Kolkata – Birbhum Tour, Aug 11 2017, by Mujeeb Jaihoon
The Topi of Naked Nihilism
My country isn’t going through very exciting times these days. Terror and horror fills the minds and hearts of its well-wishers, within and outside its geographical coordinates. Ultra Nationalism is donning the topi of Naked Nihilism. Mobs were overpowering cops and savagery overwhelmed sanity. Backed by paranoid populism, future seemed only darker and dirtier, if not the same.
Hope is the weapon of the brave. And the cloak of the coward and the prayer of the oppressed as well. Like Moses, I too silently, yet impatiently, sailed with the Khizr of Time to reach the shore of Hope and collect a shell or two, to take home for my kith and kin.
The Creed of App-ology
Beep. Beep. There came the notification: the app-powered taxi driver was nearby. I could not easily forget nor forgive my worries on the epidemic hate-virus spreading across the hearts and minds of my countrymen, as I looked around the cars and people moving outside the Kolkata airport domestic arrival gate. It was hardly 5.30 am, but the solar mortal had already shown its glowing face.
The cab arrived even before its expected time, thanks to technology. Neither any questions on the destination nor any negotiations on the fare, thanks again to the creed of ‘app-ology’. All he asked was for the OTP, the sole greetings of this new tech fraternity. It wasn’t in technology alone, but almost every human relation and transaction was reduced to a one-time process. As if, poetically speaking, Commitment was becoming a Crime for both parties in a relationship.
Religious Atheists and Secular Religionists
The car moved in modest speed. This was my first to the land of Chatterjees and Bannerjees. Joined by two seminary students and my high school colleague, I watched with sleepy eyes the grandeur of this ultra-historic and super-populated city. Bengal was a popular keyword in my school textbook. And Kerala had more than surplus ‘foreign’ labor from this laborious land. Proponents and opponents of Communism equally cited the example of this province, whose people perhaps paid the greatest price of Indian Partition.
Bengal has nourished religious atheists and secular religionists with equal love and affection. Some cherished God as the absolute and inevitable Being in the universe, while others found Him to be an intellectual nuisance. The cab driver, however, belonged to the Faithful tribe, or so it seemed from the decor of his dashboard.
Earthen Lot. Earthen Pot
The car gradually slowed down even as I rushed through the little history lessons I could recall from school years. Finally, it halted in front of a shop, which we could reluctantly call a cafe. The floor and walls were ‘naturally’ painted in dirt-black. People here were true children of the soil, in letter and spirit.
‘Careful’, warned one of the hosts. I looked down and noticed there were people, still sleeping on the floor of the ill-tiled footpath. Steam released lavishly from the teapot. The shopkeeper managed to pour tea with one hand while preparing samosa with the other. Finally, when the tea reached my hands, the size and shape of the cup were equally fascinating. Made of earthen color and material, the instant disposable mini-cup was only the size, which would otherwise suffice for a ‘shot’ of Turkish coffee or espresso. Tea was ‘cooked’ well, with the powder and milk, selflessly amalgamated into one another.
The drink lasted for a few sips.
Dukhu Mia and the Horsepower of Hunger
Adjacent to the Tea shop was a masjid of monumental height and magnificent design. Raja Bazaar Jami Masjid Calcutta, read the Urdu-scripted inscription. To my surprise, there were no Bengali script anywhere nearby, despite the Bengalis’ known pride and preference for their language. The ablution had a snake-like arrangement of seating. In the prayer-area, some rested and some prayed the Morning Prayer. Some probably did both.
Outside the masjid entrance, children sought coins or notes to put off the fire of morning hunger, the universal faith-free instinct of man. That supposed dreadful enemy, hunger, which instigates man to toil day and night to keep its shadow off the reach of his woman and kids. Hunger, the curse of commoners and bliss of the Godly.
