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Through the Looking Glass: Purulia and Poverty

By Ananya Dutta Gupta

I am just back from a two-day departmental excursion to Ajodhya Hills, Purulia. It’s a place that I will think many times before revisiting on a pleasure trip. Not that the trip was not enjoyable or edifying but the crux lies precisely there. Purulia and pleasure, however wholesome and uplifting, make uncomfortable bedfellows.

Even as it sounds pompously self-absorbed in retrospect, I must say that I felt guilt seeping through my veins. I am no stranger to the pleasures of a self-flagellatory guilt complex, a staple among the Bengali urban middle class, as Siddhartha Mukherjee confirms in The Gene (2016) and Sudeep Chakravarti in The Bengalis (2017). Both do so with a touch of the irony that is quite ‘Bengali’ too, though of colonial derivation. In my case, there is the crucial additive of sound Catholic missionary schooling. This however was real guilt. In Purulia, travel as disinterested, leisurely locomotion, not tied perceptibly to livelihood, seemed sinful.

The part of Purulia we visited elicits involuntary comparisons with the Africa of National Geographic documentaries and Oxfam appeals: the picture of a brutish struggle for subsistence. Purulia is the Bengali elite’s guilt trip: a mirror askew. The allure of its caught-between landscape hurts: its gravelly terrain, extreme weather conditions seasonally and diurnally, and above all, the silent, sullen atrophy of its human toilers.

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There’s dust everywhere in a Purulia winter – dust that seems to have become second skin to locals. Gathering dust brings to mind a people that have given up on the cleaning, in the face of the relentless onslaught of the elements. Hilly Purulia is not un-green even in late winter. Yet its greenness serves not to soothe or comfort or cheer. Instead, it is an un-deceptive call to submit to the lure of ruggedness. Like ‘poor naked truth’ in Bacon’s eponymous essay.

There are some kinds of beauty that are born out of harmonious congruity. And there is the terrible beauty of clashing opposites: discordia concors. In the Garhwal Himalayas, which I visited as part of a smaller group excursion some months ago, humans manage to feed off the luxuriant bounty of the tall mountains, giving them a meaning to subsist and persist against the enormity of their grim daily privations. The lofty mountains provide a scenic backdrop that is enough to make the starkest squalor look ‘sublime’ in the copybook Edmund Burkeian sense.

It is hardly a coincidence that the harshest of places elicit the sort of awe and submission that goes into the spinning of myths. As Carlyle muses in ‘The Hero as Poet’:

To the wild deep-hearted man all was yet new, unveiled under names or formulas; it stood naked, flashing in on him there, beautiful, awful, unspeakable. Nature was to this man, what to the Thinker and Prophet it forever is, preternatural.[i]

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Purulia is no exception. Wikipedia informs me that there is a Sitakund in the Ajodhya Hills, apparently a natural spring brought to life by one gallant arrow struck into the arid ground by Rama (close to what is today Raghunathpur village, perhaps?) to quench a thirsty Sita. Hardly a coincidence, one should think. We went round it on our way uphill. There is a Gourikund at Gangotri and there is a Gourikund in Simlipal. Kunds or small natural receptacles of water seem to be everywhere in India and duly mythicised as womblike repositories of life. In this case, it makes for perfect mythic logic to have the daughter of the earth Sita solicit water welled out from within the earth she sprung from to quench her thirst. It is also a roundabout testimony perhaps to the relative scarcity of surface water in the region. In fact, an economist colleague apprises me that the name Purulia literally means a land where cultivable plots need to be walled in with thick ridges to hold the irrigational water. Uncannily enough, even before I had learned of Sitakund, the sight of the toiling women had come together in a poem titled “Sita”:

Wherever I go
I pass women working –
Ploughing, reaping,
Digging, picking,
Trimming, scraping,
Stooping, scrubbing,
Loading, load-bearing …
Wherever I go
I pass women cradling
The child called Life.

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The commonest sight that accosted me from the bus window was women and/or men trudging uphill bearing twigs and dried leaves or vessels of water along newly built roads with little motorised traffic and flanked by fallow cultivable plots. A teacher colleague based in a district subdivision further west of Ajodhya would confirm that water scarcity is acute.

