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Yesterday I went to Galakata and met there Mustafijur, a graduate shopkeeper of the village. I took no interest in him at first. He is an ordinary college pass out jobless youth like thousands of others I know and find everywhere in my land. And there was nothing special in his look and appearance that can charm me. The only aspect which I find interesting and which creates a sort of curiosity about him is his unassuming demeanour with a pale cheerless expression on his dull face. He wore a worn-out shirt and pants. And when he spoke he spoke with utter casualness emphasizing not any particular words or bearing not any special expression or energy. His pale look and fervourless talk made me somewhat puzzled and attracted me. And this only fact pained me much. I thought and asked myself, “Where is his youthful vigour and enthusiasm as he just begins life’s journey? Where is his rosy vision of the future? What ails the boy?”    

Let me describe my reaching to the village haat and its locale first. Then I come to Mustafijur, the sensitive and concerned Bengali Muslim boy. On my way to Galakata, I saw an extremely beautiful woman cutting wood with an axe for making firewood. She wore a shabby printed saree and a loose crumpled blouse and at every hit at wood her breasts dangled and her face flushed with a fresh run of sweat. Both sides of the road were bordered with lush green and yellow gold paddy fields, tea gardens and symmetrical rows of 30 to 40 feet tall lean nut trees. Naked children on the verandas of plasterless pucca houses or in the front yard of the thatched huts played pebbles. Goats and cows were tied to poles on the roadside and hens, cocks of varied colours pecked left grains and worms from the farms.  In a marshy pond ducks waddled and cleaned their plumes with their flat beaks. A layer of algae covered the slimy surface of the pool green. A fisherman was catching fish bare-bodied and wearing a napkin on his loin beneath his bulging belly.  Over the surface of the rippling water grasshoppers danced high and low. A peasant with a huge load of timber on his head, stolen from the forest of Jaldapara passed me. Yonder white herons pecked worms and insects in the marshy fields. A kingfisher sat silently on a tree top by the side of the pond and bathed in the sun. The sky was all blue and the sun blazing hot and streaked white cloudlets of various shapes sailed across the vast blue sea.  Through a path laid between fields a row of village women in colourful clothes walked and children before they ran, all coming to haat for buying worthless gauds and trinkets.  Or they might be going to sagai bari (house of the relatives) to attend a marriage, Urush or kirtan Utsav (holy religious occasions). An elderly woman with bowed legs carried a sack of grass on her head for her loved cattle. After work in the land of others well off, landless peasants sat half naked on a plastic legless chair by the side of their wives who were cooking dal, vegetable curry and rice for the day. Smoke smouldered up in the sky and the entire kitchen hut was covered with an inch-thick layer of soot. Children played in the open yard.

Now I reached at Galakata haat. Unlike the other village haats of Dooars, it has much less open space for hawkers and vegetable sellers. And this haat has neither the importance nor the grandeur of neighbouring  Kunjnagar haat, Voirab haat, Paancmile haat, Noimile haat, Baburhaat, Khaghenhaat, Jatteswar haat, Gayerkata haat or Hasimara haat or Banarhat, and so on in Dooars. Each haat is unique in its way.  This haat I like most not for its bare beauty. But it has some inherent characteristics which disturb my domain of positive thinking and peace of mind day and night. I like the haat for its admixture of people of Hindu and Muslim (Rajbansi they all), the shredded microscopic samples of homo sapiens of South Asia trajectory and complexity and quagmire with all its grandeur and squalor, holy religions of pathos and morbidity, moral turpitude and duplicity, resilience and violence.

On the western side of the haat, there are three remarkable buildings—Lachman Dabri Sub Health Centre, Code No. 23, Lachman Dabri B.F.P primary school, and a tin-housed mosque. The health centre like any other village health centre of West Bengal was in a sordid state. It was a two-storied tin-roofed painted maroon structure with broken window panes. There was an open field littered with plastic empty bottles and cups and one corner of it had been a place for a public urinal. As it was a holiday the centre was closed. There was a running tube well by the side of the entry to the centre. It was hot noon, and a dead tree stood alone in the middle of the field.  Cows grazed, goats bleated, dogs slept, birds sang dolefully, and naked children gathered around me.

