Gods, Rustics and Numbers

By Rabi Prakash

The small village of mine no longer appears the one where I grew up in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Being in my own village makes me more perplexed than depressed or blessed. Sitting beside my elderly grandfather and having a mutual exchange of the communique of each other’s life almost appears as if there were nothing for mutual sharing except each other’s nostalgia. For an old man, the world contracts to reside in the nostalgia. Everything that comes out from him is nothing but an expression of nostalgia. One way of looking at the old age is that it is the stage of a matured journey, from where one looks back at the tumultous path of one’s lived life. I am half astonished and half reflexive while looking at him, and listening to his stories. It is not his nostalgic tenor that astonishes me, but the semi-conscious state of my mind which has slipped into nostalgia. It is now deeply nostalgic about everything in this village which has totally remained untouched by most things which modernity claims as its. I am certain that both the minds are nostalgic, but the verbal exchange between us is no longer a mutual nostalgic one. They are not two separate strands of nostalgia in an encounter; it rather appears as if two different spheres of nostalgia have merged into one. As he proceeds down his memory lane mumbling his story, I begin to be engulfed in his story, and his story soon ceases to be his story alone, rather it turns to be mine as well. The difference between his and mine is that for him everything is lost, and has vanished, and for me things are missing. I am still uncertain about myself, and afraid of being convinced that everything has lost. I believe things are missing from my eyesight. I am unable to see them. I keep listening to him with an attempt to reconstruct the story for me with the help of his words. For a moment, it occurs to me he has taken a role of a pedagogue for me. His acts are pedagogic. The hidden objective of this pedagogic act is to enable me to take his journey further, to bring back to memory the things lost from his view. He sees life ahead in me whose journey is much ahead from its ends. The power of his pedagogic act is such that it plunges into recapitulating the life which I have been part of in this village. This act seems to emerge from his restless desire to connect the dots of a journey which precedes me and will outlast me. He can see the value of connecting those dots, which I cannot. Probably, this is an act of knowledge transfer from one generation to another. It is a reminder of tradition and culture. Meanwhile, his face reveals that what he is recounting at present is not nostalgia, but a pedagogic instrument to reconstruct one’s legacy.

For the last 80 years, he has been part of this village. Here he was born, here he grew up has lived and here he will die. It is beyond the imagination of someone like me, how intimately he knows his village, and how closely this village knows him. Both have grown together, lived in each other, struggled and survived for each other. In his life time, myriad of traditions, host of beliefs and cultural modes have survived and some of them must have disappeared. For a journeyman, time and space both keep changing, but he seizes them in his memory, and it remains solidified there. The story of his journey is nothing but the story of the loss. Perhaps, it is because of the character of nostalgia itself. What nostalgia does is that it tends to reconstruct its own time as golden; in its scheme of things oddity sheds its vigor; the darkest black turns into glittering white, pain becomes pleasure, paucity into solidarity, and fragments into solidarity. This is beauty of and power of nostalgia. This is why it is the best constituent of the construction of human legacy. The more you plunge in your nostalgia, the more sanctified your past becomes. This is probably why myths, which derive their power from past, are the most sacrosanct. The myths are nourished with the nostalgia, and hence they are inalienable part of human life.

This narrative is the narrative of a nostalgic state of mind. It is derived from my grandfather’s story, but the way turns out to become the reflection of my being and relation with the village.

The exchange with my grandfather is not colloquial one. It is a monologue; he speaks and I listen. My nostalgia account is not something which I can share with him. How can I become nostalgic before him. I am just part of his loss itself. He finds some lost element in me, and through his pedagogical act, he tries to reconsolidate the past. Having remained away for more than a decade, I have been out of sync with the village. My perpetual absence from village is nothing but a loss in his view.

