I so remember…
Chhaya Chakravarty had to hit the Prabhabati Bhavan running.Quite literally.A feisty and remarkably modern woman for her times she quickly saw and understood the inertia, sloth and lack of organisation in the Banerjee family. She changed everything in that newly wedded home at Cuttack.
She came from a predominantly Hindi speaking belt, a city that was several hundreds of miles away called Meerut, in Uttar Pradesh. In her mid twenties then, having learnt to speak and understand Oriya and with an understanding and self-effacing husband in tow
- she went on to sort out most pending land litigations, rubbed shoulders with senior Congress politicians impressing them no end while in the lead of many Community Development Projects set in motion by Pt Nehru in rural areas.(It may be recalled that the Bhoodan Movement and the Praja Socialist Party during these times were aggressive with their campaign for land reforms and anti-zemindari program and quite the bete noire of the Congress Party.)Very soon as a no nonsense woman, her fire and commitment for social service was noticed. She rose from the ranks to become a member of the All India Congress Committee in the mid sixties.
Thus her political pedigree was honed. It was a worthy and perhaps natural culmination of her politically vibrant student days, imprisonment during the Freedom struggle and mentorship under Pt Madan Mohan Malviya, the then Vice Chancellor of Benaras Hindu University (BHU).It was fortuitous too, that she came from a politically activist family in which her father,Late Bijoynath Chakravarty was a much revered Principal of an Inter College in Basti,Uttar Pradesh( Incidentally this College celebrated its Centenary very recently)
.In those days Netaji had visited this school and exhorted its children to dedicate their lives to the Freedom Movement.She came from a large family of her own whose stories one would gather to tell some other day.
Jayananda was fortunate that his only living elder brother Nityananda was unmarried and the latter bequeathed all or most of his share to the eldest son Swadhin Banerjee. Jayananda had four sons and two daughters
- who grew up with friends and family in this rather big house which had been finally unified tactfully. The endeavour was sometimes freckled with suffering caused by the delay and frustrations of an archaic and slow moving courthouse. In this fateful resolution of organising the properties,Chayya Banerjee stood tall through her uncanny but supreme perseverance.
Never one to rest, her obsession to do some social good spurred her on to conceive in the mid sixties from within the premises of Prabhabati Bhavan, the Haricharan Banerjee Municipality Lower Primary School in the early Sixties( it stands even today at a nearby location with the prefix Haricharan Banerjee dropped though ) to provide free education for lesser privileged in the the neighbourhood of Dhobis,(washermen) keootos/Majhi’s (fishermen) and goudas (milkmen), and the Nritya Niketan to encourage and nurture the artistically talented..Nabin bhai, Manu Da, Prafulla Kar, numerous vocalists and dancers who went on to earn subsequent fame were some of its illustrious alumni.
No story would be complete however without a mention of the religious fervour and ritual intensive flavour that the house was wrapped in from the late sixties while all these socio-cultural activities were on – Swami Ram Kripal Dasji,
a sadhu (practicing mendicant) from Chirbasa, Gangotri then Uttar Pradesh had asked one of his disciples Mr Chakravarty, then in Nainital that he wished to visit Jagannath Dham Puri as a part of his religious pilgrimage. As desired by his Guru Mr Chakravarty immediately referred Ram Kripal Baba to unhesitatingly seek the hospitality of Prabhabati Bhavan where his younger sister Chhaya Banerjee lived by marriage and could boast of a few connections. Thus began a long and continuing association of the Yogi and the Zemindar.Chants, prayers, loud and soulful bhajans in chorus, the fragrant incense sticks, smell of fresh flowers, fresh clothes, the continuous rush to the bathrooms for an early bath, the never ending stream of the devout, ringing bells, clanging cymbals and the mesmerising sound of conch shells all together.This transformed the house into a public temple for the spiritually starved. The Banerjees in particular were having their first real taste (or more correctly a feast?) at another level – of religion and spirituality.
It was this doing perhaps that gave the rather unwieldy family a certain common direction and spiritual mooring. Much of the ubiquitous and complex contradictions that were manifest in this Bengali household had this bit added to its already fascinating platter. Today, Swami Ram Kripal Dasji is the fond Bada da (Eldest brother)
- to the Banerjee family by common weal.