But Hunger also has a horsepower to fire the creative genius of man. History has several examples of this relationship between hunger and creativity. But Bengal has one of its finest ones in Kazi Nazrul Islam, the poet and musician par excellence. It was worthwhile to remember this genius near the masjid, as he was a boy who started (read, was to forced start), his career as a muezzin (who sounds the call to prayer) at the age of 10, a post which his father had honored till his death. The little boy was pitifully nicknamed Dukhu Mia, referring to the severity of his poverty at a tender age.
Partition: Leaders said Two, Fate heard Three
Nazrul is remembered as a Rebel Poet of the then united Bengal. ‘United’, before it became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh and West Best Bengal. The ‘relationship status’ of Indian independence was and continued to remain ‘Complicated’. Race, language, religion, and what not fragmented it into names unheard of till it happened. It is hard for the later generations to understand them as accidental or incidental or intentional conspiracies. Leaders perhaps settled for a ‘Two-Nation theory’. Surprisingly, they could not see the third one coming. When enemy of one’s enemy becomes his or her friend, such developments were only natural.
Nightingale in Prison
Nazrul, the poet, is a recognized name, officially i.e., in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The postage stamps issued in his honor only underscore this further. While a rebel in post-Tagore Bengali poetry, he is also called the Bulbul of Bengali music. He had the honor to be imprisoned for his political views by the then civilized Colonial Devil of his times.
He was a fierce opponent of the British colonialism. He went on a hunger strike while in prison and Tagore reportedly wrote to him requesting to abandon his strike in favor of literature. Several of his writings were censured by the colonial regime. He also made a name as a songwriter, highlighting the oppression of the poor. In the midst of his creative journey, he also found time to participate in the recitation and commentary of the Quran.
The poet-revolutionary suffered severely when he lost his speech due to cerebral illness. It is said he could not speak for almost three decades until his death in 1976. Although India conferred its greatest honorary award for the genius in 1962, he was finally let to migrate to Bangladesh in 1972. When he breathed his last in 1976, he came to be acclaimed as the National Poet of Bangladesh.
The ‘complicated’ history of Indian partition becomes even more ironic when we note that national poets of both India (Rabindranath Tagore) and Bangladesh were of Bengali origin, while that of Pakistan (Allama Iqbal) was Indian by birth and death, too.
Pain and Poetry: Cosmic Friends
Nazrul was a huge admirer of sufferings and hardships. He even ridiculed the easygoing lot because ‘the thirst for the beauty is so scanty among the educated ones’. He reminded the poetic tribe that their works were like lotus whose ‘petals has bloomed because of being stricken with pain and suffering’.
The cabbie honked twice. One, to remind me that my friends were already in the car. Two, that I would miss the train if I did not hurry.
I chose not to throw the earthen cup on the ground and kept it safe in the enclosure of my backpack. The car turned back to the highway and sped towards the railway station.
The Alley of Agony
After a few minutes, we reached a junction with very little road and lots of humans. The only way to make out the road was the little space where there weren’t people. The road was cramped with hawkers, beggars, porters, fruit-sellers, and passengers. No sooner the taxi dropped us, a senior porter approached us to ‘help’ us with the luggage. It was raining and the dirt below forced us to decide to take his help quickly.
The porter walked us to the waiting area of the platform. Back and forth, people swarmed. There was hardly any space for air to pass through. This time I made sure I watched the ‘floor-tenants’ while walking. Some slept in their nighties embracing the street dogs. Others were rubbing eyes, brushing teeth, and changing clothes – all in the open-air habitat. Slums would have been a more civilized place to stay, I wondered.
It would be gross understatement to say that Kolkata is poor. Even poverty would not feel at home in this ‘paradise of misery’. Was Kolkata always so? Could it always remain so in the twenty first century? Has Time forgotten to pass through this alley of agony? Did this lot willingly choose this inferno over the joys of life? Or was the Lord showing the privileged a ‘screenshot’ of the assembly of the Day of Resurrection.
Coming from a world where sanitizing handwash brands religiously claim near hundred percent hygiene protection, here was a reality of life with no or negative hygiene. Unimaginable, even from a cinematic perspective.