Honestly, it has never occurred to me that my departure from the village is loss and partial cause of the village’s nostalgia. At this moment, it strikes me that in the view of village, I am part of everything which it considers its loss. Every thing which disappears is lost in this view of the village. This pedagogic act of my grandfather helps me view myself differently in my own village. I can see now that my village considers that it has lost me, but I can see that it has moved ahead. Partially, now it refused to recognize me. The young ones refuse to recognize me. Why should they recognize and care for me, as I have not been part of their growth. I have not seen the young ones growing in the village and thus have no idea if they grew the same way as we did. I was not there to see the changes unfolding. I have not been part of these changes in recent time, so these changes too do not know me. The relation that I have with this village is the memory and imagination of the village which was integral to my growth. The one village which has ensured my formation, and had a lasting impact on my early childhood, childhood education and socialization. It was not that I just remained distant from the village in my adolescent and adult life, rather I escaped it. It was part of my design to avoid it, escape it, and remain detached from it, as if being there would have been harmful, impeded and thwarted the growth of my life. With this fear, it was renounced. It had to be divorced from for my own growth. Clearly, it is an act committed in self-interest. I was made to embrace an alien world, a world which has ever since remained hostile. I am not sure it has embraced me, or would ever do so. Nonetheless, what it has done is that it has reshaped me, my language, my music, and my etiquette. It has rebooted my socialization. Small towns, not to speak of big cities, which I have been part of, have seen my sensibilities as rural. They have refused to show even a tiny bit of resemblance with the village, even though the everlasting impact of rural socialization refuses to recede in my mind. I have turned out to be a battle ground for rural-urban sensibilities, and it appears that the battle is won by urban one, even as it refuses to embrace me, and though it owns me now. In spite of having lived an equal length of time in urban areas, I feel that I hardly have any nostalgia for any town. I belong to the village even if it denies my belongingness and reacts with a sense of betrayal. It feels that I am split between my village and the cities. The reason behind this split is that there is twofold betrayal. I betrayed the village which adopted me, and embraced me considering I would belong to it, while cities continue to betray as they have not adopted me, but I have done so.

It makes the case more peculiar for me. I feel that it is not me who has a pang of nostalgia for the village, I cannot be nostalgic of something which I have adopted. At the same time, it is the village which has nostalgia for me. Everybody who was around when I was growing up remembers fondly of my childhood; they reconstruct it for me, as something which was very special for them. They all had imagined a life for me, probably a life which could have been among them, living together with them, helping them, fighting with them, but I have defied them all. Now, what they find in me is a very different person, a person who is not what they had imagined to be. I am an object of nostalgia for them; for the village. My betrayal of the village is the story of loss for my grandfather alone, and this story is revealed in every eye which encounters mine. My presence reminds them of the betrayal of their own imagination and expectation from me. Their expectation and imagination have a very small magnitude—it only sought continued company and togetherness. A village is nothing but a way of collective life. The essence of a village is its collectivity and solidarity and not fragments, which is the privilege of the cities.

Culture, history, memory, forgetting, expressions and life, all reside in the collectivity there, as they reside in collective memory and common expressions. Everything is shared; memory, expressions, knowledge and happiness, joy, and sorrow. The location of life is in its sharedness. Everything which is not shared defies the sensibilities of the village, and it betrays life. Anything which is not shared is betrayal to village life and what is not shared is shrewdness, cunningness, and cleverness, as they are individuals’ acts and hence the instruments to the breach of the collectivity. I feel that my departure for being an educated man is perceived as breach not only by grandfather, but by these old women in whose warm laps I took refuge to grow up. Having received modern education which prepares people for individual choices and individual achievements, my position seems to confirm their every suspicion of betrayal. It does not take much effort for them to figure out what I have been made out of modern education. The betrayal is no longer the betrayal of being just absent, from their vicinity, but more of what I have made myself. They can notice that I defy and disobey every principle of life that they stand for.

The first promise that a toddler offers is of being a potential human company. It is with this promise and prospect of a company that humans bring up their children. Having fully grown up, when the child disappears, he desserts the hope, reneges on the promise and shatters the prospect. I feel that my occasional return to village and meeting with these old and elderly women amounts to a reminder of deserted hope and a failed promise in their eyes. Hence, it makes me an object of nostalgia for them. For them, I am nothing but a failed promise and lost hope.

When my grandfather recalls the life in ‘his village’, he narrates the beauty of life there. In his narration, the things which feature more explicitly are mutual solidarity, cultural and material prosperity, and festivities of being together. One can reduce them to celebration of collective life. However, the reason why he eulogizes that form of life is that he has of late smelled the ascendance of individuality. It is the clash of two forms of life—a life with self-interest and that with renunciation of the self. Solidarity and collectivity is such a great virtue that nowhere in his account, he mentions something which was part of unjust structure, subjugation of women, caste discrimination, and unpleasant incidents of inhuman acts and cruelty of rustic life. It is not because these things are not part of his experiential accounts, or they don’t hit the accounts of his memory, but the fact is that he has chosen to be oblivious to these facts. In any case they are minor points. These are not what weave the story of his village where he has lived 80 years in a full stretch. What knits his story is what he chooses for his story. Whatever he sees in this village has a story to tell, which is not necessarily nostalgic. Listening to him, it appears that nostalgia is not about the distant past, or about things which have disappeared; rather they are about the transcending time. Nostalgia is about what prevails in the present and stretches far back into the past.