It was around this time she won the Congress ticket to contest from Banki the village we belonged to. The then, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, came to campaign for this unusual woman.
Sadly, she lost this election contest. The house by then had also transformed itself into a rich nursery for many an aspiring student, politician and job seekers. The likes of Sailabala Patnaik, Mausi of Dagarpara, Rama Devi, Pradumna Bal, Kuna Bhai, Gopal Kar, Sethi, Jena, Bagchi,Trilochan Kanungo,Bijoy Chakravarty and so many others spent many of their lonely and hungry hours and days at this house. It never failed the aspirant: pretty much from any walk of life. In all of this Jayananda was the perfect foil – a devoted co-traveller silent and ever encouraging while Panchua the Man Friday, the youngest of the Rout Gomasta family of the Banerjees at Bheda Rama Chandrapur, Banki (who can happily take credit for having groomed the entire family selflessly and with scant reward): what with the woman of the house being kept busy for matters more serious .
Interestingly, not much income was being generated. Rentals and the earnings of the fast vanishing agricultural land was all that was there. Frequent selling of small and sometimes large pieces of land kept happening to keep the family afloat. The luxuries and profligacy of a “Jalsaghar” was good to see on the silver screen alone. The Zemindari had long since become just another word. How the house and its expenses were managed would be therefore, just another guess. And it is, this uncomfortable truth,that stood in sharp contrast to the bonhomie and ‘bhoji’ (feast) culture the house seemed to symbolise. Was that then the mystique and allure of all that was decaying, dying or dead? Many later were left to wonder.
A space secular it is and that is how I remember today. Friend and the stranger alike, struggler or survivor, the well-heeled or the less fortunate, politician , a has-been, musical or the vagrant, the Gomasta (rent-collector)or the bhag chasi,(share cropper) the keuooto, gauda or the dhoba all entered its ancient portals for succour and joy or some minutes nay hours of relief..There was not much but so much to share…Values of simplicity, gratitude and bonding were learnt by practice, of which -my parents, friends and family were a great example. It was a “muhalla” (community-tenement) of sorts. Everyone was family.
It is here that we flew kites, played marbles, “gucchi tandu,”” saat khapra” and “chor police”.Cricket was played with cork balls and hockey with broken cricket bats. Hockey sticks later came from Meerut city and some cheap pads after great cajoling. In the backyard- yes, many a hand and head was broken or bruised plucking and stealing guavas, mangoes, jamun, drumsticks and Musambhis, bel.Cricket with Tennis balls was too sissy then. Games were for real…many an intrigue that felled the local bad boys had their wicked seeds sown here too.It is here that so many childhoods were nurtured with joy and abandon.
Marriages with much festivity were held to see off the eldest daughter Merina to distant Lucknow as she became a part of the Chatterjees while Swadhin the eldest of the family brought home a nubile and shy Bengali girl from neighbouring Howrah.Alina the younger of the sisters but third in lineage chugged away for her nuptials to Behala in Calcutta to become a Mukherjee.The parents had done their bit to cut the umbilical cord of dependence and the new grown-ups were on their own for once.
A well deserved rest for the parents there never was any, though and quite sadly so. Around this time Sukumar, Sunil and Sarat the last three of the family of six in their teens were still deciding whether to wear the shorts or trousers to school.
Friends thronged the busy and noisy household. Shankerbhai or affectionately Lobadiya a gangling sweetheart enthralled the inmates with his skills in Carrom,flying kites and playing cards while the ever-faithful and dependable
Tokon,Hari,Maa,gopi and Dula at Mou’s marriage in Delhi
Tokon remained the precocious adviser for all.Pappu,the little taciturn Bihari showed early signs of his ingenuity and inventiveness while patiently bearing many a taunt and tease .Gopi remained the bewildering Marwari gifted and talented offering his home of plenty for the hungry and sometimes greedy friends.Subuda became a part after having joined this very merry band of scrawny kids, bit later than others, to be the muscle of the growing and very pretentious brat pack.Mukul dropped in late to also become a part of this chaotic household ever in awe of his beloved Mashima and Meshomoshai.
