Having lived longest in Kolkata, briefly in Oxford, long in Santiniketan and briefest in Bolpur, in that chronological order, I often find myself thinking about Aesop’s timeless fable. Interestingly, Rabindranath’s “khnaachaar paakhi chhilo shonaar khnaachatite” presents the same irreconcilable divide between the urbanite by choice and the country person by choice, though on a more pronounced note of pathos. Both these texts, as well as Horace’s satire II:vi which retells Aesop’s story, tacitly favour the pastoralist who either shuns the city intentionally or discovers herself as a convert to country living by circumstance.
However, as the juggernaut of development rumbles on, as stonechip factories rear their sooty heads right on the fringe of the Santiniketan-Kolkata motorway, as paddy field after paddy field acquires ominous-looking fencing, as Visva-Bharati quietly recedes from ashrama grounds camouflaging shy earth-coloured concrete shelters into imposing multi-storeyed glass-paned buildings, one is left wondering whether the town mouse and the country mouse will soon have become mere states of the mind rather than actual ways of life. The operative word here is ‘only’. The town mouse and the country mouse have always been in part imagined states of being rather than spatial alternatives. The country, the town and the city are ultimately constructs hopelessly tangled in our individual peer-group-induced visions of success and failure.
The rich and respectable English-speaking crowd, often accompanied by white-skinned guests, that boards and alights from the AC coach of Santiniketan Express soon worms its way on cycle rickshaws through the congested, squalid “high street” before blending seamlessly into the red and green landscape beyond. High street is just an Anglophile’s euphemism for the typical mufassil station road flanked by old shops that have seen better days and new-style shops that look tacky and flashy in post-globalisation modular glass and ply get-up. Both stand out only for their beautiful Tagorean names – Aboroni, Sajya Niketan, Madhuram, Adwaita, Abhiruchi, Boi–Toi, Barnaporichoy, Chirantan, Shilpayan, Troyi, Nipunika, Geetali … I could go on … The wonder of wonders is that this most uninspiring arterial approach road never quite deters the distinguished from flocking to Santiniketan. To diehard Santiniketanites, however, the same Bolpur is to Santiniketan what Cowley Road is to Oxford, an eminently forgettable appendage, an indispensable commercial lifeline. As one member of this community remarked on Facebook sometime back, Bolpur is the “adjoining small town, where the shops are. It grew up beside Santiniketan and serves its basic needs.” Nearly half a year since we moved to Bolpur, even I can’t help compare rude, hawkish Bolpur cycle-rickshaw-pullers to the barefooted Montubabu who would often ferry me from home to the department and back. The half-hour ride from our Bhavana to my erstwhile home in semi-proper middle-brow Simantapally on his three-wheeler often seemed like listening to a Santiniketan memoir on the move, duly peppered with anecdotes about this VC and that Registrar. The rickshaw is a delight if one has the leisure. Only the rickshaw allows you to feel the undulating Khoai topography, now going up as we approach Bhubandanga, now going down as we ride towards Simantapally. Only an everyday rickshaw ride on a scorchingly hot, desolate summer afternoon, past the imperturbably placid Hatipukur and the Ashrama grounds, punctuated by the gentle sleepy screech of the chain and sprocket, can give one a sense of country Santiniketan. Here in Bolpur, rickshaws are completely overshadowed by behemoth-like local buses. The streets get busy early, the scene being not unlike the one of London in My Fair Lady when Eliza Doolittle starts singing “Ah wouldn’t it be loverly…” People here seem less lazy, for there’s less beauty around to make one linger.
Then, again, to self-styled outsiders from Kolkata, who saw prelapsarian Santiniketan, whenever it may have existed, the town and the country are indistinguishable in their unprepossessingly nondescript present. All is Bolpur and irredeemably, hopelessly small-town. For Professor Helen Cooper, though, who has lived and commuted between Oxford and Cambridge practically all her academic career, the news, ten years back, of my landing a job here in this “unhappening” university town which she once visited briefly, had been cause for enthusiastic congratulations. “She wouldn’t know!” diehard Kolkatans would probably hasten to interject. Even a decade ago, the English countryside, with its pubs and its BMWs, its Sunday service and online dating, the smell of cowdung and multiplexes in nearby towns, afforded an attractive mix of urban and rural pleasures. Hasn’t Frederick Forsyth been writing all his international thrillers from his country home in Buckinghamshire? Ten years on, notwithstanding Google Chat, Facebook and Skype, I continue to oscillate between self-pity and self-complacency, like the exiled Machiavelli who wrote to Francesco Vettori how he spent his evenings in his study talking to the ghosts of ancient learned men. I can’t emulate the genius of his Prince. Perhaps, some day, I’ll have my “two inches of ivory”.
