Wandering through some long-forgotten folders, I came across a few ancient F-class photos from late September 2008, when I travelled for a few days in eastern Uttar Pradesh, visiting villages in Allahabad and Pratapgarh districts. These villages were home to migrant brick kiln workers: primarily, kiln firemen and their families.
I’d taken these photos with my first and most favorite camera phone. How I miss its simple practicability: no frills, no fancy apps, just the large-sized alpha-numeric keyboard, left–right button navigation, and a 1-megapixel camera. The phone, alas, is long expired; as indeed are most of the memories of that trip. The sights, sounds, scents, emotions, the people I met, our conversations, the food we ate, the places I stayed in, the sequence of events, their vividness, the once-sharp outlines, are now smoothed and rounded off and merged into one amorphous, uniform, featureless, mass…like the distant hill you see from a speeding car or train, a blurry pile shimmering in mid-afternoon haze like a dream, seemingly moving along with you, keeping pace as you speed along across a vast plain, but ever-so-slowly lagging, slipping back, till it is left behind forever.
Yet the photos now bring back shards of memory; and even memory of memory. Broken memories they are, discontinuous, yet sharp and clear as glass splinters. A few village names come to mind: Ghuisarnath, Akhirajpur, Lakhram, Tharia. The drives to the villages, from Allahabad or Lalganj or Pratapgarh, were very hard on the bones and muscles, especially the stretches along rutted, pot-holed country roads. Yet I’d loved the experience. With the monsoon over and winter yet to set in, the streams and canals ran deep and wide, the exhilarating aromas of moist earth and damp vegetation hung over the rich green countryside, raucous birds rejoiced in the dense copses of mango, babool, neem, amla.
Amidst this richness, the firemen’s villages presented a sharply contrasting picture of poverty, endless toil, of quiet, timeless despair. Typically, each village was located on elevated ground; a few score huts scattered across the slopes, linked by mud-and-rubble-and-brick paths, with the inevitable tank at the base of the village, filled to the brim post the rains, some with flotillas of duck. Every village had a shrine, usually a temple of sorts, beneath some giant pipal or banyan, fronted by a large swept clearing that was the community meeting ground.
Such was the little village of Mendara. Memories of trudging across broken land and halfway up a small hillock to where a great banyan stood, ringed at a respectful distance from its hanging roots by other smaller trees. Sitting in a circle with the villagers beneath the banyan, conversing about the lives they led—at the kilns, which were sometimes thousands of kilometers away, where the firemen worked ceaselessly for seven months or more each year in the most horrific conditions; and in the villages where, with the menfolk gone for most of the year, the women and children and the elderly faced extreme hardships. How deeply moving was their warmth, their innocence, their incredible generosity. Hogging large quantities of fresh gur, bananas, drinking sweet yet deliciously strong chai liberally laced with goat’s milk. Walking around the village; making comic faces at the little children who scampered around and giggled and guffawed and made faces right back at me. The small village shrine, exquisitely clean, utterly peaceful, with fresh flowers and a bunch of bananas placed in front of the tiny sanctum lit by a single lamp, redolent of goat’s butter.
The village elder led the way up toward the crest of the hillock. The trees thinned, the ground levelled off, and suddenly, we were standing on the edge of a cliff that followed the contours of the hillock on either side: a broken, fifty-foot- high wall of angular rock faces and red, iron-rich earth, strewn with stone and rubble and the corpses of countless trees and bushes that had once dwelt on the slopes. Far across the shallow valley I saw a line of low hills; and running across their midriffs like a jagged knife wound, a road under construction—its course marked by the hideous, characteristic signs of road building in Indian hills: scarred slopes, littered with mounds of earth, blasted boulders, tree trunks scattered like matchsticks on the denuded expanses.
“That is the new road from Allahabad,” the elder murmured.
“The Allahabad Bypass Expressway,” a young fireman corrected him politely. “It will turn round that slope and pass close to Mendara, right below us. See? They are working quite close already.” He pointed toward the left and I saw in the distance a stretch of muddy track carved out from the hillside. A bright yellow earth-mover was gouging out great chunks of earth from the slope; the clattering roars of its engines faint but distinct.
“They say the Expressway will bring us jobs; that it will bring prosperity to us,” the young fireman went on. His voice was hesitant. “With jobs, maybe we can earn more, be closer to home through the year; we can take care of our women, our children. Maybe we won’t have to travel to work in faraway brick kilns any more…”
The elder sighed. “Yes…but with the coming of the road, our old ways are vanishing,” he went on softly, his eighty-five years carved into deep lines that divided his face into a thousand weathered segments. “So many trees have been felled; entire forests are gone. We have always grazed our goats, our buffalo, in the plains down there, but now the grasses are withered, the ground is hard, the streams are bitter, or have dried up. Where will we take our animals for grazing when the road is finished? When thousands of vehicles are moving up and down, day and night?”
His voice trailed away and we stood there in silence.
And that’s when, without warning, a memory flooded my mind like a river; a much older memory, from a time when I was much younger, maybe ten years old. It was during a drive in the mid-1960s, somewhere between Jorhat and Kaziranga in Assam; father was driving the car, mother seated next to him, brother and I were dozing in the back…till we were woken up with a start by the screeching of tyres as the car braked to a shuddering stop. Through bleary eyes I saw, in the dull red light of dusk, a dozen goats milling about on the road in front of the car, a young goatherd – a boy about my age – frantically darting about, crying out and wielding a bamboo stick expertly till he assembled the animals in a loose group and led them across the road and up a path leading to a cluster of huts on the slopes to the left.
“My God, I nearly hit them,” father murmured, his voice trembling, hands gripped tight on the wheel.
“It’s all right,” mother murmured. “I’ll drive for a bit…you take a break, you’ve driven the whole afternoon…”
As we set off again, mother at the wheel, I spoke up. “Stupid goats. Stupid villagers! Why do they have to live so close to the road?”
Father glanced around sharply but before he could speak mother replied. “Understand, always remember, they were here before us.” Her voice was soft but stern. “The villages, the villagers, were here long before this road came…before we came…”
On that hillock above Mendara, I heard and felt the impact of those words undiminished by the decades…as I do now, fifty years older but not much wiser.