Ah, to be back at your birthplace! Nothing, absolutely nothing, can describe or explain the sheer joy and the excitement that coursed through the veins as I set foot in Kharsuan, my native place, this noon after years. It was the same joy and excitement that I have always experienced every time I have landed here since as long as I can remember.
Bigger than a village and smaller than a town, Kharsuan is the place where I was born. And though I have been living in Bhubaneswar for the last 37 years and even have a house to myself in the city to boast about for the last 15 years, ‘home’ for me will always be this faraway place that has been such an integral part of the history of Odisha and has preserved the Odia language and culture in the midst of a hostile environment even six decades after its merger with Bihar. [After the bifurcation of Bihar at the turn of the millennium, it is now part of Jharkhand.] A sleepy little village once, it has now acquired the status of an NAC and an Assembly constituency that has repeatedly elected Arjun Munda, the Odia speaking man who went on to become the Chief Minister of Jharkhand thrice.
“Kharsuan jibe?” the van driver asked in Odia as I alighted from the Ispat Express at the Rajkharswan station. It has been a good seven hours since I reached home during which I have already made two rounds of the bazaar, clicking away merrily on my mobile camera, but I am yet to hear a word of anything other than Odia so far. It is as if I never left Odisha. And to think that there are several areas in mainland Odisha where you wonder if you are actually in Odisha territory!
Not much seems to have changed in the last four decades save some cosmetic changes: a few new age buildings, mobile shops and video editing shops. Elderly people still play cards in the afternoon right by the side of the main thoroughfare; the famous Kharsuan laddu is still neatly stacked up on the shelves of the once famous Beja shop; childhood friend Ganesh, who runs a grocery shop for a living these days, still hugs you with the same warmth that he did 40-45 years ago; Surya Kaka is still busy teaching the nuances of acting to his boys; a descendant of Pagal, the barber that one dreaded in childhood, still runs his scissors through the hair of customers with practiced ease at the saloon next door. It is as if life has stood still in these parts.
A little enquiry with my Kaki, who lives here, revealed that Raja, Makar Sankranti, Kartik Purnima, Margashir Guruvaar and all other quintessentially Odia festivals are still celebrated with the same old fervor; chhau dancers still sweat it out trying to get their steps right; jatra parties from mainland Odisha still come and perform to packed galleries.
But for all you know, this could be more of a craving for the good old times, a wish fulfillment of sorts rather than an absence of change.
And the signs of changes were visible even as the van made its way from Rajkharswan to Kharsuan, a distance of six kilometers. The narrow, rickety old road has now been replaced by a spanking new, neatly metalled road wide enough for three four-wheelers to move parallel to each other. The van driver informed that work on the road was completed last year.
While on this road, I cannot resist the temptation to tell you about why this road was built in the first place. The Howrah-Bombay railway line that the Britishers planned to lay sometime in the late early 20th century was to pass through, apart from British held territories, several princely states of which Kharsuan was one. The Raj government wrote to the kings of all these princely states asking for their formal permission for use of their territory for laying the tracks.
Unable to take a call on his own, the Kharsuan king asked his court for an opinion on the issue. A particularly sycophantic member of the court said; “Maharaj (yes, that’s how they addressed the king). It goes without saying that the railway line would be immensely beneficial for our people since it would open up links to Calcutta, Bombay and several places in between. But I see just one problem. Once the tracks are laid, trains would run at all unearthly hours disturbing your ‘pahada’. So, my suggestion is let the tracks be laid at a distance from the palace so that the shrieks of their horns do not disturb your sleep!” The king, who like most others of his ilk loved nothing more than sycophancy, readily agreed. The ill-advised decision condemned generations of Kharsuan residents to trek 6 km to catch their train even as Amda, a non-descript village grew into a flourishing trade center called Rajkharswan. The story was told to me by my grandfather, who was in the service of the king for some time, when I was a child. Hence, I have no reasons to believe it was apocryphal.
The sheer irony of it! Even as parts of mainland Odisha are beginning to shed their customs and traditions and acquire the trappings of a ‘modern’, forward looking society like the pre-marriage ‘sangeet’, the ‘bhangra’ and the like, this long forgotten piece of Odisha has painstakingly preserved its centuries old culture and traditions. It pains me no end when people look askance when I tell them my home is Kharsuan. Some nod their heads knowledgeably, saying “It’s in Jajpur district, right?” – obviously mistaking the Kharsuan river for my village. It angers me when I think about the ease with which mainland Odisha has abandoned a part of it that has endured so much to preserve its Odia identity.
But then what can one really do, apart from grieving over the heartless abandonment?