Friday, June 25, 2010

Personal Pilgrimage

Once upon a time (sometime during the 60’s), in a small sleepy picturesque mining town nestled in the foothills of Satpura mountain range in Madhya Pradesh lived a plump girl with long cascading black hair and honey brown eyes full of mischief. Like most of us, she loved to bits the place she was growing up; only in her case the love for the place was far more protective and intense than for most of us. The tropical deciduous forests spread all around cocooning the town, the long walks (downhill and uphill) to school, the chunky, exotic metal jewellery worn by the tribal women workers who toiled in the mines near her house, the variety of butterflies that visited her home from far and beyond, the silhouette of mountain ranges that basked in the warm sunshine, the afternoon games of hide and seek with her neighbourhood friends and even the innumerable naughty monkeys who ravaged their garden; each held a special place in her heart. For her, the sights and sounds and taste of her growing up years were an integral part of her ‘being’; she was incapable of separating the two.

But life moves on; she grew up, got married and moved far away from her hometown and somehow never ended up visiting the place she loved so much ever again, as long as she lived.

The girl mentioned above is my mom and the place - a quaint coal mining town with an unusually charming name ‘Chirimiri’. Most little girls listen to fairy tales while growing up; I listened to tales about / from Chirirmiri. I do not remember a single meal session (yes, there are dozens of kids who need a narrative to help / motivate them to finish lunch and dinner) where ma would regale me with any other story apart from the place where she spent the first eighteen years of her life.

By the time I was ten, I knew Chirimiri like the back of my hand; I knew every tree that lined up the neighbourhood, knew all about the picturesque hills and forests that surrounded it, names of every single pet owned by the neighbours, kind-of-knew-what-was-whose-hobby, the minute details of every play that was staged by kids during occasions and vacations (inclusive of the various the green room antics) and every little piece of gossip that added spice to the mundane day-to-day existence of the small town. Every time ma spoke about the place and shared her repertoire of innumerable anecdotes, her eyes shone; it was as if she relived and relished those moments long gone. As a child, I always thought that when I grow up, we both will undertake the trip that was so high on ma’s “must do” list. But her sudden death stalled those plans and a decade later, I finally made up my mind to visit Chirimiri – without her presence, but to see it through her eyes!

I owed it to ma.

A sudden trip to Bhilai in February 2010 presented me with the opportunity. I was stationed there for a week and decided to utilize the opportunity to include a short trip (one and a half day IS short) to Chirimiri. One of the most personal journeys I have ever undertaken. My mashimoni (for the uninitiated that’s a fancy Bengali way of addressing your mom’s sister, can be used for elder or younger sister or both) and meshon (similar innovative bong endearment for uncle), whom I was visiting, became my enthusiastic companions for the trip. Since both of them have spent considerable time in Chirirmiri they welcomed the idea of visiting the place that held colossal memories for them.

Chirirmiri, which used to be part of undivided Madhya Pradesh, now is a part of Chattisgarh and is located near its north west border. It is well connected to a few big towns and cities in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, namely Bilaspur, Anuppur, Ambikapur and Jabalpur. The human population is clustered but scattered on different hills. Chirimiri, is well-known for its coal mines; mining began here in pre independence era of 1950.

The Journey:
Day 1 – Bhilai to Bilaspur to Chirirmiri:

The nostalgia trip started with our boarding the early morning train to Bilaspur the very next day. Bilapsur is located 120 kms from Bhilai and close to three hour journey by train. We had decided against taking our own car. Meshon had reasoned that it is much more sensible to book a car from Bilaspur which can ferry us to Chrirmiri and back. I have never been to Bilaspur either, but since my ‘mama’ (maternal uncle) stays there, we decided to have stop by to have lunch at their place, freshen up and continue our onward journey.

The train ride was nostalgic, reminded me of the three hour train journeys me and ma would take nearly every 6 months from our hometown Durgapur to Calcutta, as and when we had some work in the BIG City! The 3 hours was over in a whoosh, chatting with mashimoni (we were meeting after a year and had loads to discuss) and gazing out of the window watching the green fields that we passed by.

