Standing outside- Looking in.

This is a long post, so be forewarned!

My first journey to the East of India was in November 2011, to IIM-K, attending a short management course. The next one, further  East, this time not a visitor but a transplant, was to Agartala, one and a half years later. After the large, modern, busy and confusing airports of Ahmedabad and Calcutta, the Agartala airport seemed welcoming in its laid back remoteness. Compared to the sweltering heat of Ahmedabad, the fading sunshine of Agartala at four in the afternoon felt gentle. It had probably rained in the night, which explained the small puddles by the roadside.

Birdsong and sunshine outside the windows woke me up the first day, groggily wondering whatever happened to my alarm; only to be confronted by the disorienting fact that the time was four thirty a.m. but actually more like? Six?

But the very first feature that really grabbed my attention was the red laterite soil and the lush foliage- from the lovely ferns, grass and soft carpets of moss to the giant Jackfruit, Mango and Teak trees- so reminiscent of my childhood days spent in the diagonally opposite corner of the country. As I was to discover later, the resemblance did not end there! Saucer sized black spiders, kin to the Kerala ones, a nightmare I imagined I’d put behind me, lurked in dark corners. The house we were allotted was built at least forty years ago at a time when only the really rich could afford cars (therefore no car parking space; just a tiny ramp running up to the small verandah so that bicycles or perhaps a scooter can be wheeled up, out of the rain), plenty of land was available (wide courtyards planted with mango trees and parijatas) and cool cemented floors marked with the patina of age and wear by treads of countless feet (smooth and polished to an extent quite unthinkable today).  There are glass paned ventilators near the ceiling- a feature that has all but disappeared from modern houses, a verandah running along the entire perimeter of the house and quaint wooden door stoppers (my children were seeing all three for the first time in their lives).  I had indeed stepped back in time.

The second thing I noticed about Agartala was the cleanliness- a certain attention and care by the civic authorities as well as the public, which drastically reduced the degree of pollution and solid waste which are trademarks of many an Indian city.

And the third- the profusion of red CPM flags, posters and flyers with the good old hammer, sickle, star insignia!

For a state, which has democratically elected a CPM government to power for the fourth consecutive term, the only state ruled by the CPM in India as on date, Tripura (variously styled  Twipra, Tippera, Tipperah at different times) is a study in contrasts. Almost all Bengali households worship at the three junctures of the day- morning, noon and evening. Durga Puja Pandals are veritable works of art and life literally stands still during the Puja days. In the winter months, the night air resonates with the music from temples, ashrams and even households  – I fall asleep and wake to it. The dips and rises in the landscapes ensure that given the right circumstance, sound travels far, bringing with it a dreamy quality that comes only with distance. How do you explain this disconnect between believing in an ideology which accepts no God and at the same time sharing such a personal and intimate relationship with God?

My house has an old rose bush just outside the front door. For almost all of the seven months that I have been here, it has never failed to delight me with its delicate pale pink roses. Sometimes there is a wild profusion; sometimes just a few; but always at least one bloom, even in the gray winter days of December and January, when the white mist comes creeping up from the west. I am filled with gratitude; I am also grateful for my son’s school friends in his new school, who welcomed him into their midst- he has friends who are Tripuris as well as Bengalis. Middle school is a tough time for any kid, but to undergo a change of this magnitude must have been hard on him, a small and thin eleven-year old. I feared for him but find my fears are baseless- he actually enjoys school, wonder of wonders!

My son is also the one who introduced me to the joys of bird watching; Our Ahmedabad house was fringed by Ashoka trees in an L shape, in which every year Bulbuls and sparrows used to nest. He used to bring the featherless Bulbul chicks who fell out of their nests to me for safekeeping and putting back into the nest, which I had to do balancing precariously on our rickety ladder. Here in Agartala too his interest in birds continues; we  live in the outskirts of the city- the township, which was built at a time when land was plentiful and cheap, has lots of open spaces and trees. The trees in our present backyard too are home to many birds; mynahs, sparrows and bulbuls, two spotted pigeons who move around together , cooing softly.  Oriental magpie robins, the male cutting quite a dashing figure in comparison to the washed out looking female. Drongos, the policemen of birdland, who sit on the fence, scolding each other soundly. And occasionally, if I am lucky, Woodpeckers and a sole Treepie bird. (Treepies used to be plentiful in Kerala while I was growing up, but now rarely seen).