The primary school, established in the colonial period (1932) was no better than that of the health centre. The office building and kitchen and eatery were all locked. But there were two other tin-roofed classrooms and I entered into one.  The room was shabby rectangular and the walls are marked with alphabets and pictures of various parts human body and flowers.  On one of the walls was a painted wall clock and the hand of the minute is spelt as ‘munite’ and on the opposite wall in the drawn picture of the human body ear is spelt as ‘eer’. The classroom has no sitting arrangement and the students bring snacks from home to make them sit on the floor. Here I met Munna Hossein, Hasibul Alam, Ayub Ali, Golap Hossein, Mirza Parveen, Tafiur Alom, Bishal Mondal, and Goutam Ghosh—all students of this school, wearing only dirty half pants and soiled frocks, aged between seven to ten.

“Do you have a midday meal and what about the menu?”  I asked them.

“Most of the days we are given rice and soybean and potato. Once in a week egg, and once in a month chicken”, Mirza Parveen said.

“How many teachers are in the school?”

“Two madams and five sirs and one of the masters died last week because of his bad habit of drinking,” said one of the shopkeepers of the haat.

“Are they regular and punctual?”

“One master hasn’t come for six months. Another master is ill. The rest come and go as they wish. Earlier we protest and stage dharna before the headmaster. Then they arrive and depart timely. But after one month the situation becomes the same.” said an aggrieved guardian in lungi and topi.

Hearing our conversation a dropout school boy who now drives a tuk-tuk and chews shikhar and ghutkha of at least Rs. 50 daily becomes suddenly excited and smiled a bizarre smile exposing his yellow and maroon teeth and said, “master dhori daeo maar, sob thik hoyi jabi” (catch the masters and slap them, everything will be right ).

The tin nameplate of the school was worn-out, and an open well made of plaster was used as a dustbin for the entire staff and the students.  A five-minute rain could flood the entire school ground as the clogged water had no outlet to be passed.  Beside it, there was a beautiful arjun tree the bark of which was sliced off the tree for its medicinal properties.  In one corner of the school, there was a beautiful krishnachura, all red with clusters of flowers hanging heavy and bowed the branches almost to the ground. The ground underneath was splattered with red petals and when the wind blew one was showered with the delicate brush of its flying petals. 

By the side of the school, there are two huts—a   small dilapidated masjid for prayer and a small concrete-walled tin-roofed structure for the Imam.  The blazing light of the sun fell on the tin roof and reflected so brightly that I could not eye it for a minute. Water automatically welled up in the corners of my eyes. From the clothesline, a spotless white panjabi and pyjama, a handkerchief, and a topi were dangling. The fat Imam aged thirty or so with a round face was remarkably fair and handsome with a bulging belly and dyed beard. Some school-going girls wearing khelkas (a covering for the head and the face) gathered for learning the art of commemorating the holy Quran from the Imam who was all scented day and night and one could from the smell know his arrival from a mile’s distance.  The heads of the bamboo poles, by which the masjid was walled, were all covered with plastic old and twisted and holed badnas (pots for cleaning one’s face and hands and legs before prayer) of pink, green, yellow, red and maroon.  Separately each pole head with badna looked like a scarecrow commonly seen in the paddy seed beds, fields of brinjal and other vegetable fields to thwart the birds. And at the extreme edge of the masjid hut, an uncommonly tall lean bamboo pole tied with a mike, supported by two flattened badnas stood. When the muezzin called azan the holy sound from high wafted the locality with a certain serenity and grace. The pedestrians and the traders and the farmers took this azan as a time clock, and they knew what time it was. Behind this masjid, there were scattered bamboo bushes. The gust of wind came and the dead bamboo leaves first fell on the roof of the Imam and glided slowly to the ground. Later children gathered the leaves and helped their mothers’ poor earthen ovens.

