Jessore Utsav

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During our trip to Pabna, there was much talk about the forth-coming Utsav at Jessore.   At that moment I did not quite know what the references were to.   However, on our return it was clear even to my seven year old eyes that some important event was about to take place.   To start with, the number of full time workers of the Satsang organization that visited our house increased.   The new secretary of Satsang, Mr. Bankim Chandra Roy (Bankim Kakababu to me) returned to Jessore along with one Mr.  Prafulla Kumar Das and became full time residents of our house.   Secondly, a fairly large outhouse was erected on the front lawn.   It ate up the badminton court but no one seemed to be bothered by that.   The outhouse that came up was quite a contrast to the main house.   The basement trenches were merely a foot deep.   In those trenches a brick foundation wall was laid out and this wall rose to a level of merely a foot above the ground.   The top of this wall became the plinth.   A frame work of timber was laid out on top of this plinth.   The timber, in contrast to the teak woodwork of the main house, was from sal wood.   I soon learned to my cost not to rub my hands on these wood blocks until they were fully sanded down.   Small shards easily entered the skin while running one’s hands along a rough piece.   On top of the framework a four sided sloping roof was erected.   The floor was filled up with mud and covered with bricks overlaid with a very thin layer of lime mortar.   Rooms were marked out with bamboo mats edged by bamboo strips.   Even the doors and windows were made of the same material.   A false ceiling of bamboo mats completed the building.   The outhouse came up with an amazing rapidity.   Even before the workmen moved out, Satsang workers by the dozen came up and made it into their work and living space.

One of the smaller rooms of the outhouse was made into a stationary store.   Lots of pamphlets were printed announcing the function.    These were given out to the workers for distribution.   One person came and made that room his home.   He was the poster painter.   He churned out large posters in many colours and these were pasted on the walls and trees by the road side throughout the town.     Many hundreds of booklets containing donation receipts were printed and distributed to the workers.   In a few days time the workers began depositing money:  a small accounting section came into being at home.   A register of receipts was created.   Any money that came in was first recorded in that register along with the name of the depositor and the serial number(s) of the receipts books used for collection.   By default, Ma became the treasurer.   She was however busy all the time.   Mejo Pishi (Baba’s second sister) took over the duty of receiving cash when Ma was not around.

As the days rolled by the number of workers engaged in organizing the Utsav increased rapidly.    The outhouse overflowed with people coming in and going out.   Messing arrangements for everyone was in our house.   Jeevnath was provided with a helper and he fed everyone diligently.  It soon became difficult for him to cope as the number of people increased and the time taken to gather every one became longer for each meal.    Bankim Kakababu went out and bought a large gong.   I was delighted and became the official gong beater.   Whenever breakfast or lunch was ready, I was informed of the fact and I went around the house and the outhouse beating the gong signaling every one to come and partake in the meal.

Just like the donations coming in, money was flowing out too for many and varied expenses.   Printing charges for handbills, paper, paint, brushes for the posters, transportation and handling charges for items coming in, everything had to be meticulously recorded.    Similarly, as various stores started coming in, it became necessary to create and man a storeroom.

It was an exciting time for me.   The house was full of people.   As the tempo of work increased the nature of discussions around me changed.    Initially, there were days when planning the details for the Utsav was the main topic at home.   When the outline of the plan were finalized, getting the official clearance for holding such a function, selection of the venue, and above all, collecting enough funds were the main concern.   And then those concerns abated as ensuring hosting arrangements became a major issue.   Of course all this did not flow on as smoothly as I write it down.   There were hitches and glitches which had to be overcome and ironed out.  I remember at least two of these sudden eruptions vividly.    The first one took place about three days prior to the commencement of the Utsav.     This Utsav was the first attempt at holding a function of this magnitude away from the headquarters of the organization at Pabna.   No one had any conception of how will be the response to this novel attempt.   The first main difference between holding the function at Pabna and elsewhere was the availability of infrastructure for barding and lodging of the visitors.    At Pabna, considering the difficulty in reaching the ashram, the number who visited had steadied down to a calculable figure.   At Jessore, for this first time, no one had any idea at all.   Baba had aimed high and he felt that if he succeeds and the attendance is high, some financial assistance can be expected from the central organization of the Satsang to feed and shelter the visitors from the country side.   However, a bombshell landed in the form of a letter from the central organization.   The letter informed Baba that he must not depend on any financial aid from the central office.    All visitors must be told not to expect shelter and food if they wish to come for all three days of the function planned.    Baba was devastated.   Just that morning he had reviewed the estimates of likely visitors.   He was told that the response was overwhelming.    The word that had got around had created expectations of efficient hosting; whole villages had planned to visit the big show.   It was now impossible to change the situation.   The day passed in a quandary.    By the evening the tension around the house became palpable.   After dinner Baba and Ma sat down to chart out a solution.   They came to the conclusion that if push comes to shove they were willing to pledge all their assets including the homestead, but they will see the function through.   It was a solution that removed all tensions from their mind.

