Biswajit Mohanty

When Gopal's mother agreed to his demand that he could accompany his father to Cuttack, his joy knew no bounds! He had always dreamt about the biggest town of Odisha after hearing stories from his father and their retinue of servants. On 3rd January, 1962, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was on a visit to Cuttack to attend a public meeting and everyone in the state was eager to see him.

Gopal had never been to Cuttack though his father was a regular visitor. Gopal was the son of Balaram Behera, a Zamindar under the Garh Harishpur estate. They were from Paatra family (trader caste) who also were money /rice lenders to farmers in distress. Poverty was entrenched in Odisha as crop loss was regular phenomenon due to monsoon floods or drought. The British had set up the Taladanda canal network to alleviate acute crop failure but the water did not irrigate all parts of coastal Odisha. Peasants led a hand-to-mouth existence with their tiny holdings and ever increasing expenditures on family ceremonies and religious rituals which led to little savings.

A visit to Cuttack from a remote coastal village was not easy six decades ago! It did not take a few hours as there was no motorized transport. People had to walk, cycle or ride a bullock cart. The moorum (laterite soil) roads became a muddy trench during the torrential rains where carts got bogged down. Monsoon season was awful to travel. The group was lucky as it was winter and the mud had dried up. The road to Balikuda, a sleepy Tehsil HQ was pure mud since it was not treated with a moorum topping. 

Gopal, his father alongwith an entourage of servants climbed the bullock cart and left home at dawn on New Year’s day, 1962. The cart wearily creaked its way at snail’s pace through the mud road lined by screwpine thickets. A few jackals sneaked away on sighting the cart. The birds had already become active as a kingfisher screeched while flying overhead to the nearest pond to hunt fish. A few cattle egrets were busy gobbling up insects on the paddy fields that had been harvested a few days ago.

With nothing to do, Gopal watched the scene with wide eyes eager to savour every experince. He and his father swung with every roll of the wheel of the cart. At some places, giant potholes (Phutaa) shook up the cart even bringing it to a dead stop. The duo had to disembark while the servants pushed hard. The driver used his cane liberally on the bullocks urging them to pull. Finally the cart with a lot of creaking sounds was freed.

Soon they arrived at Pakanpur a small village about 3km before Jagatsinghpur the Sub Division HQ town, a district carved out of the erstwhile Cuttack district. Everyone was hungry after the bone jarring journey and it was time for food. Gopal already had some chuda (flattened rice) mixed with gur (molasses) and bananas which his doting mother had carefully packed into a small bowl covered with a banana leaf. The child of a wealthy family is usually overfed since the fond mother could never dream of allowing him to be hungry for a moment. 

The small party camped under a mango orchard. The father and son jumped out of the cart while the bullocks were freed and given straw to eat. Karia, one of the carters, led the thirsty bullocks to a nearby pond where they slurped noisily and drank water to their fill. A mix of cut straw (Bothi), Rice bran (Kunda) was their food. 

Two hollow bamboo pieces (Nalaa) hung below the cart bed. One had mustard oil while the other contained castor oil for lubricating the axles of the bullock cart. The carters got busy setting up camp to cook. Gopal was eager to eat the famous ‘Sagadia Dalma’ which everyone talked about. Lacking a full set of cooking implements the carters improvised. A katuri (curved hand chopper) was used to slice the pumpkin and potato and tomatos which would be cooked with the dal to make the unique Odia dish of Dalma. The vegetables were not peeled as they lacked a peeling knife or even a Paniki (a curved vegetable cutting knife set on a wooden or steel plate base) which is used in all Odia kitchens.  The entire party sat down for the piping hot breakfast of Chuda and Dalma and assauged their hunger. 

It was time for a shot of Ganja. Gopal’s father like all well-off gentry of that time loved marijuana. Soon a servant handed him a large wooden carved pipe he used to smoke. The Ganja pouch was opened. There was a bottle of Harida and Bahada dried fruits and another contained some sandalwood chips. A small mortar and pestle was used to crush the harida and bahada and the sandalwood. Balaram loved his Ganja to be spiced up! Besides, these had medicinal value and protected him from too much lung damage. Balaram Behera was known as “Mahajane” since most commoners refrained from using his first name as a mark of  respect. Government officials who used to visit his village referred to him as Balaram Babu!

After packing up, the party embarked on its journey to Cuttack town which was approximately 50 kms away. The winding road was dusty as passing bullock carts and groups of peasants walking home from the town emanated clouds of reddish dust flying up and hanging as miasma for some time. Once the sun went down it became cold. January was a winter month and the coastal plains of Odisha faced chilly north wind. Balaram carefully wrapped up his son in a thick blanket. The men who trudged along did not feel cold and managed with a simple shawl. Everyone was barefoot except the two passengers. Balaram had a shiny pair of Bata shoes which he proudly adorned when getting down from the bullock cart. Gopal used a pair of leather slippers which his father had bought from Cuttack. However, he was not very comfortable; he always roamed barefoot in the village and the new slipper thongs rubbed against his tender feet.

Darkness fell early in the winter sky. As the sun went down the howl of jackals broke the night silence. The party trudged along steadily the creaking of the wheels was the only sound that broke the winter stillness. 

