On the Banks of Padma

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Once we moved out of our home and moved into a temporary shelter, things moved rather fast.   Baba went to Pabna for a short visit.   He came back with a firm decision to move all of us out of Jessore.   He had purchased a piece of land in Himaitpur only a few months ago.   At the time of that investment he had no idea what he was to do with that piece of land.   He had bought it only because Sri Sri Thakur had insisted that he should do so.   Now, with our home taken away by the Government for the duration of a war which showed no signs of ending, everything looked very different.    During his short visit to Pabna, Sri Sri Thakur had asked him to move the family there.   He was actually happy at the prospect of us moving there and settling down permanently.   Baba however had other problems.   He was still in debt over the house he had built only four years ago.   He also had a permanent job at Jessore that he was not in a position to chuck up.   Still his Guru was insistent and Baba was unable to deny him his desire.    Baba had no intension of incurring further debt to build a second home.   At the same time, he felt that moving the family out of Jessore might be a sensible thing.    So we moved out – not lock stock and barrel but with just the bare essentials.

The first problem was to find a shelter in Himaitpur.    One Mr. Panchanan Sarkar had a house in that village.   He was a close friend of Baba.    He was a professor in Bagerhat College; Bagerhat being a small town in what is now Bangladesh.   He too, like Baba, had joined the Satsang movement in the 20s and unlike Baba he had already moved his family into the ashram permanently.   He came forward to offer us shelter.   His own family was quite large.   All he could offer was one room in the main building of his house with an attached bathroom.   That much space was obviously quite inadequate for our needs.   Two new mud huts with thatched roofs were erected in his courtyard for us.    Another pre-existing small shed with corrugated tin roof was renovated and converted in to our kitchen.   Toilet facilities were common and were rather rudimentary.   Water had to be fetched from a hand pump.   A flimsy compound wall provided privacy for the living quarters.   The house was at an edge of the village.   An open field behind the house separated the neighbouring village Kashipur from Himaitpur.    The house was on the main road linking Himaitpur and Kashipur to Pabna town.   Right in front of the house was a dirty pond.   In reality, it was just a depression that collected rainwater and drain water from the houses in the vicinity.    It was a huge breeding ground for mosquitoes.

The road from Pabna took a 90o turn to the right after it crossed in front of Mr. Sarkar’s house.    The plot that Baba had purchased was down this road, about a half a mile away next to the office of the Village Union.   (In pre Independent days in Bengal, a ‘Union Board’ was in charge of a cluster of villages which kept land records and revenue records.   Gram Panchayats as we know it in India now did not exist there).   In front of the Union Board office the road turned once again, this time by 90o to the left.   From this road a number of unpaved little tracks emanated and wound their way into the clusters of huts that made up the village.   Larger brick-built houses generally had access to the main road while the other smaller dwellings did not.

With the change in the location of the family came a host of changes; some were subtle and some quite obvious.   The change from an eight room dwelling to a single room plus two huts situation was certainly drastic.   It forced Thakuma not to join us till the situation settled down.   She went to Calcutta along with Mejo Pishi and took up temporary residence with Moni Pishi.   This of course could not be a long term solution.   Having given up her job with the Girls’ School in Jessore, Mejo Pishi resumed her studies and enrolled herself for a B.Ed diploma.   This allowed her to move into a girl’s hostel.   The changes forced upon us at Himaitpur were more acute.   In Jessore we had a whole regiment of servants.    Jeev Nath the Cook, Niranjan the Manservant, Nirapodo the Driver, the girl who cleaned the dishes, the girl who swept the floor, and the girl who cleaned the drain were the regular every day help.   This force was augmented by the boy who came every day to look after the two cows, the boy who came in once in a while to clean and dress the coconut trees, and the man who came to clean up the yard once or twice a week (I think he was the husband of the sweeper-woman) .    None of these men and women came with us to Himaitpur.   We now had to learn to look after our own surroundings.    I could no longer kick my used shorts under the cot when I changed my clothes and expect it to be magically picked up, washed, dried, folded and put back.   I had to pick it up myself and put it into the wash basket.   Not that it was a big back breaking chore; it was just a new life style that I had to learn to live.    Ma had to learn much more.   She had to sweep, swab, cook, clean, wash, dry, and manage the total household single handedly.   Of course the sisters assisted her, but the task was hers.   The change in her routine must have been really tremendous.