Next morning Baba explained the situation to the workers and implored them to gather enough donations to see the function through.   While this problem of hospitality was being sorted out, another severe problem showed up.   The District Board had gone into the control of the Muslim League only a few months ago.   The new chairman of the District Board decided to appeal to the District Collector to stop the function; he pleaded on the basis of a likelihood of communal tension on the arrival of a very large number of mainly Hindu devotees into the town.   The Collector was also new to his post and was perhaps sympathetic to the Muslim League point of view.   A dictate came to stop the function.  It was of course a bolt from the blue.    A citizens’ delegation argued with the Collector for revocation of the ban to no avail.   All available political pressure was brought into play.  There was hard bargaining.   Ultimately the sanction was reissued with some minor   restrictions on the closing time for each days function and the route of the walk-through procession (Pada-Yatra) at the completion of the Utsav.

Teams of workers went through the town requesting all house-holders to help accommodate the expected visitors.   Once again the response was fabulous.   Almost everyone in town pitched in and undertook to offer shelter for the visitors to the Utsav.   Absolute strangers walked up to ma and told her that he / she would be able to accommodate a group of 5 or 7 or 10.   In those days, the definition of shelter was simple.   A roof over the head, a grass mat on the floor, a jar of potable water and a visitor would be happy with your hospitality.    A small cell under a senior organizer was formed to control the flow of visitors to their designated shelters.   No one knew the names of the likely visitors or their exact number.    Clusters of houses of given localities were therefore earmarked by names of villages from where the guests were expected.

On the morning before the Utsav began, some sort of a miracle took place.   From about three in the morning, a procession of bullock carts laden with cereals and pulses, with fruits and vegetables, with oil and fuel-wood and cooking implements started arriving at home.   They came from all corners of the district and were all gifts from the various villages from where people were about to come for the Utsav.   It was a stunning scene.    The cow-shed on the rear yard was quickly cleaned up and was converted to a kitchen store.  By breakfast time a small lean-to was erected next to the cow-shed to act as a field kitchen.    Three huge cooking stoves were erected out of bricks and mud.      Some people arrived and took charge of the cooking operation.     By noon a makeshift dining hall made of tentage came up.     All this while visitors had started arriving and were being directed to their earmarked shelters.      A huge scheme of hospitality rolled on smoothly as if it had been meticulously planned.    Every visitor could be accommodated and every visitor could be fed to their evident satisfaction.

The venue for the main function was set at the mela ground facing the District Board Office.   A pandal was erected with a seating capacity of over two thousand people.    For a small town like Jessore this Utsav was turning out to be a huge fest.   A public address system was rigged up with loud speakers reaching out on all directions along the roads for a distance of more than a mile from the venue.   For three days, the Utsav ran to capacity crowds.

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6 responses »

  1. Fascinating! This piece provides an insight into the sincere and sustained efforts of ‘ordinary’ people in their commitment to a cause/activity that is meaningful to them.

  2. Dadu, you write so well. I was transported to a new and different world! Far far away from the highly technology dependent life I lead today. It reminded of the stories Thaku used to tell me of her childhood. You have a very personable and story-like narrative that makes it a very interesting and almost education read. I have always enjoyed my conversations with you for the same reason. Have you considered publishing these articles as a collection of short stories or memoirs?

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