The Hijabi Nun: Friend of the Poor & Foe of Hate
‘Here lived that hijab-clad nun, friend of the poor and foe of hate’, said my companions as they offered another tea, this time in a paper cup.
Albanian by birth, Indian by citizen and Catholic by creed, Mother Teresa was angelic by profession. She embraced the poor and sick, feeding and curing them to the best of her capacity. Despite, there were still some who were hesitant to honor her after she passed away. With her death, Kolkata lost a great soul of angelic proportion.
Sun of Poverty Eclipses Moon of Dignity
‘Keep an eye on your wallet,’ reminded my guides for the second time, as I walked around on the platform filled with people. ‘And your mobile too,’ he added. Crime and poverty were universal twins. Circumstances force the undesirable and unacceptable in men and women. The Sun of Poverty, then, eclipses the Moon of Decency and Dignity.
The sight of Sealdah Station continued to baffle. A garbage collector walked with a bag along the tracks. He, the rail, and his commodity – all appeared in the same hue. The only relieving distraction was little sparrows which fearfully walked on the platform.
Despite the celebration of such glorious poverty, I noticed the floor-sleepers having color-screen mobile phones. A glance elsewhere and I noticed free Wi-Fi access points. Kolkata may be bitterly poor, but it is ahead in internet connectivity. Hope was, after all, not absolutely impossible. Not because technology was the ultimate cure, but due to the average Bengali’s mentality for change.
Mother: The Springwell of Language
The train reached almost on time.
‘Relax. It’s a five-hour journey ahead,’ said one of those accompanying me, as he helped to keep the luggage on top.
A Bengali family was seated behind my seat. The mother played with the infant with lullabies and sounds which only they both comprehended. A mother is the first and foremost tutor, trainer, and teacher for any son of Adam. Language is the mother of all knowledge, and language is the spring which flows from a mother’s lips.
The train moved in cradle-rocking fashion. On either side were fields, fields, and more fields, as far as the eyes could see. Light shower added to the cold in the train. Occasionally, a vendor passed by with tea and coffee. I did not disappoint him nor did he dishearten me. The hot drink kindled the mind, guarding its fortress from the armies of sleep.
Bengal & Kerala: The Marxist Cousins
Bengal’s soil is not only rich intellectually, but politically as well. This land has produced some of the high-voltage activists and statesmen in pre- and post-independence era. Bengal is the de facto synonym of all that is Indian Communism, the only alternative being Kerala, in the south of the country. Kerala and Bengal are the foremost believers of the godless creed, for whatever reasons we may think of. There are two other Cs, besides Communism, which find flavor among both Keralites and Bengalis alike. Both communities have an extra appeal for chilly appetite. And creativity in literature, too, unites both the Marxist cousins.
Ideological Honeymoons Don’t last Forever
Communism was the order of the day in Bengal from 1977 onwards. The party produced some of the finest leaders in history. Reforms and rewards were announced and implemented lavishly. Alas, ideological honeymoons don’t last long, be it in the name of God or Man, heart or belly. Time drags the dictators’ collar, when they least expect; by the hands, they least expect. Destiny played its deceptive game in Bengal too in the same fashion.
After 34 years of ‘rule of the poor’ by Marxist veterans, a white saree-clad bachelorette donning hawai sandals, single-handedly dethroned the mighty ‘communist Tsars’ from the corridors of power. Bengal’s Communist inc. was the world’s longest democratically elected government. Eccentric and energetic, she had neither the backing of any political ideology nor dynastic legacy.
Didi: India’s Angry Young Woman
It is hard to imagine her party’s political future, but her accomplishments are nothing short of historic. She’s the Angry Young Woman of Indian politics. Critics have blamed her for appeasing minorities (generally read as Muslims in Indian politics). It is hard to say if this is because of her post-graduation in Islamic history. She is a self-taught musician and painter as well.