Guess it is too much to expect to spot the resplendent Kingfishers!

Busy squirrels keep me company in the backyard. These squirrel families seem to have missed out participating in Sree Rama’s ocean causeway construction project from Rameshwaram to Sri Lanka (too long a way to go?) and consequently lack the three white lines, lovingly marked by His fingers, on their back.

I was told that  Agartala was a small city- capital of the third smallest state of the country, difficult to travel to, with  a disturbing history of violence which had claimed many lives, evident even today in the gun-toting young men in patrol vehicles who accompany site visits to troubled areas where drilling and pipe-line laying are ongoing . But what no-one had pointed out was the former glory and culture of this princely state- the beautiful palaces adorning the city which are at par with other palaces conveniently located at more accessible  parts of India. I gaze at the pictures of the long gone rulers of this state, looking out sternly from fading portraits, their Oriental features a mixture of Burma and Mongolia, and marvel at their sense of symmetry, beauty and foresight.

The Manikya kings of this small hill kingdom were second only to the Mikado dynasty of Japan in their unbroken lineage, making the Tudors, Stuarts, Hanovers and Windsors look like Johnny-come-latelys. Despite not being filthy rich (remember the Nizam of Hyderabad?) these kings have left a legacy, which is both graceful and enduring.

It is a well-documented fact that Tripura was not a wealthy kingdom; the revenue came mostly from land holdings in Bengal and probably also from strategic marriage alliances to the Princesses of Manipur and Nepal. But they utilized their wealth, not in maintaining harems, not in hiding it away in sealed chambers and certainly not in squandering away on wine, women, race horses and vintage cars, but to create infrastructure in education and civic reforms and also in building monuments which survive over centuries.

The roads to Palatana, Rokhia, Monarchak and Sonamura wind through hills and dales and tea and rubber plantations. All interspersed with rice fields. The natural beauty of the state is astounding! If only the post partition history of this small state was not so violent, if only it were not so landlocked by Bangladesh, if only it were more accessible by road and rail… The wish list can go on and on.

I have yet to see -or perhaps recognize- the Aguru trees (Aquilaria Khasiana) which grew abundantly in and around Agartala, and which have given the city its name. But what I do see is the abundant natural beauty and the simple people- women invariably fair skinned and with large, lustrous dark eyes, men generally thin and wiry; a villager at heart myself, both the land and people have become close to me. Love of literature, music  (hauntingly sweet ) and an endearing guilelessness seem to be inseparable from these people, regardless of their ethnicity.

I still miss my old home, water which did not taste of iron (salty instead), the daily supply of  fresh pouches of Amul milk (not long life UHT in tetra packs), the non violent Gujarati lifestyle (I am unable to look at the glassy fish eyes of the dead fish in the fish market nor at the skinned dead animals hanging in the meat shop) and so many other small insignificant things. But adapting -slowly.

The deep divide still existing in Tripura between the indigenous Tribals (outnumbered hopelessly) and the Bengalis (who have contributed so much to their adopted homeland) saddens me- another outsider. I stand on the periphery, listening to the intonations and lengthened vowels of the musical Bengali language. Communicating via my limited vocabulary Hindi and broken English and when all else fails, with the single complete Bengali sentence in my repertoire and an apologetic smile – Ami Bangla jaani na.

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8 thoughts on “Standing outside- Looking in.

  1. Manish Bhowmik says:

    Madam,
    Excellent writing skill, I never thought that you have an interest in writing. During reading your experience in Agartala (capital of a tiny Northeast state of India), I was in compulsion for some moments. All your stories come to me like a movie that from the journey for the first time arrived at Agartala with a fear of unknown geographical and social environment.Slowly accepting surroundings and gathering experiences from local fish market to political party festoon.

    Keep it up madam, your writing is very natural, touchy, down to earth and lively. Waiting for more ….as – Aponi bhalo likhte jaanen.

