Between Staying and Going away

The fundamental problem with the modern world is that we are all getting more and more mobile as the world turns into a global village and people are constantly being confronted with the choice of either staying or going away – a choice not exactly unknown in the olden days but not half so acute or frequent as today, as you can well imagine.

People used to go abroad for higher studies and return in due course to the country of their origin to take up teaching posts and other posts of responsibility and importance. Something about their dress and their manners revealed to the end of their days that they’d been abroad. They were not quite Indians, Bengalis or Kolkatans any more. Maybe the pipe that they smoked; maybe the foreign car held on to until it disintegrated; maybe the foreign wife turning roly-poly like a Bengali masima (aunt) because of all the rich food – but that was about all. It was like eating curry and rice with a fork and a knife off china plates from a ‘proper’ dining table – remember that we Bengalis learnt how to eat the blighty way long before the sahibs learnt how to eat a mango anywhere other than in the bathtub with a bib around their necks and a towel around their midriffs.

What I mean is: (a) you went away – abroad; (b) you returned from the queen mother country to your native land; (c) you cherished the memories of Oxbridge and Charing Cross and the Inner Temple but were not necessarily unhappy or dissatisfied that you had returned to your ‘roots’.

The difference between those who go away and those who stay is as old as time. The moment you have a human settlement, it puts the sons of that settlement in the age-old quandary: do I stay or do I go away? The daughters of the settlement might get married within the settlement or away from it, creating other kinds of tension and other kinds of agony or distress. And then: what about those sons and daughters who were only too happy to get away – I mean to go away? Centripetal and centrifugal, see? The same forces at work.

When I was with the State Bank of India in the ’seventies, I used to get sent to various mofussil, that’s suburban towns on training. The first thing that I noticed when I turned up at the ‘Treasury’ in Purulia or Jalpaiguri was the subtle difference between the clerks who would or could remain posted to that branch till they retired, while the officers were liable to get transferred to some other branch or maybe to the headquarters after a stint of two to three years.

The clerks stay while the officers go away. They have to. They have no choice. I’ve seen head cashiers with ten times more influence than the ineffective branch manager simply because the head cashier was a local – potentate, almost. People feared him more than they loved him, but the entire cloth business of that place would have come to a stop without that head cashier. I was lucky. Bidhan-da decided to treat me, a greenhorn probationary officer on training, as a kind of wayward nephew from the moment I arrived.

I was going to stay at the Huchukparah mess with the clerks, I informed the Branch Manager. An officer, even a P.O., staying with the clerks? the BM frowned. It was my first turn away from home and I’d be damned if I was going to stay alone or in a hotel, I told him. So he had to agree.

A mess is a chummery, of sorts. Ours boasted some of the most colourful characters I have ever met in my earthly existence: Subhash with the unforgettable comment, for instance, that long hair was like a coconut tree on the bank of a pond, tall but with little soil at the roots, no wonder that they fell off! Satya used to slow cycle around our wooden cots when he had nothing better to do, winding in and out of the rooms on his Raleigh – otherwise he used to sing devotional songs to Goddess Kali in his spare time.

Mornings that unbelievably tall and lissom and jet-black and pretty Santhal girl used to turn up at crow-crow and cry out in her melodious voice: ‘Need dried cowdung cakes?’ As fuel for the kitchen fire, not for eating, of course. We’d still be lying in our cots, unmarried young men with the unfulfilled sexual energy of ten King Kongs – but polite as hell!

‘How much for you together with the cowdung cakes?’ we intoned unisono, making her laugh, I’m a fool not to have married her. I went away, you see.

(To be contd.)

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