As the first woman Chief Minister of Bengal and the first woman to serve two consecutive terms as the Chief Minister in India, she is an ardent lover of Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, too.
She partly yields power from her simple lifestyle. The reports state that she enters her house ‘using bricks as stepping stones to cross the water logged road’.
After several stops and tea breaks along with occasional naps, the train reached Birbhum, the district of Didi’s mother’s house, where she would visit often as a child ‘to play in the paddy fields while making bouquet with the tips of the paddy plant.’
The light shower continued. I got off the train. The Rampurhat Junction Railway Station was the beginning of another story about the tale of a scientist and his passion for education.
I was well received by additional students from the seminary. A jeep waited outside the station. The exit route from the station was extremely narrow. Rain-soaked weather made it harder to pass through. Bikes and scooters with umbrella-covered riders came from the opposite side.
A building on the right appeared in an unconventional violet and yellow colors. Quite strange for a commercial building to be painted in the hues of bridal dress.
The route was neatly tarred, at least for some time. Trucks carrying goods passed by randomly. Colorful hybrid versions of auto rickshaw, which my co-travelers described as ‘Toto’, also appeared now and then. Cows, goats, buffaloes, and ducks showed up at intervals. Paddy fields enriched the landscape. Huts made of paddy straw silently embraced the monsoon. Farmers waited for the rain. School kids, as usual, danced to the joy of rain. Bare-chested laborers walked magnificently.
The River-Roads of Murarai
After a ride of almost thirty minutes, the speed of the jeep reduced considerably. There were less of roads and more of water pools. Pathways and sewage mixed with one another. I looked baffled at my hosts. They smiled. I immediately recalled their description of this god-forsaken village. Rain had wrecked havoc in this tiny town. It may be an everyday sight for the natives here, but not so for a visitor from an alien habitat and lifestyle.
People were poor, no doubt. But their faces reflected their inner richness. In developed places, it is usually vice versa.
Somehow, our vehicle ‘sailed’ through the muddy river cum road of Murarai to a better area. The greenery appeared again, to my relief, with the sight of other villages. Huts replaced brick houses. And so did the costume of the people.
Angelic Guard of Honor
As I remained engrossed in thoughts of this backward, poverty-stricken locality, the jeep suddenly stopped. My mind and body both jolted. I got my act together and got down from the jeep as well as the daydream. The cool breeze and rain along with the rhythmic rocking of the road journey had carried my awareness to a world back of beyond.
I stepped out to witness a scene so spectacular I thought I was still in a wonderland. In the rain-blushed green maidan, an army of little angels dressed in white long-shirts and pyjamas stood facing each other. The guard of honor was arranged to welcome their guest from the United Arab Emirates, explained the organizers to pacify my disbelief. The rainwater had blocked their usual entrance, so I walked between the white army, stepping on one brick after the other. I wondered how enjoyable this walk would be for the near-dictator Didi while entering her house.
The students on either side rushed to eagerly greet with the conventional Islamic greeting. I responded as much as I could. Only later did I realize I was the fortunate one to hold their hands, not vice versa.
After walking a while, I came across a superbly constructed building, unseen and unimagined in such a poor village.
The Book Train Flag off
Bathed in the rain and love of these little wannabe scholars, I was now walking through the corridors of Darul Huda Bengal (DHB) Center, the off-campus of Kerala-based Darul Huda Islamic University, a phenomenal powerhouse of Islamic learning and scholarship, whose alumni range from mosque Imams to lawyers to journalists to research fellows in European universities. The Bengal Campus had begun a book donation drive, called the Book Train, and I was the chosen one to ‘flag-off’ this campaign. An interactive session – entitled, ‘In Search of Cool Breeze’ – was also organized with the students.
