Sunday, 28 September 2014

Hideaway in the Hills

Ranikhet's own traditions and its unique culturehave trumped the charmsof Durga Puja, says Anuradha Roy
(The Telegraph, Sunday 28 September 2014)
  • Anuradha Roy
Late one October evening, a man in a gilt crown, lush false moustaches and polyester dhoti dashed out from Munir Bux Steam Press and Drycleaners, loped across the road and leaped over the parapet into the space below. His only witness at that hour ought to have been a leopard wandering in search of rashly adventurous dogs. Today was different. Argumentative Indians abounded:
Look, there's Manoj.
Not Manoj, can't you see him, he's still at his shop. No, that's Nandu Dhobi. He's Lakshman this year.
Nandu? That three-foot midget as Lakshman? It's someone else.

Below the parapet was an arrangement of tables held together as a stage with ropes and prayers. It had a gleaming maroon backdrop. A hirsute man cradling a mace sat on a stool at a shop nearby, slurping tea. A thickening audience was exchanging raucous notes. Then the microphone crackled, the stage creaked, and Nandu Dhobi appeared in his crown, wig, and robes. His voice had acquired an unfamiliar gravitas. His audience of neighbours stilled themselves, inexplicably respectful. Those of us who had been sheltering over hot rum in the restaurant next to Munir Bux's hauled ourselves over to the parapet for a look.
October nights in Ranikhet are cold. Silence follows the swift fall of darkness as people shut themselves into the warmth within their homes. Incarcerated in Almora jail, Nehru expressed an understandably jaundiced view of hill nights: "Life hides and protects itself and leaves wild nature to its own! In the semidarkness of the moonlight or starlight the mountains loom up mysterious, threatening, overwhelming, and yet almost insubstantial... there is no breath of wind or other sound, and there is an absolute silence that is oppressive in its intensity. Only the telegraph wires perhaps hum faintly, and the stars seem brighter and nearer than ever."

In the nine days preceding Dussehra, the sun still sets on Ranikhet's hills at the usual time but silence is drummed out. Few stay home. Late in the evening the blackness is broken into clumps by beams from fluorescent torches as people spill out from houses scattered far apart and climb the slopes to converge on Mall Road for the next stage in Ravana's eventual destruction. Dusshera is no homecoming for Durga and her entourage here. Unlike most other towns and cities in India with five Bengalis and a collection box for chanda, Ranikhet has nothing Bengalis would recognise as Puja.

In his essay The Descendants, Arvind K. Mehrotra describes the manner in which the Bengali Diaspora made alien cities its own: "A long migration...brought increasing numbers of Bengalis... to Gangetic upcountry in the second half of the nineteenth century...even today if one goes [to Lukergunj near the station in Allahabad] one gets the feeling that one has come to a different part of the country. The shop signs are in Bengali and banner ads for Ranga-Java Deluxe Sindur hang outside."

My ancestors were part of this nineteenth-century migration and they went first to Agra and then to Jaipur, where they put down roots. Intrepid early settlers of their kind soon enough set up Durga Pujas in different towns. My mother remembers spending all day at the Jaipur Puja-bari through her childhood in the 1950s. There were similar probashi enclaves in towns like Lucknow and Allahabad and Kanpur. My brother and I grew up mostly outside Calcutta, and anywhere in India that we lived, October meant the familiar blend of adda and anjali, overeating, overdressing, and variety-show.
In the hills of Kumaon too the Bengalis arrived, but Durga Puja did not. Grubby, hole-in-the-wall restaurants advertise shukto and maacher jhol for the tourists, but that is all. How is it that the Bengalis did not colonise October in the hills, as they did in other places?

Snapshots of Kumaon till the 1970s bring alive an extraordinary cultural and spiritual efflorescence: from Allaudin Khan, Zohra Sehgal, Ravi Shankar and Bismillah Khan to Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Anandamayi Ma, and Timothy Leary, it is as if, at this time, the world came to Kumaon. Many who passed through or settled here were Bengali: Rabindranath retreated to Ramgarh after the death of his wife and returned to write parts of the Gitanjali; Vivekananda came to the Kasardevi temple in Almora when writing one of the essays published in From Colombo to Almora. Uday Shankar set up his dance academy at Almora, where he performed Ram Lila ballets (on open-air stages surrounded by deodar and chir). Monica Devi, wife of G. N. Chakravarti — the first vice-chancellor of Lucknow University — took sanyas as Yashoda Ma and, with Ronald Henry Nixon, a British fighter pilot turned Cambridge academic turned Vaishnav ascetic, set up a renowned ashram at Mirtola.

When I got to Ranikhet, this blaze of cultural and spiritual activity had died down, but I encountered people deeply influenced by a dogma-free spirituality I attributed to Mirtola. I would sit in Amit Sen's verandah and listen to stories of the ashram, which he and his wife Anjali, as well as writers like Bill Aitken, had been part of in their time. Now the ashram was almost deserted and most disciples had scattered, but it remained a live presence.
Amit's nook in Ranikhet was a cottage perched like a monopoly block on a vast board of a meadow chequered yellow and green with ripe corn. He alone was left of the Basus and Boses of Ranikhet. Amit's wife too had died. From all accounts, she had lived it up before: gin and bitters in picnic flasks and bird-watching walks despite a crippling cancer. Now Amit only had the gin, and in the evenings rum, which he often shared with his cook, Joga Singh, or the next door cowherd Himmat Singh, whose bi-annual bath ensured that his presence lingered in the room for hours after the last drink.

This is the thing about Ranikhet: you might buy your vegetables from Pandeyji in the morning and get your gas stove fixed by Raju in the afternoon, then meet them both at a wedding in the evening and swap friendly insults over a meal about their performances in the Ram Lila the week before. The fortresses of class and hierarchy are less forbidding here. Everyone is addressed with the familiar tum rather than the more formal and distant aap. Gifts are always reciprocated even when you can only afford to give a lauki or a bunch of bananas in return. An acquaintance lurks beyond every loop in the road and, bank manager or goatherd, he must holler out a "Namaste", then demand information about every aspect of your life: why were you at the doctor's that afternoon, is your water supply ok, why are you greying. Gossip is both fundamental right and social glue. This is a small hill town cut off from elsewhere, a world in itself.

The clarity in the air, not just from the mountains but from Mirtola, the ease with which they were absorbed into the daily lives of local people, their minute numbers, their homes scattered across ridges and valleys: perhaps all of this dissolved the need in Ranikhet's Bengali Diaspora for the familiar joys of Puja. Like an aging fax message, Durga Puja faded. It moved to the realm of happy but unlonged-for memories.
It's happened to me too. October and November are among the loveliest months in Kumaon, when the clam-my grip of the monsoon eases, the sun dazzles, flowers bloom, the snow peaks emerge from their summer-long hibernation and the festivities begin. For me now October means loafing around in the tinselled bazaar in search of the latest in clay dolls from Meerut and the diyas and anti-monkey catapults sold only at this time. It means ritually buying a new steel utensil from Kundan Singh's shop, whitewashing our house, painting the flowerpots and stairs with red oxide, stringing up marigold garlands, eating bhang chutney, singhori and puas at Pahari friends' homes. It means fuming at the ceaseless, tuneless droning of bhajans on a megaphone that kills the whistling thrush's song right through the Navratras. It means watching the postman in a sari playing Sita as hundreds of tiny lights sparkle on far-off hills at night.

I haven't been in Calcutta during Durga Puja for 25 years. If it's October, it has to be Ranikhet.

Anuradha Roy is the author of An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth