Chasing the Rainbow is an account of the childhood experience of the author who, in the words of Ruskin Bond, in one of the few good storytellers left in the world today. Imbued with a spontaneous sense of wonder the work leads us to a quiet and serene village by the sea and the enchanting world of ka few other rural spots: where a dreaded butcher turns out to be a messenger from a goddess while a princely exterior hides a hapless vagrant. Even the ghosts are not frightening here and a voyage to the alien horizon across the river is filled with the promise of romance and surprises.
A homage to a way of life that is fast disappearing, this book will appeal to all who love good writing as well as student and comparative literature.
Manoj Das is one of the foremost bilingual authors writing in English and Oriya. Author of nearly sixty books, he has received numerous accolades including the Padma decoration , the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Orissa Sahitya Akademi Awerd(twice), the Sahitya Bharati Samman, the Bharatiya Bhasha parisad Award , the BAPASI Award, Sri Aurobindo Puraskar, the Saraswati Samman, and D.Litt. (Honoris Causa) by three universities. His fiction has been widely translated into major Indian and several international languages. The Sahitya Akademi has conferred on him its highest honour- the Fellowship –which, according to its constitution, is ‘reserved for immortals in literature’. He is currently Professor of English Literature at Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Pondicherry.
India of the twentieth century experienced momentous transitions: from colonial rule to freedom, from feudalism to democracy so on and so forth. They naturally wrought radical changes in the philosophy of life of the people, in their attitude to vital socio –political issues as well as in their lifestyles.
But the most conspicuous in this sweeping process of transitions and changes has been the rapid metamorphosis of village India, which, opposed to the tumultuous India of the cities that suffered invasions, battles, and upheavals of different kinds, lay quiet, indifferent, and at least apparently contented with its status quo for millennia, into turbulent political unit and its culture into that of the bazaars and hick towns.
Peasant society and culture has something generic about it. It is some kind of arrangement of humanity with some similarity all over the world, said Robert Redfield in his peasant society and culture (1956) and there is some truth in it. But the Indian village had surely several remarkable and special characteristics. It was peaceful but not passive. The village was much more than resigned to seeking the food he eats and pleased with what he gets. He did not advance economically, technologically or academically, but my convictions are he made progress and matured inwardly, in his consciousness. And that they knew very well was what truly mattered. This does not apply to everybody, but if this was true in the case of one in a hundred, the potential opportunity in that regard was there for many.
In February 2002 a group of Indian writers a combination of those who lived in India and those who lived abroad where brought together at Nimrana in Rajasthan by the Indian Council for cultural Relations. The prime topic of exchange was the nature of an Indian identity. In the course of my intervention I presented an example which, I believe, illustrated what I meant by the village’s progress in consciousness. A social scientist was delivering a talk on evolution to the staff and research scholars of a certain university. He made a historical and anthropological survey of the theories of evolution, described the contributions of stalwarts from Darwin to Leakey to the lore and said in conclusion that the whole concept of evolution revealed a new dimension, its process assumed a new significance in the light of Sri Aurobindo who suggests that just as life emerged out of matter and mind aided by the intervention of a sublime power, and man can evolve into a supramental being the man divine. The speaker’s submission was forceful and convincing. But the formal meeting over some of the professors murmured that even thought they could not logically refute the supramental proposition, they wondered if man was not too obdurate, too mulish in his nature to be transformed ever into anything lofty.
It was when all the learned listeners had left and the speaker was entering his car that the newly employed caretaker of the auditorium, a man from a village, quietly told him, Sir there is a pond in front of my hut in my distant village. So many times coming out into the open early in the morning, I see a lotus abloom in the pond. I marvel at it and ask myself, If a wonder like this heavenly flower could be possible out of sheer mud and mire, with the intervention of the sunlight, why on earth can’t the human mind, despite all the filth at its bottom, change into a godly mind with the intervention of Grace? No Sir this humble man did not find anything farfetched or improbable in your submission.