Bengal has produced some of the finest creative minds in the country. It has brought home three Nobel Prizes, that of Rabindranath Tagore, Mother Teresa, and Amartya Sen. With poetry and literature, peace activism and welfare economics, the nation of Bengal has all the bread and butter for a secure and civilized living. Satyajit Ray, an atheist by creed, is one of the greatest filmmakers in the world. The modern Bengali psyche is a result of the collective thoughts of Tagore, Nazrul, Swami Vivekananda, and Raja Ram Mohan Roy.
Dr. Munkir: Now a Saint, Then a Scientist
DHB, too, is a dream-bread, baked from the oven of a creative soul. It took one man’s selfless ambition to establish this academic haven for the underprivileged and marginalized sections of his community.
Dr. Munkir Hussain grew up in a village in Birbhum. Although of humble origin, he climbed the ladder of success, one after the other in a steady fashion. After obtaining his PhD in Chemistry, he travelled overseas to quench his love for further research. He worked in Japan and Taiwan for more than a decade before finally returning to his hometown.
Unable to put down his fire of love for learning, he now wanted to invest his life and fortunes in setting up an institution, for the spiritual development of his society. Being a Chemist, he perhaps discovered, as opposed to the Nobel Prize winner, that the DNA of his society’s backwardness was due to its spiritual poverty, not just economic chaos.
The story of Darul Huda Bengal Off campus is a long one. In the journey to find the right academic team to set up his dream institution, the Chemist finally reached the doorstep of the Kerala-based Darul Huda Islamic University (DHIU). Its soft-spoken Vice Chancellor, Dr. Bahauddin Nadwi, a graduate of the Lucknow-based Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama, agreed to support his dream with the required academic software. Dr. Munkir enthusiastically donated acres of land for this blessed institution, which is now serving as a spiritual learning lighthouse for Bengal and neighbouring states.
‘Ye sab dekh kar mera bachpan yaad aata hai,’ he said, during the inauguration ceremony, in a laugh mixed with sheer simplicity and humility. Dressed in a typical Bengali villager’s dress, it is incredibly difficult to imagine that this old man is a former scientist.
Dr. Hussain remains unmarried till date. However, he has hundreds of spiritual children, who may shape the future of Bengal and eastern India. He has made the right investment of his wealth: for knowledge and future-building.
But that does not mean the aged scientist is now relaxing on his rocking chair. When I asked to join us in the village tour, he excused himself, saying that it was time for attending to his crops. Dr. Munkir not only adores chemicals, but loses sleep over cultivation, too. The scientist’s plans don’t end there. I heard in whispers that he has further plans to provide healthcare to the poor in the society, too.
Developing Spiritual Quotient
Dr. Munkir has found his lieutenants among the Hudawi fraternity, graduates of DHIU, from Kerala. They are the catalysts in this experiment for change, of education and morality.
Though the campus was established by senior scholars of its parent institution, DHIU, the day to day teaching and administration are run by a team who are enamoured of their selflessness and youthful zeal. While it is admittedly true that many of their colleagues have pursued lucrative jobs in the Middle East and elsewhere, with zero glance of gratitude for their community patrons, these youths have left the comfort zone of their homely love and food in favour of enriching the spiritual quotient of the children of Bengal.
It may be safe to assume that Darul Huda, by virtue of their Bengali interventions, isn’t merely an institution, but a culture of Renaissance, which if properly cultivated, can yield noble results for East India.
Huda-Hive and Learning Bees
It would be gross injustice to talk of the garden and gardener, but not its flowers.
The little angels of Darul Huda Bengal Centre started to flock to this heaven for little over half a decade ago. Birbhum, or the land of brave as some interpret, is not a town, which could be called typically urban. It is too humble to be even called a village. Poverty is the only wealth you may find in the surroundings at Murarai.
Although the first few years were challenging for the ‘Huda-Hive’ to attract these ‘learning-bees’, the latter phase turned in its favor.
Nevertheless, I could think of five reasons why its graph is headed upward.