    • Dear Manish,
      Thank you so much for your feedback! I am so glad that seeing your state and city through a new pair of eyes made you too see things afresh. My idea was to focus on the positive more- we have a lot of negativity in the media as such.
      You belong to a beautiful state with a wonderful heritage- be proud of it!
      Given more developement in infrastructure and more public awareness, Tripura can give any state of India a run for its money in attracting tourists.
      Thanks again- keep reading.
      Snehapoorvam,
      Sylvia

  2. A.K.Pal says:

    Madam,
    I am really speechless after going through your feelings. When mostly people curse their stay at Agartala, you are the exception.I would like to share my experience during my fortnight bus journey to distant drillsites. You’ll find lot of varieties of birds & other creatures in ONGC colony due to its diverse greeneries. That is why I stayed nearly 12 years in Ankleshwar & Ahmedabad colonies. As you go away from Agartala, you’ll find rubber plantations swallowed all traditional trees like mango, jackfruit, bamboo, litchie etc because rubber is much more profitable. Apart from red flag, Kerala & Tripura are similar in rubber plantation also which you may agree. From the window seats in our shift bus, in morning as well as in evening, I never came across any bird or snake or squriell during journey through vast rubber jungles. Locals blame recent rise in temperature due to rubber only.
    Thanks
    A.K.Pal

    • Palsab,
      Thank you so much for sharing your insights. You have been to many far flung locations of the state, while I am restricted to the colony and the occasional visit to Monarchak (NEEPCO), Sonamura, Rokhia etc. I was not aware of the connection between rubber plantations and temperature- will look it up. But what I have seen first hand is that rubber trees sort of monopolise the land, permitting nothing else to flourish.
      The variety of vegetation may be the reason that so many birds are seen in the colony. Only today I saw an Oriole (bright yellow and black songbird) flitting through my backyard.
      You are right in that my state has Rubber as well as Red flag in common with Tripura. Cash crops have swallowed up many food crops in Kerala also, due to the profitability. There were many varieties of root vegetables in our land: yam (suran in Gujarati), colocasia (arbi) and another large purple coloured root veg, whose English name I do not know- it is called Kaachil in Malayalam. It has been years since I have seen, let alone eaten, any of them in Kerala. Even paddy fields, once so prevalent across Kerala, have disappeared, having made way to the pressure for creating housing. There is no dearth of palatial houses though, built with the hard earned foreign exchange.

      Today the reality in my state is that a good majority of educated Keralites live either abroad or elsewhere in the country; cereals and vegetables are shipped into the state from TamilNadu (there is a severe shortage of farming help as well as blue collar workers- now labourers are imported from poorer districts of Orissa and WBengal, leading to exploitation as well as a different set of social problems), coconuts are collected as they fall from the tree, because there is no one left to climb up and cut them down (this used to be a ritual every 45 days in my childhood- who wants their children to follow in these footsteps?) and Kerala probably tops the country in suicide rates and liquor consumption.

      These are the changing realities of India we bear witness to.
      Regards and Thanks,
      Sylvia

  3. I hope by now you have adapted to the new atmosphere, your post evidently suggests that you have learnt a good deal about Tripura (and particularly about Agartala). Once when I was a kid I happened to visit Dharmanagar (which, I am sure you know, is in Tripura). I faintly remember how the place was.

  4. Ramu,
    It will soon be fifteen months since I was here first, and yes, I have adapted a lot. Things were not easy at first but since then I have found a lot of things to love about Tripura- the pure air not the least! Many conveniences we take for granted in big cities may be lacking, but there is a lot else to compensate.
    Agartala is in the West of Tripura, as you may be aware. Dharmanagar is in the North and I am yet to visit that part of the state; this summer we took a road trip to South Tripura right upto the border. This is a beautiful state, which has a tremendous potential for tourism; but the infrastructure is yet to be in place for developing tourist attractions. South Tripura has many 9th- 13th C Buddhist ruins (Pilak) and a Pagoda at Mahamuni.
    The palaces are really impressive- both the Ujjayanta as well as Neermahal!
    Our colony is quite old and tree filled so so many birds and plant life abound, which delights my son!
    Thank you for visiting! 🙂

  5. Dr Debasish Sarma Roy says:

    Wonderful!!!! I’m really speechless! You’ve seen and perceived so much in so little time! Looking forward to see much more from you. All the best!

    • Apologies for the delay in replying!

      Thank you so much for visiting- as I wrote earlier, yours is a beautiful state with great potential for tourism. The infrastructure needs to be upgraded- perhaps it may become a reality soon.

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