I had promised my kid that come summer vacation I will take him to a village. A real village. Not the road side settlements behind a few trees on the fringes of towns.
So off we went to a village called Gabagaon, a nondescript, flood-ravaged village on the edge of Balasore district of Odisha where one of my maternal uncles stays. All his brothers and their families are now settled in big cities, from Mumbai to Bangalore, from Delhi to Bhubaneswar. That uncle of mine, a school teacher all his life, chose to stay back in the village because he says he couldn’t have left the place he was born and brought up in.
I hear from my mother that the village would be completely inundated in water when the Suvarnrekha river swells. You have to strip, carry your slippers, pants and the school bag on your head and wade through waist-deep water to a school kilometers away. You would eat onion leaf or water lily stem for days, or an occasional lotus kernel.
There was no road to the village. One had to walk through the dry spiky blades of harvested paddy stumps from the nearest drop point. Date palms standing tall on the edge of fields would be fragrant with their ripened load. Gulmohar trees would be bursting red, looking like mini explosions billowing behind the dense green mango and arjun trees.
Today of course things have changed. There is a concrete all-weather road to the village. Silvery red mobile towers pierce and stand awkwardly among the calm green thicket, school walls have graduated from mud to brick-cement, open electrical wires weave through bamboo bushes, sometimes hanging dangerously low. Hand pumps have given way to motorised ones and, bikes and autos zoom on the concrete road.
Many things, however, haven’t changed much. The big old banyan trees still stand firm, dropping a thousand swings for kids to hang from. The fields are still golden, acres and acres of them, with swaying paddy competing with the sky against a setting sun. For glow. And expanse.
The flood still keeps coming back with its churning muddy water.
As I parked my car under the abundance of shady trees (something impossible to secure in the city), a cool breeze came whistling through. Three very young calves broke into a chase. A brown cow tethered to a peg let out a steaming jet of yellow-brown liquid and settled on the puddle. Her breakfast of rice husk and starch water was over. Few people looked at us strangers from their camouflage. Kids playing an old stick game nearby stopped for a while and continued. 20 years back, they would probably have run behind the car.
The feeling of space was overwhelming. In the city, every square foot is fought over, sold and resold at incredible rates. A whole life is spent in earning more square feet. A few for the bedroom and few for the hall. A few are reclaimed from the lobby through potted plants. Some more by projecting the window grills and balcony parapets into the high-rise air.
Here in the village, the trees and bushes called the shots. They sprouted wherever they felt like, claiming most of the open land as their own. Towering above the humans, the mango, peepal. wood apple, tamarind and palm fruit trees made us snake through them on grass-less tracks. It seemed as if the houses were built on the land mercifully vacated by the trees.
I felt my kid repeatedly tugging at my shirt. Busy with hugging relatives and exchanging memories, I had completely forgotten that I had promised him a game of “pull fight” with Gulmohur buds. Tired of his toxic Chinese toys that did nothing except move and cry for a day, he was desperately looking forward to what sounded quite different.
Sitting on the tulsi chaura, a podium of brick and cement around the holy basil plant, we played “pull fight” for a long time. He was ecstatic. Holding hands we rummaged through the undergrowth. We ate wild berries from thorny plants. We felt on our face the cool air pregnant with rice husk. We marveled at a banyan tree that had completely engulfed a date palm. We collected and ate fallen dates. We ran through harvested fields and picked up strange fruits from unknown trees. We passed villagers carrying large bundles of harvested paddy hanging from either ends of their sharpened bamboo stems. Unaccompanied kids returned from the school, spring-footed. Birds blackened the air, settling on the trees after a day of scouring for food.
He kept on asking wild questions. About snails and their white homeopathic eggs. About furtive tortoises. About crows lifting little chicks. About tomcats sneaking into rooster coops.
He listened to my stories with rapt attention, squeezing my hands when he didn’t understand or needed me to explain more. His mouth failed to keep pace with the ideas his brain spewed. He broke free and took a different route to meet me on the road. Happy with his discovery, he explained to me how his path was more arduous than mine; the soft muddy ground strewn with banyan roots and serrated palm fruit branches. Unconcerned about the others, we wandered amidst rolling nature, his little feet trying to keep pace with me, his neck craning repeatedly to see my face high above his head.
As I ignited my engine and put the gear into first, I felt the generous space inside my metal-plastic Toyota Innova to have suddenly shrunk. I was cramped, sitting on the driver’s seat, the steering wheel inches away from my chest and my legs folded and rested on the ABC pedals on the floor.
I looked out of the window as the car darted forward on the uneven land. The kids playing cricket pulled out their stumps to make way. A man high on a date palm was chiseling it away into a “V” shape to collect the sweet juice at daybreak. A few kids on a grass-mat were gathered around an old man, probably listening to jungle stories. I imagined the houses being completely empty, waiting for the night for its dwellers to come inside.
And then it stuck me that houses are just meant for eating and sleeping. Outside is for living.
Only if I had that option back home.