In the changed environment, for the first time in my life, I felt lonely.   Baba had gone back to his job at Jessore.   Ma was busy – really worked off her feet – from dawn to late at night.   The sisters were – well they were just teen aged girls.  Their world was quite far from mine.    The Little Brother was just that; much too little to be a playmate and a friend.   I missed my morning joust in Baba’s bed rattling off the tables. I missed the morning session with the newspaper; no newspapers were available in the morning in the village.   I missed the hours I used to have locked up in the family library reading and day dreaming;   the library with all the shelves full of books was now under lock and key in that little shed along with our car in Jessore.   I missed our cows, Laxmi and Dhanalakshmi and the little calf Kali.  They had been handed over to our neighbour for safe custody. I missed my little dog Kallu; even he had been given away.    I missed my home.   I missed the deodar trees in the front, the jackfruit trees overflowing with fruit, the mango trees, the two guava trees, the lonely jamun tree, the majestic simul trees with bright flowers and fluffy cotton jostling the eucalyptus trees flowing with strong aroma. I missed our car and the driver Niarapodo and his incessant chatter.   Above all, I missed Baba.

I think Ma realized the problem I was facing.   She gave me a lot of freedom to move about in the village unescorted.   She also started giving me small chores to perform that would keep me busy.   It was however not easy for me to make the transition.   I had grown up for the last seven years entirely in adult company.   My not having been sent to a school had left me with no experience with how to deal with boys of my own age.   My first attempts to make friends with the boys in the new neighbourhood led me to a disaster.   There was a patch of open ground behind the house where young boys came out to play.  These boys were from families not socially known to us.  Soon after we moved in, I saw them there and tried to join their group.   I made no headway.   After a couple of attempts I decided that if I carried my own ball to the field perhaps I would be more acceptable to the new gang.   I was sadly mistaken.   The moment I arrived, my ball was snatched away.   I was made to run after my ball, hopelessly out of my reach, as it was kicked around by ten other lads.   Ultimately they kicked the ball into the dirty pond in front of the house and bullied me into fetching it from knee deep slime and muck full of overgrown weeds and teeming with tadpoles and water snakes.   I retrieved the ball and in the process swallowed some muck and cut my feet on a shard of a shell.   I walked home disheveled, wet, frustrated, angry and weepy. I was jeered all the way to my door.   The misadventure brought upon me quarantine for three weeks as I was down with bacillary dysentery, fever and a sepsis of the foot!    I was promptly debarred from making any attempt to befriend that gang again.

Himaitpur was on the banks of Padma.   A few decades before we moved in there, the main stream of the river used to run very close to the southern edge of the village.   The river was wide and deep.   Even the minimal flow was large enough to permit passenger steamers to call at the village port.   On the other side of the river was the town of Kushtia. It was a centre for manufacture of jute goods. It was a subdivision of District Nadia.   Then development caught up with its well being.   In 1909 work began for a mighty railway bridge few miles upstream near the village Paksi.   The aim was to improve the communication facility for the new province of East Bengal and Assam formed recently in 1905.   The bridge was named after the then Viceroy of India Lord Harding when he inaugurated the bridge in February 1915.  By then, the unnatural state of East Bengal & Assam had been consigned to the dustbin of history and the partition of Bengal had been undone because of unprecedented political upheaval.

The after-effects of erecting the bridge at Paksi were not benign for Himaitpur.   The large protective earthworks on both sides and the bases holding up the 15 spans covering more than a mile width of the river interfered with its natural flow.   Sedimentation increased.   The course of the river drifted south eating up some land on the Kushtia bank.    River steamers could no longer visit Himaitpur.   By the time we came to Himaitpur, the river bank (known as char land) was under cultivation for a strip over a mile wide.    In monsoon however, the river swelled and water came up right up to the village.

Himaitpur had a surprisingly developed character because of the presence of the Satsang Ashram.   A large number of houses were brick-built.  The village had a post office.   The Ashram had its own printing press (albeit consisting a couple of treadle machines and one flat bed roller only), its own electric power supply, a publishing house, a chemical workshop, a covered meeting ground with a fully functional stage, a public library, and a scientific research center (which had died a natural death by the time we reached the village).   The heart of the village was the Matri Mandir which was the abode of the mother of Sri Sri Thakur.   By the time we came to live in the village, the Mother had passed away.   The various ingredients of the ashram were located around the Matri Mandir.   It faced the river and was protected by a bund.   On its left was a small building which was the main residence of Sri Sri Thakur.   It was a very small building surrounded by a lattice-work of bamboo strips covered by fragrant flowering creepers.   The entrance was through a very small garden which had two bushes of Touch Me Not that always fascinated me.   In front of the Matri Mandir there were two wooden hutments and these were called Tassus. I have never found out the origin of this expression.   Next to the Tassus was a small hut which was the abode of the younger brother of Sri Sri Thakur.  A road wound down from the Matri Mandir to the main road connecting the village to Pabna.   Behind the Matri Mandir there was a small structure which served as the organisation’s office.   Along the road that led out of the Matri Mandir we had a dispensary and this was looked after by one Dr Pyari Nandi.  A dining hall stood behind the dispensary.  It was called the Ananda Bazaar.   Any visitor to the ashram could have a meal there.    On either side of this connector road were the modest huts of the residents of the Ashram.

