Saturday, November 2, 2019

Those Motihari days!

A memoir of Dr D P Vidyarthy

Translated by Dr Mangal Murty

I was born in Motihari, the district headquarters of Champaran in Bihar. My love for the soil of my birthplace is natural. In the busy and anxious moments of my life in Patna, often I am lost in those memories…
On the main road in Motihari, a little further than the old Zila School - towards the market - there was a lane going to the right. Just at that turn in the lane, there was a sweetmeat shop of Ranglal, and a little further in the lane, there was a  big neem tree with a well under its shadow. The lane actually ended in the premises where the neem tree and the well lay. Entering from the road into the lane, just about a few steps on the right side, one would see a low-walled old brick house close by the well. In the front part of that house beside the neem tree was situated the baithak khana of my uncle who was a practising mukhtar, around the end of the nineteenth century. In the back portion of that house, almost half a century ago, I was born. I don’t remember when last I might have seen that place, but it must be more than forty years ago. There is no longer either the sweetmeat shop of Ranglal or the printing press of Makhan Babu. Perhaps, the lane itself isn’t there, nor is that house where I was born. But in the dreamland of my memory, that mysterious pathway and that golden abode located there are ever beckoning me into their arms.

There has been a lot of debate in philosophy over the question of reality and illusion. And it is commonly said that the true touchstone for either is personal experience. That lane of the sweetmeat maker Ranglal, and that neem tree at the end of it, that well in front of the house where I was born – all must have vanished by now. The old house had been badly damaged in the 1934 earthquake. But all those pictures of the past keep flashing in my mind, though embraced tightly in the arms of the present, I am always unable to reach into them.

My parents, soon after my birth, had moved from Motihari to a desolate place called Adapur where my father was stationed as a government servant. I had no occasion of spending my early playful days in that house in Motihari, though in the first ten years of my childhood, I must have been taken there many a times by my father. Childhood memories are by nature very intense and reflective. Memories of youth – we can often recall and savour, but childhood memories engulf you in a flood that tends to overwhelms you.

In our lane, Sugreev Prasad,  a friend of my uncle, lived. He was a short-statured, fair-complexioned old person who used to keep his hair brushed back down his neck. It would curl up in fashionably near the base of his neck. Sugreev Babu was an accomplished sitarist. My uncle had gone to live in Kashi after relinquishing his law practice. But he had to return from there after some time and was living then at Bagaha with my father. Sugreev Babu would often visit him at Bagaha accompanied by his sitar. Oh, those resonating notes struck by his mizrab-worn finger have already started reverberating in my ears – that squarish face and his swinging strands of hair have already filled my vision! Should I call that resonance and that flash of a face a reality or an illusion! People of my ilk spend their lives hovering on that brink between reality and illusion – and those who went to reality turned into philosophers , and the others treading on the path of dreams came to be known as poets. But, perhaps, I’m wrong: philosophy and poetry are not opposites. I got confounded. Analysis is something alien to me. Besides, at this particular moment, in my mature age of fifty, when I have drained the cup of life’s poison and nectar in equal measure, I have the feeling of a ten-year old child who savours all the sweetness of life, and all the pleasurable shiver of the morning breeze, for whom the sky is splendorous with innumerable stars!

My uncle, Babu Gopal Prasad, went to heaven in 1920 in Kashi and I’m not sure where and when did Sugreev Babu pass away. Besides, there is little relevance now of these dead souls and those abandoned places. In an article published in the BBC journal The Listener, the well-known psychologist Jung had said that always brooding over past experiences is only suggestive of death’s victory over life. The famous English poet Eliot has rightly said that in our beginning is our end. That is, perhaps, why man simultaneously dreams of the future, reconciles with the present, and is unable to disentangle oneself from the past.