The prayer of the zahoor hour was done and three or four elderly Muslims wearing cheap lungis and old panjabi reclined on the poles of the concrete hut. They talked and perhaps shared the trajectory of their life as the bazaar was buzzing with the rumours of Hindu radicalization and the rise of the BJP in Bengal. It was just a few days before the Durga puja. The preparation for the Bengalee’s greatest celebration is in full tandem. From Kolkata to Falakata makeshift pandals are being built almost everywhere.  Dadas of posh localities, suburbs, and district towns, try to showcase their power and glamour by decorating the pandals in every possible way by investing huge sums of unearned money.  But village dadas have no such clout and they, however, try to celebrate the occasion in the best possible way—by snatching money in the name of chanda (subscription)from every house, Hindu Muslim, poor rich, the house owner the rented alike. And who does this job? The job is done by the unemployed drunken school or college pass-out youths of that concerned neighbourhood who throughout the year wait for this festival and easily get commission on the collected money, and with that money, he buys liquor and teases the girls.

I stood encircled by the children whom I offered chocolates and a sort of camaraderie with them was built up within a short time. More and more children came and took chocolates from a nearby shop and the entire chocolate box became empty soon. I mulled over my next step. Should I come back home or should I go to Vairob haat to spend the rest of the day? At this exact point in time, Mustafijur came to me and asked my whereabouts.  He then made me sit on the wooden bench kept in front of his pucca stationary shop. All sorts of articles—books, copies, pens, pencils, cover files, rules, erasers, compass boxes, gums, envelops, staplers, pins,  clips, bottles of lotions and creams, xerox machine, a phone booth, and a kiosk for vending money to the customers of any bank of India stood arrayed in the shop and its added structures. He also sold petroleum products to the bikers. Knowing my name and designation he immediately called me sir and became easy and comfortable.

“Why do you keep shop? Haven’t you tried for a job or something else?” I claimed.

“Father had a stroke yesteryear. Mother couldn’t do it. Sisters were married off. I am the only son of the family. Farmers cultivate our farming plots. What to do? Father told me to look after the shop and I’m doing that”, he made his point without giving me time to intervene. He looked vague and empty. And he spoke disinterestedly as if something was gnawing at his spirit inside.

“Do something else. You’re a science graduate. At least you can take coaching from any competitive examination and make shine in your life.”

“This year I’m under pressure, sir. I think about it in the coming year. Something needs to be done,” he sighed wearing a mournful look.

“Sir! Govt. jobs are not for us. Market is too high. For a primary teacher you’ve to give five to six lakhs, and for high school teacher you need ten lakhs or above, for army two to three lakhs.”

“You’re talking nonsense. I don’t believe all these fabricated rumours. Even, I can tell you the names of boys and girls who have got jobs by sheer merit. There is no play of money at all.”

“A few may have had, but I also can tell you the names of those who have got jobs by paying huge money,” he claimed and stuck firmly to his point.

I made no further argument as the stories of bribery to officials and ministers are rampant to my ears through many a jobless youth and the media is abuzz with such stories. Corruption in public life has been a challenge to the government. And many talents of India rue that it is a country where chamchagiri, sycophancy, connections, and money are primary qualities and merit is secondary to having access to ease of life, whether in the profession or business.  

“Tell me about your neighbourhood. I’m curious to hear you,” changing the topic I insisted.

“Oh, sir! It was wonderful. We were happy to live here for a long long time. There was no communal tension at Galakata. Hindus and muslims live alike. We all were friends and brothers. My friends are all hindus. People are fine, peasants Rajbansis. We dine with them in marriage and funeral. They also do that. Only a separate hindu cook is arranged for them to make them dine in any muslim family. But now catering has eroded that barrier too,” he continued like a well-versed village historian. He paused for a moment and lamented and foundered something to share with me.

“It’s good to hear that. But you look tensed much. For what? Is there anything particular?” I observed.

