The Baisakhs Of My Childhood

The month of Baisakh is always associated in my mind with our visits to my mamar bari (maternal uncle’s house). Back in my schooldays we used to have long Easter holidays and this almost always coincided with the Bengali New Year holidays giving us a week off from school and that was when we went to the village where my grandfather had built his home after he fled East Bengal during Partition.
The house was built on a typical Bengali rural house plan; the rooms were arranged around a central courtyard. There was a tube well which was an innovation for those days inside the house and sanitary arrangements included a cesspit which too was unusual for those times. The house was surrounded by a large garden which extended to the banks of the Jalangi River which flowed past the village.
When I say garden, please don’t visualize the formal garden of the English or even the Mughals. It was a typical Bengali bagan, which means a collection of fruit trees, a bamboo grove and many other types of trees so beloved of Bengali householders. There was a more formal garden in the front of the house where there were flower beds and a hedge that separated the property from the unmettalled road that passed in front of it.
Nutan ( New) Shambhunagar village, so named to distinguish it from the Purono ( Old) Shambhunagar which lay some 3 miles distant, had sprung up mainly to accommodate families who had come over the border during Partition. There was one shop which sold groceries, and another which was a tea shop that sold tea and savouries and was the hangout for most of the adult males in the evenings and when work was slack. The atmosphere as I remember it was very reminiscent of the village addas that Satyajit Ray depicted in some of his films.
My grandfather was a teacher, he had taught English for donkey’s years in various schools all over undivided Bengal. Later he taught in Bagbazar High School in Calcutta before retiring to his rural retreat. It reminded him, he confided, of the house they had to leave behind in their ancestral village in Jessore District. Here he still taught in the Don Bosco School in the adjacent Krishnanagar town, and his was a familiar figure in the village walking down the muddy or dusty road in his white dhoti and kurta , white socks and black shoes a black umbrella under his arm. I do not remember seeing him wear anything else when he left the house. He was then past sixty, but rain or shine, he walked to school, a matter of 4 kilometers each way) until he was nearly seventy when he finally retired.
My grandmother was a typical Bengali housewife of that day and age. Not very well educated in the formal sense, she was a voracious reader and a marvelous cook. I still remember the chutneys she used to make which have left me with a lifelong addiction for it. She was a story teller, her stock of stories were never ending. The art of storytelling is now a lost art, but at that time, in the flickering light of the kerosene lamp, her stories were both an education as well as an entertainment for the long evenings with no other means of entertainment.
The Jalangi River flowed beside the property and summer mornings were spent bathing. Going for a bath was the highpoint of the day. We spent hours splashing in the water, catching spawns using the gamchas and generally having a great time. It was only pangs of hunger that drew us back to the house for lunch.
There were two bridges close by, one a railway bridge taking the line to Lalgola over the river. My grandmother’s day was often ruled by the passage of trains over the bridge. The 11 o clock express, as it passed, reminded her that it was time for her bath, the 4 o clock down train arose her to make the evening tea. Life there had a timeless quality and we wallowed in it until it was time to go back to Calcutta and school and homework. The second one, slightly further away was the road bridge taking the National Highway No 31 to North Bengal As we grew older, it was fun to cycle over the bridge to the next village and back in the evenings.
Nabadwip was a stone’s throw away but I do not remember that we ever visited it. I told you that my people were not overly religious. However visiting Ghurni was a compulsory treat. Ghurni is where the famous earthen models of Krishnanagar were made. All the houses here were workshops and the finest artists lived here, their work was even then famous all over the world.
There were many other distractions. My mother and her brothers liked to sit in the bamboo grove and chat in the afternoons. Somehow it was cooler there. Krishnanagar summers could be horrendous and there was no electricity at that time in the village. I can still hear the rustling in the bamboo as it caught the breezes blowing off the river. My youngest uncle was still young. He was about half a dozen years older than us and he manfully shouldered the burden of entertaining us. He used to cycle us all over the town, take us to see the bridge and generally ensure that we never lacked company.
The mosquitoes however were unparalleled. It was said that mosquitoes in Krishnanagar were as big as sparrows and they descended in hordes in the evenings. I don’t quite remember how we countered the invasion, but I clearly remember the size of the blisters they left behind as they bit. Other hazards included an occasional snake and cows which were quite scary to the visiting city boy.
The last time I went there was under tragic circumstances, to pick up my fatally ill eldest uncle in the summer of 1998. He had continued to live there but he was never a good householder . My aunt and I transported him in an ambulance to my own ICU in the Medical College in Calcutta where he died a few days later. I had the unenviable duty of writing the death certificate. My grandparents were long gone, the garden was in shambles and it all looked so small and shabby. It was difficult to reconcile it with the house where in our youth we spent the happiest holidays of the Bengali Baisakh.


Jalangi reminds me of Jibananda
littleindian said…
We spent our holidays in our dadu's house in Shantipur - we may have been only a 12 or so miles away during a summer holiday.

My memory of "mamar bari" would be the slightly moist smell of the early mornings - and the 'thawkash thawkash' noise of the 'tant' weavers - creating shantipuri sarees. The noise would continue through the day, through the lazy afternoons and into the evening.

The house and the garden is gone, demolished after mama sold it soon after dadu died. A promoter has built four smaller houses in its place.

Strange isn't it - a decade in the same college, we never talked of our school days.

and I still wear white shirts.
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