by P.R. Sarkar
It was nearly fifty years ago. I was in the Jamui Road station waiting-room, having come to Jamui to play football in a competition between the high schools of Monghyr District.
The Jamui Road station was a few miles from the city; the surrounding area was called Malaypur or Mallepur. I was sitting in the waiting room, waiting to catch the train for Jamalpur. There were two of us sitting face to face on either side of a table – myself and Chandan Mitra.
Having some free time on our hands, we were discussing various subjects. Chandan was as sharp when it came to external knowledge as he was good at sports; he had an uncommon thirst for knowledge.
Even at such a young age he had acquired a lot of knowledge about different subjects, especially spirituality and a few other complex subjects. His elder brother, Chinmaya, also studied with us, but he was a homebody. He didn’t have any other life besides staying at home with his textbooks.
During the course of our discussion Chandan hit upon a painful matter and then and there our discussion ended. A short while later the train for Kiul arrived and we had to catch it because we needed to be in Kiul right away. The train for Jamalpur would be along in ten minutes.
Now let us move ahead fifty years. I was staying in the West German village of Timmern. The villages there were villages in name only; they had all the conveniences of cities. Even the bathrooms had hot running water.
Those were happy days. Golden days like these pass on and are lost forever, I know, but their golden memory still remains. The East German border was a short way away from that lonely village. It was quite open in that direction – there was an open field and a few trees. After going for an evening walk, I sat down under a tree. The sun had set but some twilight remained. I could see deer rushing freely back and forth from West Germany to East Germany, and East Germany to West Germany. No one said anything to them. They didn’t require the curse of visas or passports because people had faith in them. They didn’t know how to cheat anyone and they didn’t accept the imaginary border. They didn’t play fast and loose with either their own minds or anyone else’s. Perhaps for this reason people had not set up any system of passport or visa for them.
Then I remembered what had happened fifty years earlier. I was there with Chandan Mitra and many others. A short way from the city was a mountain and some vegetation as well. Then also we saw some deer rushing back and forth in the same way. Deer in Germany are not so afraid of people because they know that people will not kill them, that people are not their enemy. People allow them the opportunity to play in their natural environment, but what I saw in Jamalpur was a different affair altogether. There the deer flee in fear when they see people, even from a distance, because they know that people may capture them or kill them. They fear people even more than tigers. People both uproot their forests, leaving them homeless, and recklessly exterminate them.
While sitting there under a tree in West Germany, the image of that far-off day came floating before my eyes. Chandan and I stood silently under the shelter of a tree watching the deer rush about. We didn’t approach them because if we did they would flee in fear.
I got back to Timmern a little late. After washing my hands and face I sat down to eat.
The person who was serving offered me some cheese and said: “One gentleman just came from Holland and brought this cheese for you. He said that he hoped you would eat it. He wanted to give it to you to eat today.”
“Who was this gentleman?” I asked. “What was his name?”
“The gentleman was in quite a rush,” he replied, “so there wasn’t a chance to ask him his name. He said he would meet you as soon as possible.”
The taste of the cheese was incomparable. The cheeses of Italy, Spain and Holland are renowned throughout Europe. I could see that this cheese was completely different, incomparable both in taste and smell. Most people are probably aware that when it comes to animal husbandry Holland is right there at the top in the world. You will find very few countries on earth where the dairy products of Holland are not available in the marketplace. In India also, during British rule, when one asked for dairy products in the market it was understood that one meant dairy products from Holland. The people of that land are not only skilled in animal husbandry, they also have boundless affection for their cows. The country has such a high standard of cows, but you will not see a single one in the streets. There the cows remain in dairy farms – in selected grasslands within those dairy farms. The cows there have to be seen; they are beautiful, happy and healthy. I came to know that they gave large quantities of milk. Who was that gentleman from Holland who brought cheese for me, and who left so quickly before I could even meet him?
Lost in thought, I continued eating and shortly after finishing my meal I went to bed. Here there was no need to bolt the door from the inside before going to bed. There was no worry about thieves. The people’s moral standard was very high. If anyone loses anything in the street and someone else finds it they will deposit it in some convenient place nearby. When the real owner comes looking for it he can find it easily and in good condition.
Personally, our experience was of West Germany and Switzerland. The people of those two countries are quite advanced, both in their sense of morality and in their social consciousness; it is quite nice to see. There are no hand-pulled vehicles such as rickshaws, nor will you see any vehicles pulled by animals. I didn’t see ox-carts in any European country. I only saw horse-drawn carriages in Spain, in the city of Valencia. With the simplicity of a wax-doll, a certain roving vegetable seller with her horse-drawn cart offered me a cabbage and said: “You must take one. Although I am poor, I would also like to offer you a gift.” I also saw horse-drawn carts in the nearby Spanish city of Barcelona. All this said, the number of animal-driven vehicles there is negligible.