Time and again I have been impressed and even awestruck by the unassuming village’s spontaneous wit. There was a mendicant with an extremely sweet and accomplished voice. During the terrible famine of 1940s(which I have described) and the epidemic, he would move from house to house singing holy songs. He rarely spoke a word beyond his lyrics, but he radically changed his listener ‘s frame of mind; he left behind him an air of faith and fortitude. Only once in a while those for whom he sang could afford to give him a morsel of food; he expected nothing. He face always looked bright with a serene smile of contentment.
One day, at twilight, after he had sung half a dozen songs crouching on our verandah outside my open window while I lay bedridden with smallpox, Mother sat near him feeding him and found out that he had not eaten anything more then a small unripe watermelon for the past two days.
‘Vaishnav Baba, I have never seen you unhappy. Does your secret lie in your bringing solace to so many in distresses? Asked mother.
The smiling mendicant at first protested saying that he was too uninformed to shed any light on the mystery of happiness and unhappiness. But he was always frank and honest with mother and by and by the answer he gave in his own way was that there is of course happiness –a passive happiness – in sharing the sorrows of others; but he knew how to silently share the happiness of others, to be happy when there were causes for someone else to smile and thank providence. That made one unfailingly happy. ‘My mother,’ he said in conclusion, ‘with the Grace of my Guru who had imparted this secret to me ,I had enough such happiness stored in my heart well before this calamitous period of time befell us. The stock will last for the remaining days of my life.’
A stately feature of the village’s mind was that he was never in a hurry; time seemed to be indulgent towards him. My elder brother –then a high school boy – was required to pay a visit to the district town during his summer vacation, a time he passed in the village. In the train he met a primary school teacher of a nearby village and they become friends.’ when do you propose to return home? Asked the teacher when both alighted at their destination. Day after tomorrow, by the same train, ‘replied my brother. ‘God. I too intend doing so. We’ll travel together once again,’ said the teacher enthusiastically.
But my brother had to postpone his return by two days. As he entered the railway platform on the fifth day a stall keeper informed him how the teacher had been coming there for last three days but did not board the train since he did not see him.
Soon the teacher arrived.’ We had decided to travel together, hadn’t we? How could I go back without you? Was his explanation.
Not that wisdom and grace alone ruled the village life; there was as much ignorance and mischief there as anywhere else, but these solitary examples were the upshots of an undercurrent of sanguinity that tan beneath the village life.
The Indian village, in general, retained a certain structure for long. It is curious that even in the first decade of the twentieth century the structure was deemed disturbed, thanks to the invasion of the village households by alien items (mark the items in the quote below)as the 1911 census report states:
Until the recent introduction of western commodities, such as machine- made cloth, kerosene oil, umbrellas, and the like each village was provided with a complete equipment of artisans and menials, and was thus almost wholly self-supporting and independent.... Where this system was fully developed, the duties and remuneration of each group of artisans were fixed by custom, and the caste rules strictly prohibited a man from entering into competition with another of the same caste.... They received a regular yearly payment for their services, which often too the form of a prescriptive share of the harvest.... The village is no longer the self- contained industrial unit which it formerly was and many disintegrating influences are at work to break down the solidarity of village life.
In regard to the tradition of castes, a formidable characteristic of the Indian village life, my experience of the system has been happily different from the description of it we read in literature. Untouchability must have prevailed in several parts of the country in a virulent form, but it was unknown in my area. A so- called low caste man touching a high caste man was never our kitchen or the local shrines. If an exorcist or necromancer from a low caste initiated to his discipline an aspirant from a high caste, the disciple paid the former the respect due to a master. The Brahmins, often projected as exploiters, where among the most humble and poor sections of the people in our region. But to grumble was against their dharma. They never neglected their duty as the guardians of the otherworldly obligations of our life. Our family priest would walk miles to visit father a week ahead of Grandfather’s shraddha, the annual ritual in the sire’s memory, to remind him of the approaching ceremony. He would appear on the appointed day at dawn, notwithstanding a storm or any problem in his own family.