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I saw women slogging. Old women were shepherding goats and cattle and sheep, even bullish buffaloes. Many were lugging tumblers full of water. The ethical force of literature came home to me when I realised that my munificence and courtesy towards some of them had been largely conditioned by an evocative short story titled “Buri-ta” (‘The Old Destitute Woman’) by the well-known Bengali writer Banaphool (1899-1979).

Marie Antoinette

She asked for rice.
I gave her notes.
I didn’t stay
To take stock
Of the food chain though.
I can see her now –
Shredding the paper,
Rolling the strips,
Licking them shut,
Lighting a spark,
To smoke away
The cold night air
Sawing away, grittily,
At her gridlock lungs.
I can see her still –
Canny old ‘hag’ –
Setting some aside
To soak and mince
Into make-believe meat
To dream away
The eagle of fire
Gnawing away, gleefully,
At her crowfeet belly.
I didn’t stay. How could I?
Charity is
The deserter’s reparation.

 

I have been musing over Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara lately and the desertion of Nita by her last remaining champion, her elder brother. In a quintessential gesture of male triumphalism, the talented singer son returns as saviour, armed with riches and the power entailed in name and fame. Despite his money and best efforts, though, Nita succumbs in the sanatorium to pulmonary tuberculosis. Not coincidentally again, Sita is the name given to the long-suffering protagonist in Ghatak’s Subarnarekha. The Sitas and Nitas of Purulia and poor India are beyond rescue. A short way farther, a girl in school uniform kept asking me for money. She had seen me give a hundred to an old woman. I told her she ought to be back in school.

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Unlike the misleading cheeriness of the Wikipedia entry on Purulia, views from the window showed up few factories, if any, other than the hydel power plants and stray brick kilns. I could see acres of sugarcane plantations on the foothills and small plots of mustard crop. I saw no paddy. Nor vegetable farming except in the artificially constructed kitchen garden set up at the guesthouse. No roadside eateries dotted our route from Mayurpahar via the Marble Lake onto Khoirabera and the functionally named Lower and Upper Dams. Even Chorida artisan village, lined with Chhou mask makers, offered no quick gastronomic delights, even as it presented interesting cosmopolitanism in the form of papier maché Kathakali and African spirit catcher masks. Notable merchandise, of course, is Lay’s Potato Chips, which we devoured. When my son remarked upon the smallness of the packets, I conjectured low per capita income of the locals and also the modest demands of middle-class tourists as possible rationale. It is one of the most telling ironies of millennial India that in the remotest and arguably poorest of its hinterlands, where nothing else may be found, Lay’s, Pepsi and Maggi never go out of stock. An old Saif Ali Khan advert for Lay’s seems almost a perverse Marie Antoinette act in retrospect.

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Purulia remains a montage of vignettes from a window seat on a moving vehicle for me. The borrowed title, Through the Looking Glass, from Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is meant to register my knowing use of the refractions that a windowed gaze entails.

I saw one little boy keep another company while the latter cleared his bowels in the middle of a fallow field. I saw a half-naked toddler mumbling to himself as he walked away from his mother lazing in the sun outside their hut. Clearly he was testing his own two feet and the limits to which he might venture before his mother’s love and anxiety drew him back into the folds of her protecting arms. It was probably the most heartwarming sight to have greeted me from my seat by the window on the bus. Yet my heart sank in equal measure. The spectre of Malthus somewhere, I suppose, stopped me from the Wordsworthian temptation of capturing that scene of candid intimacy on camera.

Artists: B. Prabha (left) and N. S. Bendre (right) (Source: Google)[ii]

Yet downtown, there is a dish antenna in most of the mud huts with their ergonomic, low built doors. And there are men huddled together smirking secretively over the occult pleasures of the smartphone; men whom digital technology has so far empowered into becoming little better than idle consumers of manufactured pleasures.