Yes, let me come back to that old story. I closed the door without bolting it and went to bed. I had walked a little too much and within a short time my eyes succumbed to sleep. I couldn’t say what time it was but all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the sound of a violin came floating to my ears. But what is this! An Indian melody was playing, the áshvárii (áshávarii) that I knew so well. There was no end to my surprise. It was áshvárii in my very own style, a style known to only two people on earth – myself and Chandan Mitra.
Could it be that Chandan Mitra had returned to my room after all these years, playing áshvárii on a violin? I couldn’t see anyone in the room. The door was still shut as I had left it. Suddenly I heard soft, sweet laughter behind me. I looked and saw that self-same Chandan Mitra, violin in hand. The Chandan Mitra of my childhood was now a mature gentleman.
“Well, well,” I said. “When did you come into the room?”
“I knew that you keep the door open when you go to bed,” he said, “so I came into the room quietly and closed the door gently behind me. Then I started to play áshvárii in your favourite style.”
“You still practise music!” I said.
“Can music ever be forgotten? Once a person has cultivated the practice of music his entire being becomes one with the vibrations of music. His sense of existence and sense of aesthetics can no longer be separated. You used to tell me those very words”
“You still remember the least little thing I said,” I exclaimed.
“Try me and see. I may not remember everything you told me, but see if I don’t remember most of it!” “I won’t waste time testing you so late at night, rather tell me about yourself. Bring me up to date with your history. Starting from the distant past right up until this very late night hour.”
He told me many things. He said that he had lived in Scotland for some time, more or less as a permanent resident. Thereafter… thereafter… well somehow, something transpired. His new residence was in Holland, that country which goes by two names, Holland and The Netherlands.
“At one time Holland had a close relationship with Bengal. At the end of the Mughal era, the Dutch came to Bengal’s Hooghly District for trade purposes. They gave the name ‘Chinsurah’ in their language to the trade centre that they established on the banks of the Ganges. Its original pronunciation was ‘Shanshurah’. Gradually its Bengali pronunciation became cuncu?á; today we call it cunc?o, though what is the trouble in pronouncing it ‘Chinsurah’!
The Dutch brought with them to this country a kind of bent legume, very like ka?ái shu?t´i. The Bengalees also started cultivating it, especially those from Hooghly District. Khadina, near Chinsurah, was then a farming village. Its farmers were the first to start cultivating this legume. I have heard that the very first farmer to grow this legume was named Caturbhuj Ma?d´al.
People from Holland are known as ‘Dutch’ – in old English they were also called ‘Hollandus’. The Bengalees of Chinsurah turned this word, Hollandus, into olandáj, and the ka?ái shu?t´i-like legume that the olandáj brought with them they gave the name o?andá shu?t´i. Some o?andá may still be found in the villages of Hooghly. It is not bad at all if you eat it with mu?i [puffed rice]. The Dutch Villa building may still be standing in Chinsurah.”
“You are quite correct,” I said. “I still feel drawn to Holland.”
“If you still feel drawn to Holland then surely I can still hope that you might come there again for a few days,” he said.
“I also hope so,” I replied.
“Do come,” he said. “I will be looking for you. I have come here to invite you to Holland.”
“Look,” he continued, “I have to leave rather quickly. I have to be in Holland before sunrise. When you come there I have something very important to tell you.”
Chandan left the room. A few days later I arrived in Holland. My programme to stay there was not fixed in advance so I couldn’t inform him of my arrival. Had I been able to do so, he would have certainly come to meet me in the airport.
From the airport I went to the place where I would be staying. On one side was a dike and on the other a verdant field of grain. Holland is a little low – some parts are even below sea level – so along the seashore there are huge dams to ensure that the country isn’t harmed by flooding from the sea. Such dams are called “dikes”. I recall that a certain kind of very tall dam was erected in Burdwan, Hooghly and Howrah Districts also to protect the land situated on the banks of the Damodar River, but these dams did not prove very successful. Due to the dams, the flood-water could not enter the surrounding land areas during the rainy season. As a result, sand and alluvium accumulated in the riverbed which gradually raised its level. It became evident that the dams had to be raised even higher to deal with the situation, but that wasn’t a real solution to the problem. Consequently, if ever the dam broke (as it did in the year 1943), it would submerge the vast, verdant farmlands of Burdwan, Hooghly, and Howrah Districts under flood-waters and cover the incredibly fertile soil with a thick layer of sand which would then require a great deal of labour to render it fit for cultivation. That is what came to pass in the flood of 1943, but such was not the case with Holland. The level of the sea-bed did not rise so drastically after the construction of the dikes. If, unfortunately, it does rise, however, the dikes would have to be made higher. There is no other recourse.