Debjani, Alakananda,Ashima,Golap,Neetu ,Krishnadi, were the sister’s girlfriends we saw while peeping through the cracks of faded windows and doors. The tenants for their part shared happily their spaces with lip smacking native delicacies to eat, share tales and folklore,hum country tunes unfamiliar but melodious.Behenji with her consistent struggle, Masterji teaching the students to a sing song rote pattern, their intelligent children were a constant source of inspiration and a firm reminder of how difficult life could get. Susila Masi, Gokul Babu,Jamuna Bhai, Bharti, Jaisukh, Ramoo, Jeetu, Sabita masi, later followed by Manjula masi made many a festival a celebration to be remembered. They were Gujarati’s who had migrated trying to make a living out of their their business and entrepreneurial skills in silver jewellery.The women were independent and hardworking.Very ahead of the times for slow moving Cuttack.They did their own shopping, marketing and were seen in the Bazaars holding their own with eyebrow raising confidence and self reliance. Lakhan da and Boudi were the Bengali goldsmiths from neighbouring Midnapore who completed the caboodle. The tenants were a heterogeneous bunch from different communities. Their sons and daughters always joined in to make the much desired numbers required for every game and it was all such Babel of fun. It was one jungle, where all animals and birds seemed to live contented albeit with not just an occasional scratch and a scar. Maa smilingly and like always stitched this unwieldy bunch together with all the divergences
The Eighties saw the other remaining siblings ;Lalu, Nilu married to girls of their own choice ,Sashi and Arti and Dula to a girl,Sharmila from the interiors of Baidyabati in West Bengal.Quickly life had moved on.
A third generation
of grandson and granddaughters, friends and family grew up at distant places of Chennai, Mumbai,Kolkata and Delhi.New ways and mores were loosening the large unit that Maa had helped create and sustain.
- Jayananda Banerjee(Baba),her husband ,silent companion and support had since passed away in the early nineties of the previous century
- Maa remained quite the traveller moving from one son to another jostling and adjusting with the new women in the family.She welcomed all with a large heart but had to savour the pangs and confusion of growing children, new cultures and different lifestyles that the wives brought along.She has adjusted well,I suppose.Or did she suffer alone in her silences, too.Sometimes? Does she rue the passage of time and things changing bewilderingly?
I recall in the last few years Maa to be slowly fading away and becoming distant.It took a patient sitting alongside to make her talk in mono syllables.She must have quietly felt the changing times no longer as uncomplicated and simple as it used to be.That is for sure.She forgot easily,her memory short lived.She had a slight limp and a hunch with a support stick.She did make an occasional walk on a wheel chair while continuing to doing her own things and being resolutely her own self ;recognised the sarees that the Bahus and daughters so lovingly have given on various occasions and the many perfumes that she loved touching her frail skin with.She hated to see ugly men with big moustaches and white hair and women not so elegant.Even now?In fact, I was at the receiving end of her anger for much the same in recent times. She still talked conspiratorially in silent hushes of her grandchildren;Munta, she says was her favorite.But don’t you ever tell anyone ? she whispers.And how she would hide away the lovely chocolates that Munta brought along,childlike in pure delight.She cast her vote,the last time for Congress too at 94 raising many an awed eyebrow.
She missed Jayananda,her dearest husband for many a grief -her very own, that she would have liked to share with.Her face came alive when she recognised a familiar face and voice.She yelled to her dedicated friend and help Hari to arrange for a lavish feast as of habit.She asks for Dula, the youngest one.Searches for the eldest Babloo
and knows that Laloo the fifth one is around.She asks Hari where are the other three children and all the lovely Bahus?Of friends and their families and so many others . Oh,how cruel is life.This forgetfulness.She missed her many dear sisters and brothers and their children.Watching her lost in thoughts,the world seemed too small for her overwhelming love and affection….
….All of it seems just the other day.
All is well.Maa is up there or down below – not in heaven or hell for there are too many out there.She loved her own spot always and there,she shall be.The Birds of paradise,the Exoras and the money plants grow.,blossom and fade in the sprawling spaces as of yore.
Today,the Fifth of September unlike other days is very, very special. I ‘m sure she had no regrets for having missed her century while playing her very own wonderful innings..
Happy Birthday, Maa