In our new life style, a visit to the ashram every evening became a norm.   The walk of a mile and a half each way was a good exercise.   It was also a nice way to meet all the residents of the village;   every one, well nearly every one, made the trip into the ashram every evening.   These trips helped me to make friends with boys of my age group there.    They were a group of about seven or eight.    It was not very easy to merge into the group; I made a slow progress.   I had huge handicaps.   I knew nothing about the things that engaged those boys.   I could not spin a top, playing with marbles was something I had never done.   Though I could climb small trees, I just could not compete in monkeyness with the others.    I did not know how to play gilli-danda, nor could I perform well in kabaddi (known as choo-kitkit to those boys in that village).    Ever so slowly I had to learn these new skills and gain their acceptance as a part of the gang.

Soon after we reached Himaitpur, Dadu was transferred to Dhaka and we all went down there for a short holiday.    That trip to Dhaka is however another story.   Dadu’s stay in Dhaka was very short.   Within a few months he was transferred again, this time to Rajshahi.  In the mean while, social pressure was mounting on Baba to build a house on the plot of land that he owned.    Sri Sri Thakur was of course very keen that our house be built.   The living condition in our current location was far from satisfactory.   Dadu came on a visit and threw a fit.   He felt terrible about our current living conditions.   He went back and sent a design for a small double storied bungalow that he felt would suit us.   Being a civil engineer himself, he had taken a lot of care and had drawn out the plan by his own hands.   However it was a design for a small house.   Three bedrooms and a living room with single bathroom block.    (In those days, bathrooms were never attached to the bedrooms, and more than one bath/toilet block was considered a wasteful luxury for any house!)   Sri Sri Thakur was however not happy with the design.    He felt that any house that Baba built must contain a Baithak where fifty people could sit down in comfort.   Where was that room?    Baba at this time was not even there in Himaitpur.    Earning his daily bread in Jessore with a politically aggressive Muslim League run district Board   he was at that moment a harassed man.   When the news of this pressure to build another house reached him, he just threw his hand up.   He did not have the money, and he did not have the time.   There was no question about building another house.    But, the pressure was relentless and our living conditions were really bad.   At this juncture, Mr KN Ghosh paid us a visit.   He was a practical man.   He realized that we just had to move to a better house.    He went back to Jessore and pressed a loan of three thousand rupees to Baba on a ‘pay back when you can’ sort of a term.   Back in Himaitpur, Baba’s friends assured him that supervision of building the house would be taken care of.   So, once again the elders sat down to plan a house.  The layout agreed upon was quite grand.   The entrance would have the desired grand Baithak, a room of some 600 square feet surrounded by a verandah on all sides that was to be eight feet wide.   Flanking this massive hall would be two blocks of three bedrooms each.   The two rear rooms of the two blocks were offset outwards from the front bed room by a full ten feet.    At the rear there would be the support block of four rooms consisting of the kitchen, two stores and one large day room for Thakuma which also contained a corner enclosure for puja.      By the side of this utility block a small corridor led to the toilet and bath block.    Ma insisted that there should be at least two toilets provided for.   Baba had always been against manually cleaned dry latrines.  He insisted that we install waterborne sanitary toilets.   The problem was that the village had no municipal sewerage.   Therefore management of the outflow of a waterborne toilet system was difficult.     Baba was however a specialist in public health.    He had heard about self contained vermin-controlled automatic toilets.    He decided to try one on.    No commercial disposal units were available.   Therefore every components of the system had to be designed and implemented locally.

The plan for the house was grand but the resources available to implement it were scarce.   The money pressed on Baba by Mr Ghosh could at best build half the planned structure.   After much debate it was decided to hold the front three rooms in abeyance.   The hall and the first two bedrooms along with the wide verandah constituted almost half of the planned floor space.   Even without it, the house would be quite big.   Four bedrooms plus five other rooms topped by a fair sized toilet block was certainly no sneeze.   A day was chosen.   Bhoomi Puja was performed.   One young Mansoor Ali from the neighbouring village Kashipur was engaged as the lead mason (Raj Mistiri in local nomenclature) for the construction.   He was also given the contract for total logistic management that made him very happy.   He had never been entrusted with such a responsibility earlier in his life.   Dadu came to see us a couple of times from Rajshahi.   He was requested to convert the tentative floor plan into proper architectural drawings.    He was not very happy with Baba agreeing to such an ambitious effort and letting the proposal for a smaller house proposed by him slide.   However he was after all a professional civil engineer.   He took the floor plan with him and sent the required engineering drawings back.