Abolition of the appalling caste system was a great stride taken by the Indian polity in the recent past, but it has not been an unmixed blessing so far. Conscious and often unimaginative steps taken in the name of furthering the interests of the oppressed and the neglected have resulted in making the would- be beneficiaries awkwardly self- conscious. Their leasers, so as to secure their own positions, are more inclined to preserve the separate identities than demolish them. These probably are inevitable symptoms of a revolutionary transition and, let us hope, would prove at least as impermanent, ever though long, as the period of transition itself.
It is a truism that every change is not a sign of progress. Several superficial changes are bound to dog any step towards true progress. This observation holds particularly good for the state of affairs in rural India. There was an island-village in Orissa which was the very picture of tranquillity and aloofness when I visited it for the first time in 1950s. On one side of the green habitation flowed the mighty river Mahanadi surging forward to meet the sea only a couple of miles away. On another side was the sea. A quiet rivulet, a nameless branch of the Mahanadi (simply called noi or the river) embraced the village on its other two sides. The villagers, mostly fisher folk, lived an enchanted but contented life.
Once upon a time the village was the capital of a small rajya (kingdom) ruled by a dynasty bearing the awful surname, shandha or the bull. But they audaciously refused to be harnessed by the east India Company’s government and forfeited their state to the new rules. Their palace in ruins with their highly revered descendants was the hub of the village.
One evening I was enjoying a stroll along the bank of the river when a village began to follow me, occasionally smiling if I looked askance. There was no need either for me to ask him to explain his conduct or for him to do so on his own; since I was a guest of the scions of the bull kings, giving me company was a essential courtesy for any village.
I changed my course, entered the village, and walked towards the shrine of lord lokanath. The deity lived inside an unusual structure- in the shape of an elephant. My unknown companion walked slightly faster and, closer to me, said in a whisper,’ probably you don’t know –or do you? –that this stone elephant regularly comes alive at midnight’ ‘it that so?’ I asked. ‘How did you know?’
‘you too can know look at that Neem tree guarding the elephant particularly at that huge branch spread over the elephant’s head. What do you see?’ ‘I see the elephant –shaped temple, the tree, and its huge branch’ ‘Bah! Is that all? How can you miss noticing the absence of clumps of leaves on the branch?’ ‘Is there any mystery behind the missing leaves?’ ‘Don’t you understand, sir? It is the elephant, naturally hungry at night, raises its trunk and chews up as many leaves as it can!’ The village- paradip-changed into an affluent port town with several supporting industries around. Most of the village now live in building and are involved in lucrative commercial ventures including export of prawn and dry fish. There are hotels, bars, and cinema theatres galore but the little noi is no more; the beautiful primeval landmark had to be sacrificed at the altar of expediencyp>. Every time I visit the place I meet decent, prosperous, and intelligent people, but I will never meet the men who would usher me into the nocturnal world of the stone elephant and its strange and stealthy eating pattern. The era of innocence in the island-village ended something in the 1960s, coinciding with the demise of the quiet rivulet and its ceasing to be an island.
It was in the year 1965 that I visited Halasangi, a village in Bijapur district of Karnataka, situated amidst the ruins of a medieval fort. The picture of a cluster of men and women waiting to welcome this guest brought from Sholapur railway station by the solitary car in the locality- an antique one to boot-the fog at midnight creating a circular halo around them because of the kerosene lantern they held standing and shivering in the December cold in an open meadow, remains unfaded in my memory. I was the guest of the sons of the late Madhurachenna, a noted Kannada mystic poet. I slept in a small thatched room overlooking the common village orchard, and woke up to have another equally unforgettable experience in the morning. Along the village streets proud and heedless peacocks ambled about side by side with men, women, children and cattle who often seemed to concede them the right of way.
