s side who was thus released from jail was an eligible bachelor. He was proposed as the prospective groom for Moni Pishi. Thakuma was not impressed. A young politician convicted and jailed for conspiracy of armed insurrection, and who was unemployed, did not seem to be an attractive candidate as a son in law to her. Huge debates ensued and the old lady was overruled. The marriage was settled and was scheduled for July/August of 1939.
The quota of excitement at the new house was never exhausted. Every morning the elders would gather around the news papers (three dailies every morning) and would talk endlessly about strange words I heard and never understood. Lebensraum and aunschlaus, Danzig and the Polish Corridor, Munich, the picture of a man getting off an aircraft waving a piece of paper, and the headlines screaming ‘Peace in our time’, Adolph Hitler and the ‘Natsi’ Party, Haripura and Subhas Bose, Tripuri and Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Benito Mussolini and trains running on time, Manchukuo and Japan, Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek, Fazlul Haq and Prafulla Ghosh: words that floated all around me in a confused maze, important but incomprehensible. Dadu was transferred to Barisal on promotion to the post of Divisional Executive Engineer. The whole family went there for a long break (except for Baba who went back after a few days) – to be with Dadu in his large new official bungalow right next to the town Kotwali Thana, to attend Moni Pishi’s marriage at our family homestead on the Kali Bari Road, and for ma’s confinement for the arrival of my brother. Too many memories compressed into too little a time. It was a time filled with long steamer journeys over huge turbulent rivers; many new faces and much excitement and a sweet bitter transition from being the little darling of the world to the position of the ‘mature’ big boy of the household.
The unsettled political and social environment sometimes gave rise to hilarious situations. One incident comes to my mind. It was perhaps in the early part of 1940. The INC had launched some political agitation and one fine morning all the leading Congress men were arrested. Such things were quite common. People were arrested and then after a few days they were released. No one really got agitated by these happenings. On the morning of this incident, Baba had gone out on a round of inspections. Ma had gone on one of her liaison visits to the jail. I was at home with my brother, my sisters and the servants. There was a knock on the door. I followed the servant who went to answer the door and found an unknown face looking in. He asked the servant where my father was. On being told that he was not at home, he looked at me and asked – ‘and where is your mother?’ The innocent question evoked an innocent reply. “Uncle,” I said, “she has gone to jail.” The gentleman stood still for a moment before turning about and marching off. The news spread through the town like wild fire. Why should an apolitical person like Mrs Sen be arrested? The house filled with commiserating townsfolk by the evening and there was much merriment when the true nature of her ‘going to jail’ was elaborated upon. Dube was of course kept quite busy serving tea and snacks to all the visitors.
Thus life went on in that house that bore my name. It was my shelter and my universe for most of my pre-teen years and yet I was thrown out of it twice – violently. First time in 1942 because the war approached us from the east and the USAF chose Jessore to be one of its bases. We were thrown out of our house and they occupied it. We came back after the war in 1946, to be thrown out once again, on 18th August 1947, just a few hours after the Radcliff Award was announced and Jessore town fell on the wrong side of the new border. Once again the state coveted our house; once again we were powerless to resist. A man is a product of his genes, his time, and his place. So, how much of me do I owe to that house? I do not know. I do not long for it any more even when my memory of it is ever so sweet. I do not cry over its loss; I have been taught never to cry over the past. Still, I am happy that the house stands erect even now, dressed in a new coat of paints, its name still emblazoned on its proud forehead, sixty years after I left it for ever.