In a late winter afternoon I sauntered around Moiradanga village. The day was one of the coldest of the year. People were happy as such a chill weather with five or six degrees they found after 150 years or so, as many dailies claimed. Most of the villagers stayed at home, and street was almost deserted. The sun reclined on the west, and it lost its blaze and splendour. And it seemed that one could touch the mellowed ball of fire, so low it hung overhead. The layers of mists began to set on the icy air. It made the distant horizon hazy.
Underneath the sky lay the furrowed fields—fields of green fresh cabbages, cauliflowers, potatoes, brinjals, carrots, turnips, spinach, peas, and mazes just sprouted forth, and lentils. And the beds of mustard yellow flowers dazzled, and were abuzz with humming bees. In a nearby furrowed field stood a hundred herons—all milk white but four or five piebald. They stood move less on one leg with polished plumes and beaks gray and dull. They basked in the lazy afternoon, perhaps ate enough, and no need to peck worms and insects more for the day. Another patch of potato plot was dotted with the same birds. They all queued patiently on the running edges of water. The swath of water soaked the earth, and worms coming out. And they pecked them live and gobbled, and waited for the next bet. A gust of wind blew, and from the bamboo groves dry light bronze leaves shed in whirling. Some poor landless peasants were busy to nurse their leased fields. Cattles after the day’s free fodder in the outskirts of the Jaldapara forest lined towards home. They mooed and the bells tied to their necks jingled with a pleasant rhythm. Birds were chattering, and when they made a flight from one twig to other, the air flapped. Daily labourers, scantily clothed in lungis or soiled pants, all cold and shivered, teeth all jittery, hurriedly cycled past me.
In such a scenic evening I cycled lazily, and saw a hut at a corner of the village. In the yard of the hut stood a mother with two children, the little one tied on her back with a strap of ragged cloth, and the other playing all naked before her eyes. I was stopped not by the ugliness or the bareness of the hut, as such tin shed huts scattered almost all the villages of Dooars. What fascinated me was the sight of the lonesome mother and her children. Rare was the sight. Mother was swaying her body, the child stopped crying. The sun was setting inch by inch.
The air bit me hard. But the mother calmly withstood all vagaries of life with an overused crumpled piece wrapped around her skeletons. The tin shed was at twenty feet distance from the mud path where I stood. The orange sun had not set yet. A soft crimson light glowed the village. The hut was all two long corrugated tin sheets which acted as roof, and four sides were somehow jotted with wooden cut pieces. A mud oven, a broken faded plastic chair, two chubris (baskets made of bamboo slices used for collecting dry leaves and twigs for making fire) a plastic bucket, a broom, a lean bamboo pole from which a lungi, and a napkin hung, a shed made of bamboo sticks and hays twined with a pumpkin’s juicy fat tendrils in the front, two papayas standing leafless behind the hut—all crowded my eyes. No man I saw. Only the woman, lean, pale, ill, unfed, aged thirty or so, with a one year child slung from her back and made her a little bend. The other child, aged two to three was utterly naked. But he did not fear the biting cold. In this chill winter evening he jumped and played, and followed his mother, catching the end of her sari. Sometime he scratched his head, and sometimes he itched his mud caked legs.
The woman cleared the yard, collected twigs, took the chair inside, covered the baby with another napkin first, took a bucket and bathed the naked one. The child cried, and cried. She wiped the boy, and wrapped him with a bundle of old clothes, bought perhaps from the nearby haat. The boy was happy, and began to jump. He jumped, and ran from one end to the other of the yard, and played with the clods of mud again. He ran with a rhythm, his little hands dangled, and bare feet all white with dust. The boy was charcoal black, and his tiny legs, smeared with white powder of clods, gave a look of majestic contrast. He seemed to be indifferent to cold, and hunger. He ran and frolicked whether in joy or pain I didn’t know!
“How was it possible? We grown men wore woolen clothes, jackets, shoes, sweaters, and hand gloves, and still suffered from the chill. And the boy defied all so easily. How, how was it possible?” I murmured, and kept me asking. And found that all was possible for survival. Calamities whether natural or man-made such as drought, flood, poverty, heat, fire, cold, disease, violence, hunger— all could only be conquered with a minimal sacrifice—the sacrifice of life itself. It was the beauty of life, the beauty of wretchedness, and the unassailable power of poverty and hunger, I pondered.
I was really a bit lost in wayward thoughts. A sudden call, “Oh! Bhaijaan ki dekchen?” (Brother, what do you see?) I heard. The man never saw me before, and I stood beside his brinjal field, and his house! I was really an intruder to his much coveted dynasty. His call startled me, and I saw the man with a rusted cycle stood close to me. The man, aged almost fifty, was tall, slim, thinned hair, and fair with an elongated face. His face was full of shredded black and white beard. He had no mustaches. He wore a check lungi and a shirt and pair plastic slippers. He chewed a betel leaf continuously. Apparently he was a man of ease. He was quite happy with his life. His face was bright, and his small eyes blinked continuously.