Political storm that broke over the country after the AICC session in Bombay on 7th 8th and 9th August 1942 was vicious.   Even in the backwaters of Himaitpur we felt the reverberations of the Quit India movement clearly.   All the office bearers of the Congress party were arrested.    On 18th or 19th of August the local Union Board office was burnt down.   The movement had become rudderless with the arrest of the leaders, but its latent energy was huge and resulted in such meaningless destruction.   The Union Board office was adjacent to our plot of land.   Next morning when we went to see the progress of our house the burnt out shell of the Union Board was still smouldering.

I was a free bird those days.   I had no school to go to and very few friends to play with.    I therefore found it interesting to go down to the building site and spend long hours watching Mansoor Ali and his men dig down to lay the foundation and then build up the house brick by brick.   Due to the war-time shortage of cement, it was decided to build the house mainly by brick-lay on lime/mortar packing.   This was in great contrast to the style of building used in Jessore.   There cement concrete was used extensively.    Mansoor was a very careful mason.   The building progressed fast.   The front three rooms were built only up to the plinth level.      The floors were not covered.   The rest of the house rose rapidly and the time came to lay down the roof.   For me it was as if it was one long magic show.   The carpenters cutting out huge tree trunks into beams and rafters, the mason and his men arranging those pieces on top of the newly built walls, bricks being laid above the rafters, mortar being poured over the bricks and then the long day and night when over fifty women sat on the newly laid roof and hammered it down for hours while they sang a strange song in rhythm with their beatings.    I sat mesmerized till the sun went down and they put up a set of hurricane lanterns on bamboo poles.   The singing did not stop.   The beating went on under the feeble lantern lights.   Mansoor and his men encouraged the beaters and sprinkled buckets of water in front of the women from time to time.   At last it was time for me to go home and sleep.   Next morning when I came back to see the progress the roof was done.   As if by magic the womenfolk had disappeared.   Mansoor let me climb up a bamboo ladder and peek.   The roof was now a flat plate covered by wet gunny sacks that was being kept wet by his men sprinkling water.   The house now almost looked like a real house.      A new phase now began.    The carpenters made doors and windows while Mansoor Ali and his men laid the floors and polished them.   Then they fitted the newly made doors and windows into their respective slots while the carpenters moved on to making tables, chairs and other furniture.   The walls were plastered and white washed.   The ground around the structure was cleared.    A bunch of bamboo workers arrived to put up a neat fence all around the house.   Very soon the house was ready for occupation.     Baba came down from Jessore. Thakuma and Mejo Pishi joined us from Calcutta.   Baba’s brothers came down while Dadu came down from Rajshahi for a short visit.   We had a grand house warming ceremony.

We stayed in our new house at Himaitpur for a relatively short period.   We moved-in in early 43 and left the house for ever by the middle of 46.    A little over three years is a short span in one’s life.   For me however, those three years are filled with a whole garland of events.     Within these three years I morphed from a little nine year old boy to a young adult at twelve.     The existing environment stole a whole chunk of my adolescent days.   It catapulted me from being a boy straight to the status of a young adult without even waiting for me to catch up emotionally.    Events just ran on.   Baba quit his job finding it impossible to work with the new political dispensation under the Muslim League.     He put all his residual wealth on farm land in Pabna.   My great grand father was a successful zamindar.   However, he had taken a conscious decision to divert all his children and grand children from cultivation to modern middle class professions: Doctors, Lawyers, Chemists and research scientists.    To revert to Zamindari after three generations afresh was not easy.   The younger sister completed her school final examination and the elder one her Intermediate arts.  I joined the exploratory learning experiment (The Tapovan) initiated By Sri Sri Thakur. One of Baba’s brothers got married. His only unmarried sister also got married.   The Cripps Mission visited India.   The war in Europe ended.   Atomic Bombs were used on Japan.   The war in Pacific ended.    The INA leaders were imprisoned in the Red Fort.       Our house in Jessore was de-requisitioned by the government.   We moved back to Jessore.   Too many events took place at home and abroad.  Too many changes occurred in the family, in the society, in the country and in the world.  I know that it might sound like a cliché, but sincerely, I can never ever tally the influence of those three or four years on the banks of the Padma on my life.

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