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I noted a conscious effort at architectural congruity in the housing: such as I have seen only in developed countries. The huts were uniformly peach and white, or peach and blue and rust on the outside. I suspect visible parity of living quarters as a means of registering a willingness to integrate instead of standing out is precisely what Europe may have learnt from their voyages to indigenous peoples around the world. It may also be behind the lateral spread of ashramik architecture in Tagore’s time. Ambition and community are fundamentally divergent impulses and embroils individuals in a recurrent dialectic of centrifugal and centripetal forces.

My husband had briefed me after a visit almost a decade back that the indigenous men of Purulia are still hunter-gatherers, for whom sanctioned hunting is now restricted to the ritualistic orgy of Guru Purnima. The ritualised tokenism no doubt looks like a magnanimous gesture in carnivalesque catharsis. It is meant to allow the concerned communities a semblance of cultural self-determination. By extension, it helps ease the conscientious touchiness of a politically correct mainstream population, wary of thrusting their refined sensibilities on the purported periphery. Peculiarly, though, such sacralisation of primitive violence, as René Girard explains in his seminal book on Violence and the Sacred (1972), stems from a rather contorted desire for the atavistic – a desire that disowns itself through demonisation. Thus academic endorsement of such rites often leaves some moot questions unanswered: How are these men to spectacularise their machismo but thus? The very demands of evolution taught man to fight and kill for defence and survival. Yet advances in technology have rendered war-faring more and more effective and brutal. The collateral outcome has been deterrence and increasing civilianisation. Now there is so little to defend though. Technology takes care of everything. Rightly or wrongly, it has displaced and repressed the atavistic violent energies coded into the instinct for survival. The flipside is that we are now left with nothing to defend us from the overpowering totality of that same technology.

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II

Purulia therefore confronts the traveller with certain fundamentally discomfiting questions that border on the anthropological. Even as I am acutely conscious of replicating bourgeois condescension in addressing these questions discursively, I persist in the knowledge that the essay is about subjective gaze, unabashedly so. And as its first exponent, Michel de Montaigne had philosophized, acknowledging the authenticity of that personal location is fundamental to the ethic of representation.

Why is the place so poor? Does anyone choose to be poor? Ronald Segal asks precisely these questions in that controversial book about poverty and fatalism – The Crisis in India (1965). I was rather piqued by the liminal anxieties set off by poverty in the South African journalist’s psyche. To me, such a response cannot be typecast as essentially racialist. I am arguing here that poverty can only elicit responses at once extreme and complex: both in one living with it and in a visitor. In both, mutatis mutandis, guilt might well be a key to unravelling the nature of that response. In the visiting outsider, this guilt at the privileges she takes for granted can potentially spur her towards constructive intervention. We know today of so many achievers who have left lucrative careers behind to live and work among the poor in India. More than the fact of poverty, the sight of it in all its unsparingness can trigger a fear of impoverishment that a psychologist friend once called ‘primal’. In my case, such fear is possibly a paternal inheritance: the refugee’s trauma relived. That perennial spectre of dispossession could well explain the elemental pull of Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema upon the Bengali consciousness. In my perception, the late twentieth-century Bengali mind internalised Leftist ideology so completely as to require the corrective abjection of consumerist excesses at shopping malls besides an unending calendar of festivals.

In the case of an insider subject, it can also trigger an urgent, unbridled aspirationalism. Anachronistic though it is, I cannot resist the example of Chaplin’s de-glamourisation of poverty in My Autobiography, even as his art of guilt, as I prefer to call it, obsessively heroises the miseries that he left behind for Hollywood. Equally, in visiting observer and native subject alike, poverty can engender outright rejection or slow desertion. Purulia came across as the land of Solitary Reapers and Michaels. Another teacher-colleague based at a university of some years’ standing testified to the zeal in meritorious students to get good grades – their passport out of the unrelieved toil and torpor of an unfertile land. I see curiosity in the eyes of boys and men around the behemoth we are travelling in. Where few come to live by choice, a busload of faces has unparalleled novelty value. At Mayurpahar, I met a boy who had taken a day off school. Just like that.

