15 July 2007

The story of my empire and how I lost it

More than fifty years ago when I was a boy of seven or eight I saw and heard them in Ranchi – a place now lost forever. I have a notion now that a child of that age has a natural dislike for the world around him. For him it is too known and there’s nothing fresh in it. A child does not live in his thoughts; he needs a world, the physical world as his place. But it must be as fertile a place as to make room for his imagination to get sustenance. We in our childhood had enough nature in Ranchi to feel a taste of freshness. The sight of a hill across a brook and the graveyard by its side was enough to rear imagination. I had a strong desire to reach the place beyond the bend of the meanderer. That was the undiscovered world for me as neither my parents nor my courage was in favour to afford a venture to cross the sight-barrier for that unknown zone. The world, so, never ceased as unknown. The faint sound of the barking lonely jackal from the far grave-yard was an obvious of a presence of some supernatural with the motivation of coming nearer. We didn’t have television showing us what it had in its mind. It was with our imaginations we wanted to know and see and sometimes were afraid to see which we believed to exist. So always there was an unknown world beyond the horizon. There was a giant jamun tree near our house. It was a great tree-old and huge. Even my grandmother did not know how old it was. She had been seeing it as big as it was then. We looked upon it with awe and it was very much a part of our world. It was a great neighbour indeed like the much experienced and wise mustached person, ‘earth bound and heaven amorous’ –friend of my grandfather-always discussing metaphysical matters which perhaps existed high above our living ground. In the night the tree appeared to be a giant mass of darkness. My grandmother once told me that she had more than once seen a woman with a veil of her sari (the long piece of cloth used by Indian women to cover their body) covering her head and face, climbed down somewhere from the dark of the tree and walked straight to the pond that was behind our house. She had waded slowly to the water and made a complete dip. My grandmother had never seen her getting up from there. I asked her, “How she is seen again once she was drowned in the deep of death?” “No”, my grandmother said “She had been dead long ago. It’s an act of sad repetition of the past tragedy.” I was gripped with a mixed feeling of fear and sympathy. I wanted to see her back to her life but after that I never went to the roof alone from where the head of the tree was very near. A long time since then I called silently all the gods and goddesses at my bed, in the night, and prayed for divine protection against seeing her even in my dream. In the day it was alright. We played around the tree in its spacious shadow. In the summer it was full with innumerable small jamuns in the unreachable height above our head. We threw stones up into the tree to get some jamuns falling down below. Till there was a single stone left nearby to tire our hands out we did not leave. They were tiny, sweet fruits and we competed with one another to see whose tongue turned more violet to measure our share in the game. In those days Ranchi was a very cold place in winter. There was constant north wind blowing over throughout the day time. It made the air chillier and it was very painful for us to bathe in the open air. But the sound of the wind blowing through the trees drew me passionately to a past I could never remember of. It was infatuating. Whenever I required coming amidst the noises of this impersonal “City of Calcutta” I felt an urge for that sound of the air blowing incessantly. “The winds come to me from the fields of sleep”. The jamun tree was a habitat for many birds. There were many trees in not so distant far. But still it was a choice for all the small winged creatures of that area. Perhaps the very existence was above all narrowness and eager with broadness. The greatness has in it an inherent invitation to all. So at the fall of dusk, they all flocked to its secure bosom. Then the chirps and warbles all mingled together, orchestrated to make a symphony of the evening. I can never imagine a better hymn for an end in any human language. Slowly the night rose from the earth spreading everywhere till it covered the last one or to red tinged leaves of the tree and we felt spontaneously to know and touch what was not possible in the day. That was the end of my childhood in Ranchi. I came to Calcutta with my parents and settled. Long after those days I happened to visit Ranchi again for a personal work. On my way to our house from the railway station everything that I had known before had been wiped of. I had known before that after installation of heavy engineering plant there, Ranchi became a modern city. But I had hardly imagined then the extent of change Ranchi had to go through. When I arrived to our house I looked all around for the jamun tree. But I could not imagine the place where the tree had stood. There were houses everywhere – the quarters of the staff of the steel industry. But I found the place at last. It was still open by the side of the long wall of the boundary of the quarters. So where did the tree disappear? I asked my cousin about it. He told me that the tree was felled by the authority of the plant. “But why?” I asked. “There were complaints from all the officers of the adjacent bungalows”, he went on, “the noise of the birds for one and a half hours in the afternoon made it difficult for watching television and for several other reasons where noise posed problems. So it was a joint complaint signed by all those concerned residents.” In the night which was a little shy in the row of the neon lamps running along the metal road, I thought of the birds. Where had they gone? And that woman – where she was now? The pond had been filled and the buildings now stood there. Did the dead die again to make room for the alive? For the first time in my life I wanted to see her face unveiling the cover from her head and know the depth of the pain in her eyes.

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