“Where are you coming from?” The man asked in a hoarse voice, and eyed me from head to toe with a suspicious look.
Before I opened my mouth, his wife, aged thirty eight or so, slim, veiled, beautiful in rustic way, face bright but posture demure, came and stood beside her man. She asked with an insatiable curiosity, “Ki dekchen tokhon theke?, Abar lekhen o dekhchi.” (What do you see and write?)
I told with a jest that I came to see them and their beautiful village. They became happy, but a look of wonder and distrust lurked from their eyes. The man’s wife stood silent beside us for a while, and then went to return her cow home from a nearby grazing field. But the peasant waited beside me and told the tale of the tea estate on his own.
“The entire area, at least 500 acres was Moiradanga Tea Estate. It was one of the biggest and profitable estates of Dooars. Thousand families lived on it. We willingly leased our plots of lands, and our Kolkata owner was good. He provided us everything—shoes, umbrellas, rations, school dress for children. In the initial year of contract they provided each owner of land a sum of Rs. 5000. But after the possession of Siliguri owner we became orphans. He promised a permanent job for each family, free medical facilities, free education for children, and many more. But he was a cheater. He did nothing. As a result the bagan (tea garden) was one day closed and we became jobless. All this happened a decade ago. Then we all were in deep crisis. Our children went Kerala and Bangalore. And we, the elders of the village, for five years tried hard to wipe out the tea roots, and clear our lands. Now it became lush green with vegetables and maize, tomato fields, potato fields.” The man said at a breath, and it seemed he got some emotional relief. His face was relaxed. Perhaps, he had nothing more to share. He stood silent for a while, and spat, and looked at me for approval. I heard him, but said nothing, and stood, and my eyes were fixed on the hut.
A young Maulvi, aged twenty two, beard just sprouting on his tender face wore spotless white kurta pyjamas. . His head was covered with a headgear, brought from Arab as a gift of love by a Haji perhaps. He casually walked, and stopped beside us for a while, and exchanged assalamu alaikum (a form of Islamic greetings) with the man. The pungent smell of the Maulvi almost fainted me. But soon he departed, and the air was light again. Five minutes later the man also took leave as the Maulvi entered his house and some naasta (tiffin) was to be made for his holiness. The bhaijaan was a relatively wealthy. His two mason sons sent money from Kerala every month. He had five bighas lands where he grew seasonal vegetables, and sold them at Galakata haat. He had a cow, some goats, hens, and ducks. His house was tin-roofed, but the walls were of concrete, and it boasted of a pucca toilet.
I stood and followed the shadowy figure. The dew became thicker, and I could etch on my jackets with it. The grass was all moistened. And darkness tiptoed on earth soon. I gazed at the hut and saw the mother moving still from one end to the other of the hut. The child was still slung from her back. The sun declined, and she took first the faded napkin form the pole, and covered the child. But the child cried, and mother shook the baby, and soon the child stopped crying. A while later, the child cried again, and the mother took the lungi from the pole, and wrapped the baby. And now the clothes line was bare boned, and nothing to cover the baby more. The child cried again, and the mother pointed her right hand towards the setting sun, and began singing a lullaby. But the baby from the back could not see the rosy hues of the nibbling sun, and it shrieked louder and louder.
The sun now almost set. And the chill wind made me shiver. Darkness soon gripped the village. The passersby passed less. The sound of Maghrib azan (evening prayer of Muslims) wafted the village. The birds chattered and quarreled still. From the huts of the peasants tiny bulbs were lit and hung from a wooden or bamboo poles. But the hut of the mother was dark, only a lantern was lit, and its light was too timid to cross its own shadow.
The mother then unfastened the child from her back. She pressed its wobbly mouth to her withered nut breasts. The baby sucked hard, and threw its tiny legs and hands in all directions in sheer joy. The child was fed, and was drowsy. She swayed and sang, and raised her hand toward the half-nibbled sun, the flight of lazy birds in the hazy sky, the hens pecking worms in a furrowed field yonder, and the line of the languid cows, goats, lambs returning home. And soon the baby went to sleep like a log. A cock crowed somewhere in the village. The sun was nowhere to be seen. The men either took shelter under quilts, or crowded tea stalls in some haats.
I felt icy, and the dews began to drizzle. I took a last look at the hut, and saw the darkening shadow still moving across the yard. The child was all hidden under the heap of clothes on her breast, and the elder boy I looked hard to see, but couldn’t find. I was quite late. Dews drenched me whole. My fingers were stiff, and mouth gave out coils of vapours. Soon I left the village, and came straight home shivering.
(First published in Setu)