The BDS Divide
The institution faced fierce hostilities from the commoners and ‘native scholars’ alike. Some called them a new sectarian conspiracy in a land fanatically united in the divisive -isms between the Barelvi and Deoband streams of believers. BDS, or Barelvi Deoband Sectarianism – an acronym invented solely for this narrative – is a North India-wide schismatic experience, which is exhibited in type of cap one wears to the manner of handshake between its followers. Nevertheless, Darul Huda Bengal has overcome such sectarian markers.
Attracting the Affluent
While the initial batches had children from hungery households, this year’s admission, I was told, attracted wannabe little Ulama from privileged and professional families. This shows growing goodwill of the institution among the educated classes.
Three. The number of candidates, chiefly from Bengal and Jharkand, who turned up for admission test was six times than they could accommodate.
Bengal Beats Kerala
Certain students from this campus have outshone their Keralite colleagues in arts and cultural competitions.
Five, the successful graduates of this Off Campus have a greater opportunity to intervene in the backward sections of West Bengal. This is in contrast to Kerala Muslims, which is already suffocated and saturated with Islamic graduates in almost every part of its predominantly Muslim pockets.
I was given to listen to an English speech and naat recitation from DHB students, which were beyond average performance. One of them has already started coaching in Indian Administrative Service. Another ambitious student even expressed desire to translate my novel, The Cool Breeze From Hind, to Bengali language.
When I saw separate blocks of crop cultivation by each class in the monsoon-pampered school ground, I could boldly conclude: Bengal brace for change. For, the Learning-bees are on their way.
The Disowned Traitor
Though a home for great minds, Bengal is also known for a shameless traitor, whom the nation and the community have disowned. Mir Jafar (d. 1765), who deceived his folks by collaborating with the British, brought infinite infamy for the land of Tagore and Nazrul. Allama Iqbal, the Nightingale of Indian Musalmans, condemned him:
“Jaffar az Bengal, Sadiq az Deccan; nang-e-deen, nang-e-millat, nang-e-watan”
(Jafar of Bengal and Sadiq of Deccan are a disgrace to the Faith, Community, and Country).
A Muddy Masjid
We prayed the Sunset prayer at a hut Masjid with dirt floor. Rain had made the floor marshier. In the congregation, led by an aged Imam and equally senior worshipers, there were neither microphones nor carpets. The height of the roof was modest enough, except that the ceiling fan’s blade almost touched our heads.
The place certainly smelt of poverty compared to today’s palatial mosques. But the love and affection I experienced from the natives there were matchless. Guests here receive supreme attention, despite the ruthless poverty in this forgotten village of Birbhum.
The condition of the Prophet’s mosque during his lifetime was not much different either. But history tells us that there was a pulpit for a poet to recite praises of the Beloved. How many of our mall-like mosques have the same poetic taste? What’s the status of poetry in modern Muslim society?
Secular India: Bengal to the Rescue
The hosts lovingly served Bengali dinner consisting of mainly rice and potato. The Hudawi hosts joked that it would be insulting to treat guests here without Potato dishes.
A revived Bengal would have much to offer for the nation and world at large. Its politics and philosophy offer a ray of hope. For every ray is a beam of light, especially during frighteningly dark times. The repeatedly defeated secular camp may find a strong political ally in Bengal for resurrecting the relatively democratic spirit of the country.
As I bid farewell to Birbhum, Dr. Munkir held my hands firmly. The scientist’s deep eyes reflected a glitter of hope: for the Community; for the Nation.
Mujeeb Jaihoon is a UAE-based writer, orator and wanderer of Indian origin. His published books include The Cool Breeze From Hind, a spiritual travelogue across Muslim Kerala, and Mission Nizamuddin, acclaimed as world’s first Twitter-based micro travelogue across North India. Besides pursuing literary passion, he is also a regular speaker on issues pertaining to education and women empowerment. As prolific traveler, Jaihoon has extensively traveled to cradles of ancient civilizations in various parts of the world. He also serves as director at several educational institutions in Kerala besides playing an advisory role in community development initiatives. His blog is available on www.jaihoon.com