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A Village in Bengal

Most of my friends, during the 14 years that I photographed Amadpur, could never fathom how a man who spent his life in Bombay developed such obsessive love for a little village at the opposite end of the country. This little village in West Bengal’s Burdhwan district, a two hours drive out of Kolkata, on the Durgapur Expressway, happens to be my ancestral home.

My affair with this village didn’t exactly begin as love at first sight. When I returned to Amadpur a few years after my first visit as a sixteen year old, there was much that I found hard to adjust to – the irregular electricity, having to eat the sweet-water rui, no running hot water for a bath, the slow pace of the afternoons when you lie back counting the rotting teak beams of the ceiling, the musty pillows, mattresses and bed-sheets which had been pulled out of steel trunks possibly again after a whole year, the sudden arrival of swarms of insects after dark and finally the large spiders behind the doors in the toilets. It wasn’t about

luxury but simply about what was outside of the life I was accustomed to. But, the company of new-found cousins and my excursions with them around the village largely kept my mind away from these annoyances.

You can imagine, for a city-bred fellow like me, how spectacularly exotic a village must have felt like! We would go walking around the village through overgrown paths and bamboo groves, over rickety bamboo bridges crossing lazily flowing streams, avoiding cud chewing buffaloes tied to posts and past mud huts, their walls plastered with dung cakes baking in the sun. In those days the two things that fascinated me endlessly were the tube-wells (there were few but I rarely passed the chance for a quick drink from one) and the little bleating goats scampering away as we approached. I developed a liking for the lebu-cha (tea with a dash of squeezed lemon) which was available in the ramshackle teashop in the village market where the villagers gathered

for their adda. They gawked at us – we were the kids from the babu’s family, after all – and groups of village kids would noisily follow us around for a distance, calling out to my didi (who with her spiky hair, pierced eyebrow and tom-boyish demeanour was quite the leader of our gang) and shouting “photo…photo” because of the cameras round my neck. I, slowly, was assimilating all the things around me, creating landmarks in my head – like the temple of Bodo Kali (where the huge bamboo and hay frame waited to be transformed into Durga’s more violent incarnation which would be worshipped in a few weeks time), the broken terracotta temple just past it, overgrown with weeds that hid details of the few remaining panels and now generally used to dump garbage from the surrounding homes, the bamboo bridge across the Behula river, Anontho’s sweet shop that had the blackest soot covered walls that I had ever come across, the various ponds on the way and the imposing but crumbling Shingho Bari with its tall columned façade and the two lions

and a clock decorating its pediment. Amadpur, for all practical purposes, is an unremarkable place. It is a village like many other villages around India. Its history is an unremarkable procession of rural events: of sowing and of reaping, of the arrival and departure of wind and cloud, of the birth and death of animals and men. As I, year after year, started going out, often alone, to explore, the love affair blossomed. I began to notice details that had earlier escaped me and I began to note the routines of life there. Suddenly there was the possibility of a photograph wherever I turned. I would wake up early to watch the fishermen haul in their catch and see the attendants getting ready for the days worship in the temples of Radha Madhob and Anaondomoyi (our family deities), the children collecting the shiuli flowers that had dropped during the night and the villagers arriving at the market on their cycles, carrying baskets of vegetables and fish to set u p their stalls. I now also found myself gradually getting used to the

silence of the place just as I began to understand the light and what it did to the walls, trees and the winding paths. And bit by bit, picture by picture, a portrait started emerging… There must be around half a dozen baroari Pujos in the village and another one, forgotten by a family, inside the decaying Shingho Bari. In Amadpur time follows a different clock but Durga Pujo stirs it up from its sluggishness. There is gaiety in the air, scrubbed and clean children in their new clothes are running about the place, happy faces rushing about with great intent, the smell of incense and dhunuchi and fresh green paddy fields, the thrilling beat of the dhaks, mixed with the gentle tinkling of the bell and the clanging of the kanshor ghonta suddenly shattering the quiet and building up to a crescendo and then it’s back to silence till the next aroti after sundown. At our home, trays of tea emerge from the kitchen at regular intervals, the cooks making sure that the right tea (less sug ar, no sugar, black tea, milky tea) reaches the right people at the right time.

During lunch it’s always a competition between my brothers and uncles as to who would get to that day; deference and politeness overtakes the desire in each ones heart as they settle down to their fate and hope the macher mudo will be theirs tomorrow. There are always instructions flying – my aunts instructing the cooks, elsewhere kids are being chased by mothers to go for their bath or sometimes being told not to dive into the cold water of the dighi and a priest, somewhere, is being told to remember some mighty important detail for the next day’s onjuli. Everybody is lolling about on beds or slumped in chairs, uncomplainingly reading the previous days papers which have been delivered that morning or complaining about the mugginess outside. In between all this, in the rooms upstairs, much gossip floats. And then suddenly four days have passed and, without missing a beat, someone will say, “So, another Pujo is over” followed up routinely with someone asking, “When is Pujo next year?”

I’m quite unsure how the casual visitor, used to constant banging away, which we take as the norm in our cities, just as the silence perhaps is taken for granted by the residents of the village. I am also not sure how much one might appreciate such a slowing down of one’s life the way it happens here. For most, it might be a good break from routine before they run back to the hurly-burly of their city lives, the way it often has been for me. Now, though I have completed my book the bustle of cities, would react to surroundings of such quiet. It is especially hard to appreciate this silence if there is no experience of noise; the and the possibility of seeing photographs everywhere has dried up, I still find the familiarity and the pull of family affection hard to push away and so I returned this year too, and shall the year after and then again but, from now, without my cameras. It makes me wonder, though, through what eyes I would then see this
little village in Bengal.

This essay was first published in the February 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (India).

“A VILLAGE IN BENGAL: PHOTOGRAPS AND AN ESSAY” was published by Picador (India) in 2012
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)
A Village in Bengal (Photo - Chirodeep Chaudhuri)