Dr. Anjan K Das
What is it about the water and air of Hindusthan that makes even incorrigible critics like me and many of my ilk feel an aching emptiness as soon as we are removed from its soil?
For the past two weeks I am abroad, living in a much advanced society. The creature comforts are far removed from the bustle and untidiness of Siliguri. The roads are like Hema Malini’s cheeks and the electricity is always on. There is no noise on the streets and you don’t trip over garbage over every corner. Driving is a breeze, everybody follows rules and there is no pollution. And yet!!
It is not India. There is something about the land of my birth that is inside my skin. It itches and aches and leaves a something that can never be satisfied in a foreign land. I sometimes try to analyse what it is. What is it that made Pritish Nandy say “ if you exile me, please put out my eyes before I go” ( I quote from memory, so that I may be wrong in the actual words though not in the sentiment) I was reading Sunil Ganguly the other day, “Jadi Nirbashan dao,” to my mind his best poem. It is not fashionable to feel such a physical longing for your homeland in these days of globalization, so what is it that makes me feel like an exile?
I used to trek a lot in my younger days. I still do a lot of walking, but those days when I thought nothing of going for a 15 day trek with a tent and a couple of close companions are gone, perhaps for ever. But these rambles have taught me many things. They have, of course, shown me the physical beauties of my mother land. Can we ever forget the sea as we walked from Digha down south into Orissa? Or the magnificence of the Hemis National Park? Or the sight of a magnificent tiger strolling majestically in the Kanha National Park?
But more than the sights and sounds of India I remember the people of India. In todays post Mumbai blast days when my in box is full of emails of the “Kill the Muslims” variety, I remember with love and gratitude the people whom I met during our travels. I remember the Kashmiri truck driver who transported us in the back of his truck from Leh to Srinagar when the Manali road was blocked by snow. He showed us a picture of his son whom he missed, no more and no less than I miss my daughter right now. I remember Sohan who has accompanied us on many a Himalayan trek and his soliticious care of the doctorbabu when it was obvious that I was in difficulty when crossing the Tentu pass.
But I remember most of all the lady we met on our trip along the Damodar River. It was in 1995 or 1996. I do not remember the exact year; I do not have my diary with me. We had conceived a plan to walk along the Damodar River from its beginning to the Panchet Dam. There are many adventures to tell of this trip which I might tell another day, but on the second day of our walk we reached a small village after we crossed the Khamar Pat range where the Damodar originates. We had planned to camp at this village. The village was, however, deserted of men. All of them had gone to attend a political meeting at a nearby town. We had planned to buy our provisions as we reached the villages, so that we were nonplussed to find the only shop closed down. We made some enquiries among the children who were playing on the dusty street. The thought of just muri after a long days walk was not very enticing. A lady came out from a nearby house, which looked quite poor. It was apparent that she was not comfortable with talking to strangers. When we told her of our predicament, she entered her house and brought a basket of vegetables for us. When we attempted to pay, she refused vehemently; it was against the rules of engagement with mehmans! We were forced to accept her gift. And we had a sumptuous dinner. I do not know her name; neither do I know what she looks like, as she conducted our conversation with her sari covering her face like a good Bihari bahu.
Whenever I think of India I remember that lady. She epitomized for me the essence of this country. What possessed her to go to the help of strangers who she had never seen before end would never see again? She not only helped us but refused any compensation for her services; she could have used the cash, judging by her appearance. To me this is the soul of India and so long as I live I will never forget her. I do not often say prayers, but when I do, I say a prayer for her.
This is not to say that I did not have nasty experiences. They are a part of life in India, and I have had my share during my travels, but so long as SHE exists, at least to me, India is still the Gulsitan of Iqbal, “ Sare Jahan Se Achha”.