When we ride into the breathtaking Birbhum landscape, see stunning vistas of green and blue open up as we turn the bend of a tiny hamlet, I play the complacent country-dweller. I stare admiringly at two-storeyed mud houses and wave genially to the village girls who stare back with tentative interest as our motorcar hurtles down the Mahatma Gandhi Gramin Sadak Yojona package. I reach out to turn down the rock music blaring from the car stereo and thank goodness I am not in jeans, but in saree. To the girls, though, despite all my efforts to strike the right image, I am probably always the incorrigibly pucca city-bred out for a condescending reality check on BPL India. Some little boys even throw stones at the car. Lest this spontaneous hostility compromises my pastoral gaze, I quickly look the other way. Back on home territory, though, I slip back into my suave city manners and cultivated bilinguality. Then, again, when I encounter an avatar of mine on a chance visit from Kolkata, I instinctively turn up my nose and pretend not to have anything to do with pleasure-travellers, forgetting how I did the same tourist trail back in 2001, little knowing that I would soon come to live and work here. The other day at Haatsherandi, a village about 20 kms from Bolpur, which boasts of close to twenty household Durga Pujas, we found a lady, her carefully set long black curls bouncing against the back of her elegant white anarkali suit, walking by the side of the procession of palanquins bearing the seventeen demure banana brides after their ritual Saptami ablution. She stood out in her expensive austerity in a crowd that was awash with the loud new hues of festive attire: starched cotton sarees with the loose ends drawn over vermilion-parted hair, fresh unfaded lungis in checks, sparkling zari-bordered salwar suits, pleated frocks in floral design with bow-shaped sleeves, plastic bindis, imitation stone-studded danglers and necklaces, oversized full shirts worn over brand new jeans folded wide at the hem. As the only mature woman in the procession to be walking and chatting alongside the male palanquin-bearers (the village women tended to walk apart, in twos and threes), her consciously chosen ethnic look was the sartorial equivalent of Santiniketan’s very own pastoral Alcha.
As I write this essay, the latest of my Musings, on my Netbook over brewed coffee at Alcha Café, the cosiest of ethnic chic addresses in Santiniketan, where all Kolkata descends for a taste of urbane rusticity, I can’t help marvel at our compulsive tendency to pastoralise, to reclaim the lost pristine. To Kolkatan weekenders, Alcha, like Shanibarer Haat or Banalakshmi or Amaar Kutir, is Santiniketan. Yet one wonders how Alcha became what it has come to represent to frequenting residents and non-residents. Did the entrepreneur couple, who chose to leave their metropolitan success behind and live and do business here in the “country”, bring their unobtrusive brand of urbanity to Santiniketan, or did they find it here instead, in this curious freak of history and nature, this poet’s whim and chaos of a place displaying everything from Santhal villages to sprawling mansions, from the stubborn plain living of pastoralist neophytes to small town nouveau riche ostentation? Ratanpally, possibly the only neighbourhood in country Santiniketan that evokes even a fraction of the gregariousness marking Kolkata’s most populous paras, be it Bhawanipore or Baranagar, is home to both Alcha with its new-age coffee-shop clientele and Kalo’r Dokaan, the quintessential Bengali roadside teashop cum hangout for old-timers and Ashramiks. This Ratanpally, with its pastoral name but almost-urban ambience, with its Alcha and its Kalo’r Dokaan, all ensconced within the larger putatively rural/pastoral space called Santiniketan, presents the eternal conundrum of the city and the country. It offers a slice of the undefinability of the places and spaces we inhabit. Bolpur, Santiniketan, Kolkata, the town, the country and the big city keep leaking and seeping and melting into each other.