The village suffers an acute draught this year. The rain god has turned hostile, and refused to sprinkle some rains. This is certainly not the first time that he witnesses draught—he has seen many, the most deadly one being what he terms ‘66 keakal’ (the famine of 1966). He narrates the story of his surviving that famine, and though the story has lost its gravity, it has become a story of triumph and sense of victorious survival. Today, the despondency on his face after staring at bright sunny clear sky is unusual. When he looks down, he is clearly not happy, or rather he is enraged. Nonetheless, it appears, for a moment, the expression on his face appears an usual expression of helplessness. The first thing that comes out of his mouth is “sab ishwarkimayahai” (Everything depends upon God’s will). He seems convinced that God has turned vindictive and that’s why there is this draught, and famine. Draught is an expression of a divine will. Causing a draught is the best punitive measure God uses. It is God’s way of communicating with the village that he is upset about the way human beings are conducting themselves. This old man sitting in his death bed seems convinced to have read the God’s will. The most characterizing feature of his certainty is the relationship between God and the villagers. Villagers have a direct relation with God in his view. Why would ishawar be upset? He reflects on this question, and responds, “It is us who have breached the relationship.” He says that it has been years since the village has performed Indra puja, the rituals of worshipping the rain god, Indra. He recalls the time when the village was prosperous when it regularly before rainy seasons performed Indra puja. Of late, I have been reading the history of Indian Philosophy, and it suddenly strikes me that Indra is a Vedic God. It was the invention of the Vedic times, when he was regarded the God of gods. During the entire Vedic period, people struggled to choose their supreme God, as they vacillated between Varuna (the god of the wind and the diety of the Sun) or Indra. They have alternatively been made supreme by God. Reading the history of early Indian Philosophy makes me convinced that it were the people who chose their gods and not vice-versa. People not only eulogized the gods, but they sometimes also punished the gods. They offered the best of their food—ghee and ghur (jaggery), but when the gods failed to meet the people’s aspirations, people punished them. The relationship between the gods and men seems to have been that of coexistence. One exists for another. God obliges humans with what human beings considered miracles, and humans obliged God with what he considered his most beloved and cherished. Humans offered the best pets in offering; it offered them their cattle, performed yagna to pay their gratitude. Humans had a sense of direct communications with the gods, sometime through prayers and and chanting of mantras and sometimes through counter punitive measures.

Listening to the story of this 80 years old man makes me feel that that I am not sitting beside somebody who is just 80 years old, but 8000 years old. In course of his story of relationship with the gods, he mumbles “gaandititi to Indra”. When Indra was happy, he offerred good rain to the village but when he turned lazy or maked excessive rains, the villagers needed to remind him it was enough and he should stop it now. They offerred a small puja to him to stop the excess rains. However, in case he failed to oblige them, the villagers became displeased with Indra, and their collective wisdom decided to teach the gods a lesson, and would perform “gaandititi” which literally means “fire in the god’s haunches/bums”. He tells me this story in detail, which is certainly his pedagogic act. He tells me that when he was young, in the later seasons, (during hathiyanakshatra) when excess rains had the possibility of ruining the paddy crops, the villagers gathered on the top of a hill, where they performed a ritual which involved them pointing a firebrand towards the sky to warn the god that he is being unjust to the village.

Nobody was afraid of doing so to the most powerful gods as they were sure that they were not wrong, as they had performed their duties of offering pujas and rituals, and it was gods’ turn to be just to the village. This was an act performed by collective wisdom of the village.

The relationship that the village enjoyed with the gods has faded away. People no longer have such a relationship with the gods. This loss is a matter of great concern. This is the loss that makes my grandfather nostalgic in my modern sensibilities.

While he recounts the aftermath of a draught, it appears as if he were predicting the consequence of the draught of this year. Drought brings biggest miseries not only to humans but to animals, birds and insects. He is worried about all of them. To a modern man, draught brings helplessness, and it is something about which we can hardly do anything. However, in his scheme, he is certain that humans can do something about the rains and draughts, and this helpless is because they have lost the relationship with the gods. One more important thing that strikes him is that the villagers’ relationship with the gods was not only about relationship between gods and humans, but it was more about the relationship among villagers themselves.

