I had promised my kid that come summer vacation, I would 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 place 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. This particular uncle, a school teacher all his life, chose to stay back because he says he couldn’t have left the place where everything is so much steeped in memory.
I had heard from my mother that the village got completely inundated with water when the Suvarnrekha river swelled. You had 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 leaves or water-lily stems for days, or an occasional lotus kernel. There was no road; you had to walk through the dry spiky blades of harvested paddy’s stumps, from the nearest vehicular drop point. I faintly remember visiting that place a couple of times in my childhood, during summer vacations. Date palms standing tall on the edges of fields would be fragrant with dark, ripe dates. Gulmohar trees would be bursting red, as if they were mini explosions billowing behind the dense green of the mango or arjun trees.
Today of course things have changed. There is a concrete all-weather road, that, though narrow, is good enough to drive an SUV on (you only have to pray that there is no oncoming paddy laden truck on particularly narrow stretches). Silvery-red mobile towers pierce and stand awkwardly among the calm green thicket. School walls have graduated from mud to brick-cement, exposed electric supply wires weave through bamboo bushes, sometimes hanging dangerously low. Hand pumps have given way to motorized ones.
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 orange sky. 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 urine and merrily settled on the puddle itself. Her breakfast of rice husk and starch water was over. A few villagers looked at the unfamiliar vehicle and the people that got down. Kids playing an old stick game nearby stopped for a while before getting back. Twenty years back, they would probably have run behind the car.
What struck me most is the sheer feeling of space. Such an incredible amount of space for everyone that it is almost funny. As if it’s worthless, as if it’s free. Compare that to a city, where every square foot is fought over, sold and resold at stratospheric 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 common lobby through private potted plants. And some more by projecting the window grills and balcony parapets into the unclaimed high-rise air.
And here there were large ponds surrounded by clumps of bushes, cool wooded walkways, cow-dung smeared grounds for drying paddy, patches of compost-sprinkled kitchen gardens spouting baby leaves of a chilli or cauliflower plant, clothes-drying lines, backyards, outdoor chulha, veranda and so much more. Clearly, the trees and bushes called the shots. They seemed to sprout 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 them.
I felt my kid repeatedly tug 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 and ran through harvested fields, picking 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 hand 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 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 and catch the expressions melting away above his head.
And the day kept shortening.
When we packed ourselves back into the eight-seater Innova, I couldn’t help but think how the generous space inside had shrunk so suddenly. I felt cramped, sitting in the driver’s seat, the steering wheel inches away from my chest and legs resting, folded, on the ABC pedals on the floor.
I looked out of the window as the car darted forward on the uneven land until it met the road. Few boys playing cricket pulled out their crude stumps to make way. A man hanging from a date palm was chiseling the top trunk into a ‘V’ to harvest the sweet juice, which will eventually be made into one of my childhood favourites. The date jaggery. At a distance, a few kids gathered around an old man, probably listening to jungle stories. I imagined the houses being empty, waiting for its dwellers to return when night turned everything into a spooky dark gel.
Then it struck me that houses are just meant for eating and sleeping. You really live and grow outside. Under the sunshine, in the motherly lap of nature. And that, that’s exactly how I have grown!
A wave of nostalgia rose from the throat and crashed behind the eyes, spilling out just a little. A part of me left behind was chasing my car.