Here in our Bolpur apartment, the urban and the rural seem easy bedfellows. The unmitigatedly urban dominates the front: the tyranny of concrete and marble, the anonymity of identical main entrances, the musical elevator never failing to issue sweet instructions in fine British accent, “Please close the door.” The rear, though, is the domain of my relocated pastoral: a busy rice mill with some nature thrown in. The windows on the right look out onto a winding red-earth track fading into a big chunk of cloudscape behind. There’s a lone tree on the left, dwarfed by the smoke-spitting rice mill chimney right next to it, and the gleaming white façade of the adjoining apartment building on the right. Birds of all hue flock to that tree, undeterred by the grind of the machine. Crows perch on the electricity wires (there were no crows in Santiniketan). Pigeons flying synchronically are a delight to watch, but they come for a feast of golden grain, spread out to dry in the open. The drying ground presents a bustle of activity till late afternoon, as lustrously dusky women in brightly coloured sarees worn high above the heel, step across the grain spread in synchronized unison, chattering incessantly. For all I know, they could be grumbling about low wages or a drunken husband at home. From the safe distance of my balcony, though, I fall into the Solitary Reaper trap. I am also reminded of similar scenes of joyous work accompanied by singing in Thomas Deloney’s 1594 novel Jack of Newbury. Newbury, too, is a small town pastoralised in Deloney’s middle-class romance about successful working-class entrepreneurs.
Come Durga Puja, however, the small town comes into its own, with frenzied Bollywood dancing to throbbing, pulsating electronic sounds, and deafening crackers to boot, and I go back many years to my childhood in the South Calcutta of the 80s. Past and present juxtaposed, I can’t quite tell the difference between the small town and the big city anymore. To the guests who came from their village home to stay at our neighbour’s across the corridor, Bolpur was the big city. They braved the rains on the festive nights pandal-hopping exactly the way people do in Kolkata, and are probably just as full of stories of lights and sounds and teeming crowds as their counterparts in Kolkata.
People in Kolkata grow wistful at the thought of brilliant white bushels of kaash phul, as though these seasonal heralds of Durga Puja were one more of those endangered, if not extinct, adjuncts of an idyllic Bengal that they had let slip. Yet those of us who live in or around the country can’t feast ourselves enough on them, either with our naked eyes or on Facebook. The seasons are heralded on Facebook with an abundance of commemorative nature photography. It helps those who live a short ride away from kaash blossoms to readjust the equation of self-satisfaction vis-à-vis the smug metropolitan. It’s that very heady, but no less temporary, consolation of “so what if you have your malls, we have our nature”. On Facebook, then, a reverse pastoralism infects the country-dweller. She simulates the compulsive pastoralism of the city-dweller within herself so that she can then vicariously help the latter quench hers. The eagerness to display the redundancy of pastoralism in the country turns the country-dweller into a zealous pastoralist on Facebook. The pastoral, though, is fascinatingly elastic. When the other day somebody posted a snapshot of kaash in Florida with a wistful caption, I realized how the same kaash that a Calcuttan pastoralises as a mark of urban alienation has become for this expatriate Indian a token memento of her home, her Calcutta, Bengal and India.
Anyway, experiencing the surprising mundaneness of kaash around Santiniketan in September is equivalent to the novelty of daffodils in their throwaway plenitude that confronts the Indian confronted with the English spring. It is reassuring to find that which was presumed irretrievably lost to be alive and thriving. It temporarily defuses our apocalyptic fears about an imminent ecological collapse close on the heels of hasty unsustainable development. Soon, however, we find ourselves ruing the drastic shrinkage in the total square area of kaash foliage and man’s destructive overdrive. The other day I almost stepped out of the car to get a bunch for one of the idle vases at home, before my more seasoned companion warned me of allergens. I felt duly chastened and bemused at my own pastoralist naïvete. I am often told that Santiniketan hosts a plethora of such alien allergen-producing flora, which had been similarly imported for misguided afforestation. Pastoralism continues to lure those who have been long in city pent to retreat and retire into the deceptive innocence of Santiniketan, though I know of an elderly lady who packed up and left for Dakshineshwar after ten disappointing years here. Clearly for her, Santiniketan had ceased to be the “Shob Peyechhir Desh”. Unlike Maugham’s Lotus Eater, she was weary of her beautiful house and the garden that broke into a riot of colours in winter, all for the benefit of the philistines who rented the upper storey of the house across. They had vowed never to buy a house and live in dimly lit lanes that look so inviting with daybreak but so menacing after dark, never to start gardening the English way, though they did not mind the occasional gift of fresh produce from the landlady’s luxuriant kitchen garden. They followed her out.
Soon it will be winter again and the new occupants will take their cups of piping hot tea to the open terrace and gaze long at the blossoms in the garden across and green parrots flying home at dusk. They’ll probably be glad they chose to live where they do. Who knows? They might even let slip a word of pity for the people who left for the concrete jungle. Each to their own
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