In this alien, erstwhile conquered space called India, poverty must have posed a moral and philosophical challenge to Segal. Western civilisation has come as far as it has riding astride its philosophy of reasoned doing, problem-solving, aggressive interventionism. Inaction as a way of accepting life’s injustices is an unsettling proposition, particularly when such inaction brings visibly stark privations and infirmities in its train. Poverty insofar as it is a material condition looks reversible with the help of labour. Labour as a means of self-advancement in the face of worldly odds and an impassive, inaccessible God, is, as we know, central to the Protestant faith. As Max Weber enlightens us in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), the Protestant investment in industriousness and thrift may have provided timely impetus to the European mercantile and eventually imperial expansion project. It may not be a coincidence that J.B. Priestley detects in Benaras, the heart of Hindu India, the insouciance that he calls ‘the fine art of doing nothing’.

Coming therefore from a culture that valorises labour as an instrument of personal and collective melioration, it is only natural that a Segal would moralise the unwillingness to slog. Did I not say as much to the schoolgirl who asked me for paisa? My husband too remarked censoriously upon alcoholism among indigenous men and their averseness to routine labour of the kind that continuous mass production is founded upon. It may not be a coincidence that indigenous women have an enviable track record in domestic labour around Santiniketan. I never cease to marvel at Santhali women passing by me along my way to work in Santiniketan. Their spotlessly clean person, radiant duskiness of complexion, sparkling white teeth, neatly parted, religiously oiled and braided pitch black hair, sometimes worn in a bun with flowers pinned on it, and their impeccably pleated colourful cotton saris with a trademark chequered gamchha tucked in like an apron, keep reminding me of the sensual, sinewy figure of a dusky indigenous woman in the B. Prabha painting that used to hang on our walls at home. The neatness of their person, notwithstanding the material privations they labour under, is metonymic of the functional aestheticism permeating multiple domains of indigenous communal existence.

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Artist: B. Prabha

Purulia is a different ecosystem altogether, obdurate like the gritty soil under our feet – not the clingy ferrous moram of Birbhum – but a grey and white mica-tinted gravel that sounds like chattering teeth under my stone-crusher-like trekking boots from the French-owned Decathlon sports retail chain. I saw some ominous writing on the wall of one of the houses through the bus’s window pane. It went, ‘We shall not let the beauty of Ajodhya Hills be destroyed.’ Another said, ‘We don’t want the Turga Project. We want education.’

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When it comes to a people whose ethos for good or for bad is as inveterate as their livelihood is ecologically rooted, meliorative projects that aim for top-down development or improvement is likely to end up looking like the shabby, somnolent, soul-killing architectural monstrosity in light and dark blue called Niharika. This government owned guesthouse made a travesty of that stellar name. The building stands out like a sore thumb – a testament to constructed squalor – against the earthen habitations from which local villagers came to serve us. Indigenous villages, by contrast, are a slap on the face of facile equation of poverty with squalor.

In another grim irony, the unavailability of local eateries serving cooked snacks also meant that we generated an overwhelming amount of discarded plastic packaging. Seeing no waste disposal bins strategically situated to receive touristy litter, I was prompted at the end of the day out to ask the driver taking us around in a trekker to dispose of them on our behalf. I assume a small mound may have come up somewhere on the hilltop in the wake of our trip: a memorial in plastic. I wouldn’t be surprised if a large share of the generous alms I gave in a spirit of urbane munificence to old, destitute women dotting the walking paths connecting parking zones and actual sightseeing locations has since gone into feeding the already bulging pockets of these multinational food and beverage chains. A large share of the same money, feeding others needy or not so needy elsewhere in the world, is likely to be pumped back into the same community in the name of corporate social responsibility schemes. Devious are the ways of money.

In a bid to rationalise our presence as a group, I even tried capitulating to the conventional argument that Purulia could do with more visitors and that our presence was somehow helping alleviate the abject poverty I saw all around. However, one of the paradoxes of sustainable development is that only the travels of the affluent and aware few end up sparing the surroundings from rank defilement and pollution. Mass tourism incentivises commercial growth at phenomenal levels – to the actual detriment of the environment and public health. Tarapith in the district of Birbhum would be a case in point; or the seaside at Digha or Mondarmoni in South Bengal. Upmarket eco-tourism, by contrast, comes round to conscientiously inclusive, ecologically sensitive practices through circuitous routes that usually begin with aggressive acquisitiveness. It is in the interest of such resorts to ensure beautiful places look beautiful and, correspondingly, less palatable realities remain comfortably beyond the pale. If Purulia is to woo the eco-conscious tourist into contributing to its sustainable development, it will have to either sell its poverty aesthetically or shove its truths behind the dusty arras, as it were. Neither seems ethical or palatable; but then such is the truth of tourism, at least from a traveller’s empirical point of view.