The building of the Motihari Zila School where I had studied from the middle to the  matriculation level was razed to the ground in the 1934 earthquake. A market stands there nowadays. It was an H-shaped large sprawling building, with its middle part in double-storey. The whole building was white-washed with all doors and windows painted glowing green. Our exams were always held in a big hall on the upper story. All award-giving ceremonies or debates were held there. I remember once, first time in my life, I had taken part in one of the debates with a nervous heart. I also remember how once or twice I was deprived of a prize for standing first in my class just because of my inability to pass in drawing. Also how I got severe thrashing in my Sanskrit class and wept pitifully for my failure to memorize the conjugations of Sanskrit verbs. It was also there that I often joined my friends in loud clappings at these annual events. When recently, I saw the school report of my son obtaining very poor marks in drawing, I felt sorry but not surprised at all! History, after all, does repeat itself!

My mind goes back to an incident of this kind connected with my tryst with a drawing lesson. In those days geography used to be a compulsory subject up to the matriculation class, in which there used to be a compulsory question of map-drawing. The greatest bother for me! Once the question asked was to draw a map of Italy. E. Marsden’s geography book was prescribed for us. In the lesson on Italy, Marsden had observed at one place that the map of Italy was like the shape of a jackboot! In my exam answer, I drew a full-page large figure of a jaclboot in my answerbook – something relatively easy for me. Beneath that drawing I wrote – “Italy is like a jackboot” and, after a long dash –  wrote,E. Marsden. I thought this would convince my examiner that I had made that drawing of Italy’s map strictly in accordance with a great writer of geography. But as it happened, after the exam, our geography teacher gave me a sound beating before the whole class.

My revered geography teacher Pandit Jha is still alive, and during the last winter, as I was sitting in the morning sun in front of my quarter, I saw him entering the gate from the road. I stood up immediately and touched his feet full of due respect, and he patted my back with all affection. He told me that after retirement he was now living in his village somewhere in Mithila. As he arrived in Patna, someone told him about me and he decided to oblige me with a kind visit.

 I have had a few occasions of seeing, as I passed by, the new building of the Motihari Zila School, now about half a mile away from the old site towards the railway station. Its grey plastered walls lack the colourful combination of the white-green of the old school building.
When I was first admitted to the Zila school, I used to live in a house in Pathantoli mohalla which my father had bought. The other old house where I was born must have been a rented one. I remember,I would sit in the evenings in the verandah of this Pathantoli house memorizing my lessons in a lantern’s light. The was a narrow road in front and some open space beyond. There I would often see a sweetmeat seller’s son sitting on some wooden chaukis and displaying his varied ware of laddoos, pedas,balushahis and imritis, dozing most of the time in the dim light of an earthen lamp as the evening darkened. There was scant traffic on the road, and silence would be reigning everywhere. Meanwhile, I would keep chanting with great zest stanzas of Rasakhan from my Hindi textbook. I couldn’t, of course, appreciate at that time the subtleties of poetry. Those lush stanzas of Rasakhan with their swaying lilt would soon take me in their flow and I would be somewhere with the ahir belles who would be having Krishna in the midst of their dance. However, at the sweetmeat shop, the curd-pot would remain there as it was on the wooden chauki without any customer coming to buy the curd.

On days when I had some difficult lessons of grammar or arithmatic to solve and would be particularly in a fix, I would cast glances with envy on that sweetmeat seller lad who would be sitting and dozing behind those delicious sweets. I would then just wonder how could  that boy remain so unconcerned about those mouth-watering sweets which would distract my attention so much from my lessons and which I would have loved to buy and savour. Was he some saint or yogi, very different from boys of his age, whom the great pull of those delectable sweets would leave totally unaffected? Later in life when I passed by that place, there was neither that boy nor that sweetmeat shop to be seen. That house, of course, was still there - though quite changed - where I had lived as a student of class VIII and IX. My father had sold it to two brothers who had raised a wall to divide it in two parts for themselves. There was neither that plain earthen floor nor that long narrow verandah. I just said that I passed by that place for the second time: but I was wrong. One can pass through the dream-laden path of childhood and adolescence only once – not again. Nature would not allow us to traverse that path more than once: that is the tragedy of life and also its charm.

Motihari is the capital town of the land of my dreams! 

(C) Text & Photo : Dr BSM Murty

Read my write-ups on Dr D P Vidyarthy, Raghuvir Narayan & Principal Manoranjan in the coming weeks on this blog.