I was transported back to reality very soon once we got off the train and boarded an auto. The auto ride from the railway station to my mama’s house totally took my breath away. Literally. It was the BUMPIEST ride on the THE potholed Indian road of the decade!! We, poor souls were too busy gasping than breathing while savouring (!) the once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) experience! The auto lurched dangerously from one side to another, shook with all its might as we held on to the side railings with our dear life for the next thirty minutes, cursing everything; the state of roads in India, our decision of taking a train and then an auto, the inefficiency of the town municipality, blah blah. Finally with badly rattled bones (I swear, I am not exaggerating), we landed at my mama’s doorstep.

My monima (well, that’s a cute Bengali way of addressing your mama’s wife) was at the door with her ever smiling face and the first thing I did upon entering was to walk over to the kitchen to check the lunch menu. All that shaking had made me very hungry. Let me confess once and for all that I am a foodie. Food is the primary reason for my being – as simple as that! In fact, to both my aunt’s disgust I promptly took a plate full of ‘murighonto’ (one of my favourite Bengali delicacy; to explain simply its pulao with fish head or ‘macher mudo’) that Monima had rustled and started hogging.

The three of us, efficient souls, finished shower and lunch bang on time; seconds prior the driver arriving with his dilapidated Bolero. We were not aware of the difference in rates and thus we had been booked in a non ac car. For anyone, who is interested in the trip should ideally book an ac cab, since the cost difference between both is very nominal. Had we known that, it would have saved us from the heat and dust that were our travel companions till we reached the hills.

But then, on second thoughts what’s the fun of traveling by road if you don’t have dust in your eyes, mouth and hair!

We decided to take the Bilaspur-Katgoda-Chirimiri route. We were informed that the road condition is pretty good and is also shorter. The other route was to go via Amarkantak, the little pilgrim town atop a hill, via 'Bilaspur-Kota-Achanakma. As we reached the outskirts of Bilaspur, we were greeted by one of the most intriguing sight that I have seen in sometime. There was a marriage procession on. The great Indian “baraat” (the normal custom in North, West and Central India is that the groom rides a horse while traveling to the brides house during the day of the marriage and is accompanied by loud music and unabashed dancing by his side of family + relatives) was on its way and since the roads leading out of Bilaspur are a bit narrow the traffic came to a standstill. Looking curiously out of my window I saw the most bindaas performance by the utmost fat aunties of the neighbourhood to some song with lyrics like ‘oye babli, kya lagilba’. It was a bona fide Chhattisgarhi film song. Ooh! It was indeed a sight to behold. At that precise moment my camera batteries gave up and I failed to capture the shakes and the moves, which could have proved that Shakira is not the only one who knows how to gyrate. The Indian aunties when happy enough can give her a run for her money with deadly moves!

TRIVIA: The film industry of Chhattisgarh is popularly known as Chhollywood. The industry started in 1965 with the film ‘Kahi Debe Sandesh’ – a story of inter caste love which rumour has that even Indira Gandhi watched. Post 200, nearly 60 films have been produced. Infrastructure has been developing and Raipur (the Capital of Chhattisgarh) has its own editing and sound recording studio. The VCD audio CD market is also doing well and the songs from these films are being downloaded as caller tunes. It has opened up a new channel f employment for the youth (Inputs from article by Avijit Ghosh in Times of India, May 16, 2010)

We continued on our journey and stopped at Katgoda for tea/coffee break. It was a typical small- town’s-biggest-market kind of place; too much hustle bustle and too many bikes/ cycles/ bullock driven carts/ tractors competing against each other on the road. Me and mashimoni coaxed meshon into buying us chocolates that melted in the heat too soon and added to our thrill of having gooey chocolate for snacks (incidentally, we both are Dairy Milk addicts). The road at the next stretch was mostly two lane and we passed some small settlements and some temples on our way. The land which had a reddish tinge to it had sparse vegetation and was often barren. At times, we would pass empty structures which we were informed on a certain days of the week turned into bustling ‘haat’. Haat is the local term for village bazaar / market that opens shop once a week and sells everything from vegetables, food, clothes, accessories, spices, live cattle (yes that too) etc.