‘Whom do they belong?’ I asked the poet’s eldest son, purushottam. He looked at me quizzically, as if I could very well have asked whom did he belong! He told me that they where residents of the village by their own right, since the beginning of the human habitation there in some untraceable past.
I visited the village twenty-eight years later. I did not expect a moonlike patch in the fog waiting to receive me, but I was least prepared for our car to stop in front of a bazaar and my escorts announcing, ’We’ve arrived!’
Remnants of the fort had almost disappeared, their stones utilized in constructions, the school had become a college, lamps and lanterns had given way to electric light, and buildings had taken the place of thatched houses.
‘Where are the peacocks?’ I asked a boy in a whisper. He had no answer; he could have said that he had never been to a zoo! I put the question to Purushottam and learnt that they had quietly abandoned the village.
All the faces outlined in the patch of light amidst a vast fog in a winter night some three decades ago, had departed, evidently carrying with them the Halasangi (which means friends of the plough) of the peacocks. The lone survivor was the poet Madhurachenna’s wife, bedridden at ninety. I sat down at the edge of her bed. Slowly her bleary eyes grew bright as she recognized me. I saw in them a million peacocks. My quest for the lost peacocks ended there’, I wrote at night, before leaving the village early in the morning.
Many of the village had a house set apart for a teacher or a priest of the village shrine or any pundit to read aloud the scriptures, the Bhagavatam, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata in particular in the evening. Popularly known as Bhagvat Tungi, most of them had disappeared by the 1930s, for various reasons. The tradition, however, feebly continued through some Brahmins specializing in the art of recitation and annotation and on special occasions, mostly to fulfil a vow, a householder would commission one of them for the job which would continue for a fortnight or even a month, in the morning or in the evening. An attentive crowd, apart from the members of the family which sponsored it, was always there for the occasion. I remember two such occasions in my house before the terrible cyclone of 1942 devastated the region.
Besides Dusserah and a few other fairs and festivals, the yatra or the opera was the popular treat for the villagers. The plays produced were either mythological or social with a moral, presented in the open under a huge canopy, a pair of noisy petro-lanterns hanging from bamboo racks. Once contacted by a village committee or an individual, the proprietor of the troupe would send a list of demands, including the kind of food they would like to have and the payment they expected, which were humble but a bit expensive if the party had gained a certain status. The troupe would arrive at its destination in the evening, bathe in the river or the pond, ear and then enter the makeshift green rooms and change into their make-up and appropriate dresses. The audience was generally impressive, from a thousand to three thousand. It was midnight by the time the play began and almost dawn when it ended. Needless to say, female roles were discharges by male artistes.
The taboos suddenly seem to have been smashed! Not only are there female artistes, but they are employed to titillate the audience; crude dances and scenes vie with the worst in the cinema. The ‘successful’ artistes in the yatra party, often billed out as Gana Natyas –or the people’s drama groups- draw impressive remuneration.’I quit my village at least a day before a yatra is enacted and return after three days,’ a professor who had chosen to live in the village instead of in the town (the latter course was generally followed by many of his ilk) told me. He added, ‘You may ask me why I return after three days while I leave only a day before. It is because the atmosphere remains almost palpably for that long.’
Numerous people have corroborated the professor’s observation. It is far from my intention to pass any value judgement or to wax sentimental in the Goldsmith an way. Ever though the city population had grown threefold in the twentieth century, the villages are not likely to be deserted; the gap between the urban life and the rural is destined to become more and narrower. Changes are inevitable as technology, development, and education are spreading. But one truth which we are likely to forget before long is that the village was illiterate, but not uneducated, if education was expected to help a person develops higher values, nobility, readiness to sacrifice, conscience, intelligence, and wisdom. A wonder would have been achieved if the village’s capacity to graduate spontaneously into that level of education was not arbitrarily replaced by today’s conventional education which makes one suave, informed, and clever, but is incapable of preventing one from becoming a super- fraud or an arch- hypocrite, if there could have been an imaginative synthesis. But that is a wistful thinking. The death of the silent process of education of the villager is one of the greatest tragedies of the era of transition, unlamented, and often not realized.