The dikes have another benefit. Gales and storms from the sea strike against the walls of the dikes, and the power of the wind can then be easily harnessed to drive windmills, and this power from the windmills is transformed into electric power. Such windmills can be run at the mouths of Bengal’s rivers and in the coastal areas of Midnapore, 24 Paraganas, Khulna, Barishal and Chittagong Districts, especially the coastal areas near Contai and Diamond Harbour. This is an excellent source of electric power.
As I was saying, there was a dike on one side of the road that I was travelling, and green fields of grain on the other. Off in the distance I noticed a small irrigation ditch running parallel to us. The land could be cultivated all year long – there was no lack of water. Not an inch of land was lying fallow. You had to praise the industriousness of these people. They made full use of both sea and wind power, and they had established a firm economic base through agriculture and animal husbandry.
Certain parts of Orissa, Kerala and Bengal bear strong similarities to the natural environment of Holland. The people of those areas have much to learn from the Dutch.
Nowadays, the country is better known as The Netherlands, but the name “Holland” is also common. As regards the name “Holland”, some people claim that it comes from “Hollow Land”. “Hollow Land” means “full of holes” or “empty”. In this sense, Holland means “empty land” or “land of holes”, but not everyone agrees with this. They say that Holland is a country of lowlands, but there is no proof that it is hollow, that is, empty or full of holes.
We kept on driving. My driver’s name was Govinda. He was not so proficient in English but he knew French and his mother tongue, Dutch. Nevertheless, he had no real difficulty conversing in English and we had no problem understanding him. He told us that although he himself did not know so much English, he was very proud that his seven-year-old daughter who was studying in elementary school knew very good English. As we went on, evening closed in. Everything was quite visible in the brilliant moonlight so we had no difficulty seeing the sights around us. Though I didn’t know why, it felt as if someone was drawing my sight away from the dike again and again, and towards the farmland. I realized why a short while later when I saw my very close friend, Chandan Mitra, standing by the side of the road with a bouquet of flowers in his hand. I told the driver to stop the car.
Chandan rushed up to the car and said: “Before you say anything I want to show you something.”
He took a couple of steps ahead and I followed right behind. The distance between us was filled with a sweet stillness. We went on a way until Chandan came to a grave and stopped beside it.
“Take a good look at it,” he said.
It was an ordinary grave, not the grave of a king or some royal personage. There was no mosaic over it, no tomb. What was there to see? A common person’s grave. One of those who utter a few cries when they are born and spend their entire life weeping, but when they leave this earth there is no one to cry for them. But since it was Chandan asking, I should have a look.
It was the grave of an unknown person. His corpse had washed up from the sea and gotten caught near the dike. No one knew what country he was from. If he had had any passport with him it had been taken by the sea, so there was no way to identify him. They had laid this man of unknown ancestry to rest here in this bed of earth I told Chandan: “Did you invite me here to show me this grave! Well, tell me!”
Chandan didn’t reply. I looked at him and saw him fading into the moonlight. Where was Chandan? Where was he? Where did he go? The bouquet of flowers that he had held fell and rolled onto the grave. It seemed as if, under the weight of those flowers, the grave was unable to fade into the moonlight.
Then I remembered what had happened nearly fifty years before, when I had gone to Jamui to play football. Chandan and I had been seated on either side of a table in the Jamui Road Station, facing each other. He had a strong desire to know many things; his inquisitiveness was irresistible. His zeal for abstruse subjects like spirituality and spiritualism knew no bounds. He had also acquired a lot of knowledge. Speaking of which, on that day also he asked me: “You know, I am thinking about something. Do you know what I am thinking about?”
“Go ahead,” I said. “Tell me what you are thinking of.”
“I am thinking,” he replied, “that if I die before you, then I will find some way or other to communicate with you.”
“Why are you saying such an inauspicious thing?” I asked.
“You are only fifteen years old. Are you old enough to be thinking in this way?”
“It’s not exactly that,” he replied. “I just want to know whether or not you’ll be afraid if I communicate with you under those circumstances.”
Then fifty years passed. Standing there on Dutch soil, I told Chandan mentally:
“No Chandan, I wasn’t afraid at all.”
from Shabda Cayaniká Part 3