We indulged in a quick stop over at one of those haat’s to take few pictures. The empty haat had a tube well on one side. Now I have always seen people pumping water from tube well in Hindi films and they always seemed like a fun activity to me. Growing up in places where one always had free flowing running water from the taps, I was most excited and wanted to try out the entire “paniya bharan” act undertaken by yesteryears heroines!

So me and mashimoni’s with gusto pumped the tubewell and drank some water and splashed the rest and some sheer childish fun. The water has a distinct sweet taste and was extremely refreshing.

The roads in spite of being a bit broken here and there, were decently maintained. They were all a part of Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojna as the brightly coloured signboards on both sides of the roads declared and by 5 pm (took us 5 hours from Bilapsur) we touched the base of the hills leading to our destination. Our slight boredom with the journey got over as soon as we started driving uphill, it felt as if suddenly a dull reddish brown curtain was lifted and there were splashes of colour all around us; it was such a breather from the barren lands that we encountered on our journey all this while. The hill road which leads to Chrirmiri was quite scenic. It was wide and had trees with leaves of varied colours (bright yellow, orange and tinge of red) on both sides. There was a nip in the air and our Bolero slowly found its way to the main point from where Chrimiri starts. The point is called “Lahiri Dadu chowk”, technically once you reach there, you have touched tip of Chirimiri.

Chi-ri-mi-ri (brief history):

Chirimiri is a part of cluster of mining towns which has stories on how it was developed. A person called Bibhuti Bhushan (he was popularly known as BB) Lahiri, in the pre-independent era came to erstwhile Madhya Pradesh, and took up contracting work. He got into laying railway tracks in this area that eventually carried the coals that were again mined by labour he contracted. Eventually, BB fell in love with the beautiful jungles and helped build school, colleges, and cinema halls. The School children lovingly called BB 'Lahiri dadu'. And the name remained. (Dadu stands for grandpa)

While traveling within the town from one hill to other, one can get the feeling of traveling across towns. This feeling comes because of forests falling in between.

For the movie buffs:

It is in this region that a small part of Apu’s Trilogy- Apu’s Shongshar by Satyajit Ray was shot.

Besides, BB Lahiri’s sons, who were looking after his estates, ventured into film production. Indeed they produced a series of films by reputed film directors like Tapan Sinha (‘Louha Kapat’ from a story by Jarasandha), Satyajit Ray (‘Paras Pathar’, from a story by Parashuram- Satyajit's maiden attempt in Satire) Ritwik Ghatak (‘Bari Thekey Paaliye' from a story by Shibram Chakraborty). The brothers LB Films (after Lahiri Brothers) had set up an awe-inspiring pace at one time when three productions were being shot on three different floors of the basically staid Tollywood (The name for Bengali film industry located in Tollygunge a la Hollywood).

As you enter Chirimiri, with due respect to the contribution of ionic Lahiri Dadu, there is a statue of him in a well maintained chouraha (point where 4 roads meet) which is aptly called ‘Lahiri Dadu Chowk’. A bit further down, our car took the meandering road that lead to the Ponri hill township where one of ma’s cousins stays and where we were scheduled to spend the night.

I was feeling a bit awkward; though ma and mashimoni grew up with their cousins, they had lost touch over the last couple of years and hence I had never met this mama of mine. I was quite touched that they actually took the trouble of organizing our night stay at such short notice. My mama from Bilaspur had called them while we were on our way to Chrimiri, thus informing them about our sudden visit.

As we reached their house dusk was setting in. My awkwardness vanished as I met my mama, mami and cousin Rimi. Their warmth engulfed us completely. The house was small, very neatly maintained, cozy and welcoming – all at the same time. While we sipped our evening tea, we all chatted a bit and the Chirirmiri mama reminisced about ma. Me, mashimoni and meshon decided to freshen up and visit Haldibari – the main market hub of Chirimiri.