Politics no doubt has planted the most damaging blow to the psyche of rural India. A sort of new caste that emerged in the 1930s and 1940s-the caste of patriots- mostly degenerated into a class of professional power – seekers eager to measure and artificially readjust the values and institutions governing village life on the procrustean bed of their ideologies which in reality were nothing better than their personal interests. While the mosaic of the ancient caste system was ruptured, new castes were polarized around parties- rather around the individual leaders. The caste habit is unconsciously projected on this new scenario. Like a person expecting cooperation and patronization from the people of his own caste on social occasions such as a wedding or a funeral, today the village vaunting allegiance to a political party expects the same gestures from his political kinsmen. Worse bitterness is bred today by political differences than ever witnessed for reasons of caste or communal prejudices. It has been too late by the time realization dawned, though only in a few, that the kind of political system India chose did not go with the spirit of India-at least the vast rural India.
If I have touched some issues of sociological import, it is only to justify the image of the village and the villagers I have portrayed, to inform my readers that they were indeed like that before being caught up in the grip of several new forces over the past few decades. Mine is not a sociological study; in fact it is not a study at all in any academic sense. It is yet another pasture I have explored outside, but adjoining the frontiers of my regular territory-short stories and novels. Nostalgia has certainly been a driving force behind my recreating these lost moments, situations, and characters. But the real inspiration behind the exercise has been the fear that they will be lost to a future that is bound to be so different from them. I may appear to be romanticizing the reality, but that is because I have been faithful to the vision I had as a child and a young boy- a vision that was by all means subjective, but vibrantly true so far as the observer was concerned. The village in my childhood was not a fairytale world as would be evident from the accounts of human misery and collective tensions described in a few chapters, but it was still a world where a child could run across a green meadow studded with palm trees or along the ridges of lakes teeming with red and white lotuses, aspiring to catch the end of a massive rainbow spanning the sky, when a village, a woman in particular, looked upon a child as a child as a child of the village and not the exclusive responsibility of any particular family.
I must also put it on record that nobody in my village or in the villages around it took any alcoholic drink. There was no legal or illegal brewery. The only ‘drunken’ men I had seen till leaving the village was in a drama. I never heard of a murder or arson taking place anywhere in the locality. We heard of some people of nearby village fighting cases in the courts, but there was not a single incident of the people of my village taking recourse to law over any dispute, for they were solved by village elders, presided over by father.
The main backdrop of the events, episodes, and characters narrated is Sankhari, my village by the sea in Orissa, bordering west Bengal (then Bengal). It is 25 miles from the railway station at jaleswar and 7 miles from Batgram, a muddy spot flanked by paddy fields where a fair-weather bus, launched at jaleswar, terminated its 18- mile long voyage covered in a span of time that could be anything from a little less than two hours, depending on the condition of the road or that of the engine.
The other place is Gunupur in the hilly and sylvan district of koraput and the third one is Jamalpur on the river Subarnarekha. The fourth and fifth are Jaleswarpur, where I studied for less than a year, and Mirgoda in Bengal the home of my elder sister which I visited from time to time. All the experiences and impressions narrated were gathered between my fourth and fourteenth year of age, except at a few places where I have related them to some happening or observation of a later period.
Some of the events and characters have left such a deep impact on me that once in a while, over the past years, it has not been possible for me to check myself from utilizing them for my fiction. If the readers meet a certain Grandpa in the last piece of this collection who reminds them of a short story of mine, I hope they would bear with me.
Most of these pieces were published in three festival annual numbers of the statesman and the rest in its Sunday literary supplements. The Oriya version of these features, first published in the monthly Sachitra vijaya, was later brought out as a book entitled Samudra Kulara Eke Grama (A Village by the sea). I thank my earlier editors and publishers and those readers of the statesman who have looked forward to the publication of the series in a volume. I am grateful to the oxford university press for their keen interest in this work.
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