It was almost 9PM when they arrived at Nua bazar Adaa (Rice godown). Balaram Mahajane was a big rice seller as he had more than 200 acres of land which fetched him a good harvest every year. As soon as the tired party arrived they were greeted warmly by the staff of the owner. The bullocks were let free and soon they wandered around feeding on the straw and gulping up water from the water troughs. The staff tied them up to the little bamboo pegs to keep them away from the stored paddy that was piled  high in jute sacks.

The carters and the servants went off to the Taladanda canal to wash themselves. Balaram Mahajane splashed some cold water from an iron bucket kept for him. Soon food was served since they had sent a message the day before through other travellers that Mahajane would be arriving the next day. After a hearty repast the party fell asleep. The godown had a dormitory for servants while the gentry were given a thatched guest room with cots to sleep.

Morning dawned and it was time for a Tela maalish (oil massage) Balaram gathered his dhoti and bunched it upto his loins while the local barber summoned by the Godown owner arrived. The massage invigorated him as the day long journey had jarred his bones and the muscles were sore from sitting in the wildly shaking and swaying bullock cart all day.

After a quick breakfast of Puri and Dalma they started making their way into the town. Nayabazar was a village at the entry of Cutack and Kathagada Sahi the locality where Balaram had rented a house was about 8 kms away. Dust rose in small clouds on the  moorum roads as bullock carts and the stray tonga or horse cart passed. Many people were going to shops and office on their bicycles. Balaram had to visit Cuttack almost every two months to file cases at the civil court to recover his loans. Defaulters were pulled to court after he filed a Naalish case (debt recovery) with the Sub Judge. 

The mortgaged land was attached in his favour as the suffering peasants usually failed to repay the loan and the huge amount of compound interest. Balaram Mahajane had become the largest landlord of his panchayat as well as the adjacent three panchayats with a holding of around 300 acres of farm land and ponds. Those were the days when there was no bank or cooperative society finance and people were forced to depend upon private moneylenders who lent out money at usurious rates.

Soon the bullock cart arrived at Dolmundai square. The cart helper steered the cart by pushing the rear wooden frame left or right. Balaram ordered him to go left towards Kathagada Sahi via Haripur road. The cart turned right and immediately a policeman with a red hat arrived and forbade them to enter since no bullock carts were allowed on this road during the day as they blew a pile of dust. However, Balaram babu was a headstrong man. He insisted that his cart will go that way. Little Gopal was scared as he knew that police were powerful and could arrest anyone. He had seen how villagers cowered in fear when the local Thana babu of Balikud outpost visited the village for some petty theft or assault case.

At the same time, Nidhia who was Balaram Mahajane’s bodyguard-cum-servant, a powerful man of 6-ft height, stepped forward to confront the policeman. He sought his master’s orders to beat him up. In the meantime, a shopkeeper watching from the corner rushed to the spot after he saw Balaram who had dismounted from the cart. Rabi Prusty was a dealer in tobacco who often travelled to the interiors for business. Whenever he visited their village he was a house guest of Balaram babu who took good care of him. 

He approached the cop and negotiated a settlement with an assurance that this affront would not be repeated ever and with an excuse that they were village people and did not know the traffic rules. The cop reluctanty agreed but not before Rabi babu pushed a shiny one rupee coin into the pocket of his flapping shorts.

The driver shouted and the bullock cart moved ahead on Haripur Road. The street had come alive as cyclists and cycle rickshaws rang their bells and speeded up. Gopal started coughing after inhaling the fine miasma of dust that hung over the street. The team had to hold their noses after the stench of the public latrine on Haripur hit them. The bullocks got a thump on their shoulders and they leaped ahead as the cart driver was eager to escape the smell. After half an hour the team arrived at Kathagada Sahi where Balaram Mahajane had rented a tiled house. A pet dog wagged its tail and rushed out to meet the team. Balaram was fond of the houseowners’ dog and always fed him biscuits and leftover bones.

Father and son dismounted and entered the house. Balaram had to bend his head as the roof was low to keep out rain and the cyclonic winds which usually hit in the post monsoon months. The helpers took down the “petra” or boxes made of cane which contained their clothes and some dry provisions like gur, flattened rice, deshi ghee, etc which Gopal’s loving mother had carefully packed. Rural visitors to the city were always suspicous of the provisions sold in the bazars and took utmost care to bring almost all their needs.

After a quick wash, Balaram Mahajane left for Choudhury Bazar daily market which was  near Banaa Pahalman shop (still existing) to buy fish and vegetables. With a bag in hand the stout man started walking on the dusty road singing a tune to himself. After checking out the fresh catch of the day he selected a large Rohu fish for lunch which the seller assured was caught from the Kathajodi river in the morning. The price was low as it was after 10 AM when most buyers had finished shopping for the day. In those days, fishermen had to sell off their catch the same day since there was no ice to store the same. He also bought some tomatoes which Gopal loved; they were not available in their village. After purchasing some condiments, Balaram Mahajane returned home. The staff got ready to cook lunch while he walked to the Court to meet his lawyer. 

(To be continued…Part II)

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