“No.Yes, a little bit. Come with me and I’ll tell you.” Then he took me to the middle of the haat. I noticed an unplastered all-brick temple by one side of the haat. Bamboo poles and wooden structures are being set in the front space of the temple for the coming festival of Maa Durga. Mustafijur said, “Some Muslim hawkers from a long time sell vegetables here. Now Puja committee members tell them to vacate the place immediately, as this part of the haat is for Hindus only. And the Muslim hawkers decline.  Some altercation has happened. The issue has been politicized by some active members of the BJP. And some cases have been launched by both Hindus and Muslims against one another. Police patrolling going on. At night youths of both communities leave their homes for fear of being arrested. He then guided me to the middle line of haat and said the haat is communally divided.

“Communally divided? What?” my curiosity rose high.

“This haat is divided into two parts—one part for the hindu hawkers and traders, the other half for the muslim vendors and traders. None trespasses the borderline.”

“And what about the buyers and customers?”

“Oh. It’s no problem, sir. Anybody can buy anything from any shopkeeper or hawker. In the case of buying articles, the borderline can be crossed, commented Mustafijur drawing a rare glow on his face. It was an expression of rare joy as if he has understood the frivolous peculiarity of south Asian human predicament and complexity played by both Hindus and Muslims against a bleak and shattered tapestry of unfathomable poverty, dirt and dust, illiteracy, superstition, religious and cultural prejudices and ignominy, corruption and sycophancy.

“What about the tea shop, I see beyond. Hindu muslim division rules it too?”

“Not at all, sir. The owners is a hindu, named Paban Barman. And most of the customers are muslims. They sip Paban’s tea and gossip lazily and pass the day somehow. All poor peasants or peddlers or drivers or small traders or labourers.”

I did not comment. Being silent about what he thought I didn’t know.  The story of the division of the haat was so depressing. And I heard such staff from my childhood days from far and near. It was perhaps my lot to be burdened with such dull vistas of human tragedy.  He then took me to his shop and told me another interesting example of communal division.

“Sir, you can’t find the fissures by one two or ten visits. You have to live here to know the subterranean communal cracks sometime latent and sometime volcanic ruling the destiny of our people. We are really afraid. Rumours are everywhere that muslims cannot live in hindusthan. Either they have to leave the country or the Quran. We are all shaken. The elders’ faces dry and pale with the heavy thought of rising strength of BJP and RSS and their hindurastra agenda. They tell where we go. Some saying born here, die here. We go nowhere. We never leave our motherland, as we are the son of the soil.”

I gave no particular attention to his words, as the themes were too mundane and bizarre, and they have no real basis. An elderly wizened Muslim with a wrinkled face, aged almost seventy, in topi and lungi, sat beside us. He looked vacant and blinked his eyes and eyed me but made no words.    

“In Lachmandabri School midday meal was cooked by muslim women of a self-help group. And the Hindu children didn’t take the food. ” he continued.

Mustafijur’s face had been now more pale and dry. His words came to a halt. An agony wrung his heart. He looked bewildered and lost as if he had been well past his prime youth. I became restless and wished no more to hear him. I stood up and took leave from him. I promised to meet him again. I rode towards Vairob haat now. The heat of the sun somewhat mellowed and a breeze refreshed me. Children were still playing in the school ground with the same mirth and merriment and a whirl of dust encircled them at the sudden gust of wind. The paddy fields swayed and danced. And the birds’ sudden flight and cacophony filled the sky overhead. From the kitchen huts of the village women, a thick smoke whirled up but it splattered and vanished at the heavy pull of the wind. And a creek by the side of the path made and broke innumerable watery crystal shapes and patterns and soon glided away with an incessant trilling sound brushing the leafy edges on its course.

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I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, said George Orwell. As a writer, I never kowtow to the whims and dictates of the sacred godmen or godwomen, the political bigots and hypocrites, dealers of laymen, the dishonest and self-serving intellectuals, traders of religions, the betrayers of ‘other’ Indians who eke out a living by their sweat, who are living in fear for being lynched for this and that.

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