I must disclaim, though, that the lurid dinginess of the guesthouse may have refracted my gaze insidiously. It is a little over a month since a short family trip with friends to a rather expensive private resort on what was earlier a sick government run tourist lodge at Lulung in Orisha. Besides the rosy spectacles afforded by lavish buffets, sprawling lawns, large bay windows, and ethnic chic furniture, and an evening of ‘tribal dance’ to the accompaniment of karaoke local versions of old Bollywood song numbers, what may have blinded us to the poverty lurking there is the lushness of the wilderness around. Nature’s parsimony towards the part of Purulia we were visiting and the cheap, repulsive brutalism of ad-hoc government- sponsored building projects queered the pitch between me and Purulia. Not the sweetest part of the sweetest state in India, Purulia’s dignity is akin to a Sita’s: abandoned twice over.

III

Back in Santiniketan, one day I found myself seated in the sun-kissed portico, overlooking a garden in late winter bloom at one of those old family houses in Purbapally. Amidst the serenity of civil conversation over tea with a Canadian academic and friend over tea, we heard a clamour from behind the locked entrance. A peddler of cheap, synthetic blankets in crackling plastic cases began to importunate my friend with the tenacity of a despairing father in a sadly Malthusian bind. My friend had no need for his wares, while I was carrying a rather small purse and was generally reluctant to make needless purchase. In the face of his persistence, my friend and I fell quiet for a while, hanging our heads down to avoid the unpleasant eventuality of having to ask him to leave. He did eventually move on, leaving us to ponder the humbling sombreness of the encounter. Poverty had been quick to tutor the peddler in ways of strategising the empathy of prospective benefactors. Even in our deepest sympathy, we could not have allowed ourselves to miss the assumptions motivating the peddler’s importunacy. The very fact that poverty turned him into a tactical suitor is a statement on the political nature of the relationship between the poor and not so poor in this part of the world. In view of the historically precipitated mistrust, the giver too gets tacitly pre-conditioned to doubt the seeker. The point is not that this particular peddler was peddling untruths. The point is rather that poverty makes it mandatory for him to instrumentalise his filial feeling, and that too with uncertain results. In this lies the unkindest cut of economic privations: the compulsion to turn emotions into transactional currency.

[i] ‘Lecture 1: Hero as Divinity’, Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1091/1091-h/1091-h.htm. Accessed on 12 February 2020.

[ii] I am grateful to my artist-curator friend Ushmita Sahu for introducing me to B. Prabha and N.S. Bendre.

Bio:
Ananya Dutta Gupta has been teaching at the Department of English & Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, for over sixteen years now. In 1999, she was awarded a Felix Scholarship to pursue an M.Phil. in English Literature, 1500-1660 at the University of Oxford. She was awarded the degree of M.Phil., in part, for a dissertation on the philosophy of war and peace in Renaissance European and English Writings. In January 2014, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, awarded her a Ph.D. degree for her dissertation on Renaissance English representations of the city under siege. Her revised Orient Blackswan Annotated edition of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book I (2012) is currently in worldwide circulation and she has several other scholarly articles published in national and international journals to her credit. She was Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Cambridge, in 2015. She has also published book reviews and translations of essays, poetry and short stories. Her creative non-fiction and travel writing may be found online at PratilipiCafe Dissensus, Muse India, Caesurae and Coldnoon Travel Poetics. She sings Rabindrasangeet, writes poetry and does digital doodles in her leisure.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “On the Table: Pathways between Food Studies and Food Writing”, edited by Somrita Urni Ganguly, Fulbright Scholar, Brown University, USA.

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