Haldibari, is basically a thin, winding road that has innumerable shops spilling on both sides. It immediately reminded me of the market places of various other small towns in India which never have any distinct feature of its own, except looking like a group of rambling untidy blocks. It was unimpressive and crowded with severe police patrol. No, the policemen standing guard at every nook and corner is not a regular feature, they were part of the decoration for ‘impressing the state governor act’; apparently he was to visit the town the next day.

So feeling as if we are in a curfew infested place, me and mashimoni took a stubborn stroll pretending we are walking in the Lodhi Gardens in Delhi! The cows milling around, mosquitoes, constant hum of too many people talking at the same time, loaded autos nearly running us over; nothing deterred us in our leisurely evening stroll!

We were going to enjoy Chrimiri, no matter what!

Mashimoni of course went a step ahead to show solidarity to the place of her birth. She insisted that Chirimiri has the best shoe shops (absolutely no use debating this logic) and went ahead and bought herself two beautiful (!) pairs. Encouraged by this act, I went ahead and tried to find out in a few jewelry shops about a particular piece of silver jewelry the tribal’s in Chhattisgarh wear and for which my mom had an affinity. Its called ‘hansuli’ which is more like a round band that lies close to your neck, like a chocker. I thought I can try it when I am into my ethnic get ups, but unfortunately none of the shops had that at that precise point.

On our journey back, meshon suddenly chanced upon an old school mate’s younger sibling. He is the owner of Haldibari’s centrally located petrol pump and invited to his chamber for some catching up. We sat in three rickety chairs and I listened to the tales of years gone by, who-is-currently-doing-what stories for the next half hour. I wondered whether me and my school chums will sound like this twenty years from now!
The conversation of course included discussion on Lahiri family; seems that they enjoyed the ‘first family’ status in Chirirmiri, for years.

The rest of the evening was spent in casual banter followed by a hearty well cooked dinner. Post dinner, we simply crashed; all of us were pretty tired given that we have been up since 5 in the morning!

Memories – some worth re-living, some that saddened:
Day 2 @ Chirirmiri

The next day, we were up and ready by 9 am for the nostalgia tour. I was a bit excited; I was finally going to visit ma’s house, the school, the neighbourhood; all that she used to speak about. We passed by Haldibari, but took a different route this time. We parked the car at a distance and walked the short steep path that led us to the house where ma grew up. There were a few people milling around, enjoying their lazy stroll and conversation who looked at us with curiosity; we three were very out of the place in that sleepy settlement. Mashimoni walked us to their old house and showed me the locations of the bedrooms, the angan (courtyard) in the back of the house where they all slept during summer under the starlit sky and the hen pen (yes, they used to have a large number of hens and it was one of the sibling’s turn each week to lock them up in the evening which I believe was not an easy task).

We got our pictures clicked in front of the house, much to the fascination of the shopkeeper who had a small grocery / cigarette store few yards away. As we started strolling towards the other end of the road, while mashimoni and meshon kept the information flowing as to who-lived-in-which-house, an old man who was sipping tea in the shop walked up to us to enquire if we were related to ‘tulobabu’ . That the way my grandfather used to be addressed by the labour force there. By his pet name which was ‘tulo’ and ‘babu’ since he was the manager! He was a much loved and revered, as far as the stories go. This man apparently used to work under him and seeing our interest in the house and its surroundings gauged that we may have some connection with the place.

It was nice listening to him rambling about bygone era while we took a walk and explored the surroundings ….I tried imagining my mom walking down the same lanes as a school girl with two long plaits, but somehow the black and white pictures that we have in our family album and what was there in front of my eyes were not matching. Once more, realization dawned that this is how it is; as times go by, people change, places change – not for better or worse, they just change.

Meshon pointed us the road that lead to the hospital and we started walking that way. The house next to the hospital belonged to one of meshon’s close friend and ma’s relative. He wanted to visit the house for old time’s sake. Upon reaching, I and mashimoni waited outside, while meshon went to meet the current residents of the house and seek permission as to whether he can bring us and show us around. While clicking pictures, I listened to mashimoni explaining that it was a common affair post school hours (their school was two minutes away from that house), to stop by, rest and freshen up in this house prior to undertaking the long walk back home.

