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.