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Memories of a coal town that keep returning as sweet dreams

Arpita Sutradhar | 25 Feb 2011, Vol 0 Issue 1

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I never went back to Kargali, a coal town with a population of less than eighteen thousand people. I left the place thirty eight years ago and never went back. But it comes back in my dreams, filling my mind with the smells and sounds of a small community which just got lost in the aimless drift of shifting lives.

Husbands, wives, children, the lives strangely same and intermingling dissipated with the coal smoke, sooty and black, blowing away like the wispy smoke clouds of the coalmine chimneys which decorated the hazy shifting coal town skyline.

I lie in my AC cooled room, my eyes close and the memories hit me.

The air was always sooty and had an acrid smell, something to do with the constant mix of dust, diesel and mining. The houses were opulent spaces complete with a huge garden and an even bigger inner courtyard. Our house was the last in the row of officer quarters.

Litchees, blackberry and custard apple trees jostled for space at the back of the garden. The undergrowth was pretty dense and we had visits of the nocturnal slithering kinds once or twice in the rains! Despite that, the garden was a treasure trove for me and my friends, and with no school or studies to worry about we would spend blissful days in the dappled sunshine.

It was divine to lay on the grass and eat stolen mango pickles, sucking at the succulent green mango piece and throwing it away only when it looked like the skeleton.
I tried the same thing at home this winter, but neither the pickle nor the sun warmed me with the same loving intensity. Even today, the AC cooled room pales in comparison to the cool shade of those immense trees and the sound of the wind sighing through it.

I lived in Kargali with my grandmother, my uncles who at that point of time were still college going teenagers complete with a Rishi Kapoor hairstyle and Bell Bottom pants of the Bobby days. My mother was in Ranchi, doing what a good educated Bengali daughter-in-law does, sharing the family burden with my father to give a good life to the huge family of unwed sisters and unemployed brothers (they all were quite young at that point of time) My grandmother was “ma” to me, and my mother was “ boudi” or “bhabi”. I lived in the perpetual sin of love, indulgence and baby dreams.

Kargali was a dream in coal dust – yet all our clothes were more than “Rin ki safedi”. Grandma would heat cauldrons of water, and add soda and when the strange concoction was boiling she would add the soiled clothes and spin it around with a thick wooden cane. My modern washing machine, does not clean, even half as much. The clothes would be dipped and washed and dipped in starch and voila: the clothesline would brandish flapping white collars –all waving their starched arms in the sunshine.

I never missed my mother and I feel guilty for not missing her. She was a beautiful woman who visited us once every two months and I would wonder why her eyes would be red and her pretty mouth crinkled at the corners, when she left me. I understand it now – when I miss my own children and try not to cry out the loneliness their absence causes me.

Thakuma (Grandmother) was my world. Even when she tied me to a pole - wait – I have to explain this. Grandmother found it very convenient to tie one end of a sari around my waist and knotted it and then tied the other end to a pole on the verandah. All my priceless possessions would be strewn around me and I would happily pass my hours playing. I have tried that with my daughter and son – with awful results. They bucked and pranced like mad fillies!

In the evenings, the street lights would go on, the siren in the coal mines signalling the end of a shift sounding eerie in the stillness of the slowly enveloping night. Crickets would go “cheep cheep” and moths buzzed around the street lights. The smell of camphor and incense powder would mix with the smell of food being cooked over burning coals and the sound of conch shells would tremble in the air. My little body would go warm and soft as my eyes closed for another dream of fairies and kings.

I still wonder: why did I not go back to Kargali, my little coal town of wondrous dreams and splendid coal dust again!

  • Wednesday, December 12, 2018