The family who lived in the house was very welcoming and insisted that we must have tea with them. Some more “how-it-used-to-be-different” kind of conversations happened for the next half an hour. The daughter even clicked our pics; very sweet of her to want to savour the memories of our unexpected visit to their house.

We bade them goodbye and walked down to the school where ma, mashimoni, meshon had studied. At one point, when they were growing up that was the only school and hence had wielded enough power. Now, with new age schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas, the ‘Lahiri School’ as its known, showed major signs of decay, the buildings looked ramshackled; infact the old buildings which used to house the laboratories looked as if one severe storm will break them to pieces. Meshon was quite sad to see the condition, but honestly with no patronage it is difficult to maintain something. We also checked out the college and the popular cinema hall which used to be known as Lahiri Hall, since it was managed and run by the family.

We decided to take a tour of the place and headed towards a road which had a table top mountain. On the way, there was a colourful haat and we stopped by to soak in the atmosphere. The traders were setting up shops and there was some amount of hustle bustle; however it was not noisy. Some stalls were already up. There were spices, veggies, household items, toys, clothes etc. We roamed around and posed for pictures and haggled over some local toys; I even bought myself a locally made toy dholak. Satisfied with our bargaining skills, we drove further towards the table top hill. It suddenly dawned on meshon that his mobile phone is missing. Arguments ensured that he should always listen to mashimoni (am sure most husbands anyway don’t argue on topics like this) and never keep his phone anywhere other than his cell pouch attached to his belt. Unfortunately, this time around, he had kept the phone in the camera bag and we realized it must have fallen out while he took out his camera. We rushed back towards the haat and there was an impending gloom in the car. On reaching the haat, as we started off in the direction of the shops where we had stopped, we noticed a man, who had a small spice stall, waving at us. Curious, we went to him and to our amazement he handed us the phone (totally intact) and refused any monetary compensation which meshon offered. We were totally humbled by his honesty. Am sure had this been the cities, the person who chanced upon a phone would promptly remove the SIM card and sell it off!
We came across a place which meshon informed us used to be a colliery township called Kurasia. It used to have houses, shops etc though there was no sign of anything anymore. It was a huge vacant land. I was surprised and on prodding further came to know that this colliery was operated underground; in the 1960’s. But there was also coal closer to the surface. So, the township was evacuated, razed to the ground and 'open-cast-mining' started some 30 yrs later.

Coal can be mined, like other minerals, in two ways:

A) Open cast method - If the mineral bearing 'bed' is nearer surface, its 'open-cast'. You remove the over-burden, i.e., the earth, and then excavate the mineral. When the 'bed' is finished or no longer economic to dig out, you abandon. Statutory requirement, are to be followed. (Lake, fill up with soil, plant trees etc)

B) Underground method - You dig a tunnel, either vertical, like a well and once you reach the 'coal bearing strata' go sideways all the while digging and removing the mineral. You could also find a way to dig horizontal or sideways if there is a suitable 'cup shaped' valley.

Armed with in depth mining knowledge, a bit fatigued from our walks and drives, we returned back at our relative’s place, had a late lunch (it was well past noon) and packed our stuff and headed back towards Bhilai. My trip was over, I saw what I came to see.

As the car gathered speed on its way back on the meandering roads that cut through the dense forest, I looked around the place which gave ma so many happy memories. The sky, with the setting sun at the backdrop was a vivid hue of golden red, the forests around looked magical, swathed in a warm reddish glow. I had this feeling that Chirimiri in soft whispers was telling me, “I have started looking like a relic with signs of an era gone b; sands of time has passed, I am not as beautiful as I used to be, but there are times when I can still look breathlessly exotic.”

I said a silent goodbye to Chirirmi. So what, if I did not find it exactly the way I imagined it to be, so what if time has taken its toll and the roads and houses looked a bit desolate and run down; I am sure ma is happy that I finally visited it! And yes, it made me feel closer to her.