He is not worried about the relationships between the gods and men, but he is more worried about the relationships among the villagers and humans at large. He reflects on the past few years’ festivities in the village. It was his reflections on the festivities which struck me most and helped me look at the village through his eyes.

I could recall that this tiny village of 40 households had a great instinct of feeling seasons and of celebrating festivals marking them. From my understanding of statistical analysis of poverty, I can see that it was much poorer then than now. It was poor in material sense, but it was brimming with lively ethos, spirit and passion. Festivities lie with congregation, and collectivities. The festivals were the times when this collectivity bloomed. It was the times when the collective was made complete. It was the time when even the girmitias (migrants in the east) came to their ‘homes’. People not only expected that people would certainly come to the village, but they even knew the time and date of their arrival The ‘Hawarah-Sialdah’ train which had a ‘holt’ Rafiganj was a common name among the villagers as they knew it fetched happiness to the village on the eve of the festivals. When the girmitias came to the village they met everybody, every child, old men, and women. They had many stories to tell their fellows in the village. Everybody listened to those stories. They were windows of the village to the outside world. Very few people used to leave the village in those days. Now many people have migrated, almost every house has migrants. It seems that except old men, women, and the young children, all young and working men have left the village. They have left the village to bring prosperity to the village—material and economic prosperity, as the village has exhausted its capacity to offer them prosperity and happiness. As a result, the village has been deserted. The festivals still come as per their Vedic calendar, but those who left the village don’t return. Now there are many trains which stop at Rafiganj station, but are hardly accounted and waited for on the eve of festivals, as they no longer fetch happiness. The trains are not to complete the collectivity of the village, but they break the collectivity and take away people. What they bring back are migrants, who themselves don’t know if they are happy at home or in bahar. When they come home they don’t visit the village, to meet everybody but prefer to be confined at home and sleep at odd times. Sometime they sleep at day and women in the village wonder why these men don’t sleep in the night but during the day. These old men and women keep wondering why everybody had to leave the village. They blame the young villagers and assume that they don’t like the village life. They are totally unaware that leaving the home and village is not the choice that these young men make. It is the decision that is made for them at a place which is far from the place they are born. They don’t analyze but only wonder about what is happening to this village. They wonder as the day and nights of the village speak in its emptiness, and the emptiness is exposed during festivals, which are celebrated without men, without music, and without solidarity.

This old man is wondering at the loss, wondering why the village has its sense of celebrations. It has lost the music of kirtans, has lost congregations of people chatting, and laughing with each other. Nobody talks any more in the village. In the last three nights, I have experienced as if there is an undeclared silence, which is occasionally broken by the cries of toddlers, or children who defy silence, as they don’t know the village as yet. What the village has experienced is an exodus; a departure of its youth, who defied the silence of the nights, reciprocated the moods of the seasons with their music, giggles, and tittering. The joy of seasons brimming with the music and folklore suiting the tenor of every season. Music did not change with the instruments, not with people; it did so with seasons. The seasons which seemed so under control of people.

The people; old men and women, young women, children and toddlers, who are left in the village don’t know where their men have gone. They know they are no longer the girmitias who definitely came during the festivals. As they don’t bring happiness to the village what they bring to the village is laziness and fatigue. They don’t know where they live and what they do. Once they leave the village, what they know is about two numbers. These two numbers are proof of their living and existence, way to communicate with them, and ask about if they are in good health. The answer is only one “sab badhiyahaiapnadhyanrakh” (everything is fine, take care of yourself). When you listen to apnadhayanrakh, you know these villagers have lost the sense of solidarity which made them to say “we will take care of ourselves”. What takes care is another number, the number of bank accounts, which gives the means of taking care, and is supposed to bring prosperity to the village. Once they left the village they become numbers, they forget their name. It is the number of hours of the duties they are supposed to do. It is the number of their identity with which they identity themselves when their master make roll call, and it the mobile number via which they talk, and the number of bank account which takes their earning to their loved ones. The modern state which has made the decision for them also promises the number of Aadhar. The state has refused to trust them; their names and their address, their village, and their music; rather it trusts only its invented numbers.

Back in the village, there is nostalgia which is resisting and seeking the solidarity, and collectivities of life. They don’t know the numbers. What they know are gods with whom they survived, fought, and celebrated their lives. Gods have succeeded in infusing the pang of nostalgia into human hearts. Can the numbers also do so?

About the author:

Rabi Prakash can be reached via email at rprakash.rabi@gmail.com.

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