Kishorganj (My Birthplace) by Nirad C. Chaudhuri for First year, Department of English, National University, Bangldesh

Non Friction: Kishorganj (My Birthplace) by Nirad C. Chaudhuri
Nirad Chandra Chauduri
 Kishorganj (My birthplace is a Non-friction short story form Nirad C. Chaudhuri's Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. The author describes his birthplace in this short story very precisely.

Bangla version of this short story could be availed from here (Note that: The original text was written in English and bangla translation is made)

Kishorgonj (My Birthplace)

KISHORGONJ, my birthplace, I have called a country town, but this description, I am afraid, will call up wholly wrong associations. The place had nothing of the English country town about it, if I am to judge by the illustrations I have seen and the descriptions I have read, these being my only sources of knowledge about England, since I have never been there, nor in fact anywhere outside my own country. Kishorganj was only a normal specimen of its class-one among a score of collections of tin-and-mat huts or sheds, comprising courts, offices, schools, shops and residential dwellings, which British administration had raised up in the green and brown spaces of East Bengal. It had come into existence as a municipal township in the sixties of the last century and was, in the terminology of British local government in India, a sub-divisional headquarters, which meant that it was an administrative unit next to the principal town of the district where the collector resided.
I shall presently have something to say of the moral quality of our urban existence. But begin with, let me give some idea of its physical aspect. Had there been aeroplanes in our boyhood the town would have had the same appearance to our eyes, when looked at from a height, say, of five hundred feet, as a patch of white and brown mushrooms in the grass below must have to a little bird perched on a tree. The white corrugated, iron roofs were indeed too hard for the surrounding landscape, but this unattractive material had in my childhood just begun to oust the thatch. The brown mat walls, however, matched with the trees and the soil.
Altogether, the town did not mark too hard a bjotch on the soft countryside. Besides, the huts were flimsy. They creaked at almost every wind, and one strong cyclone was enough to obliterate the distinction between country and town. I myself, arriving home one dark night from Calcutta after the great cyclone of 1919, had very great difficulty in finding the town among the fallen trees.

The River and the Rains

The town had grown around and along a visible thread, a three-stranded thread, which was formed by a little river with two roads running along its two banks. We inherited the tradition that the river once had its day, but what we saw was only its impoverished old age. Except during rains, when it was full to the brim and shining across its whole breadth of some two hundred yards between one road-bound bank and another, it was an emaciated channel where the water never was more than waist-deep-and in most places only knee-deep. But we loved the stream. To compare small things with great, it was our Nile. Our town was the gift of the river. We drank its water, although this water never allowed us to see the sides or the bottom of the tumbler unless fetched very early in the morning. We bathed in thTriver, paddled in it, and when we got dry after our bath we looked fairer than we really were with a coat of fine white sand. Sometimes we even glinted in the sun, thanks to the presence in the sand of minute specks of mica. The cows and elephants of the town also bathed in the river but, as a rule, only after we had had our turn and never alongside us. Often we ran after our cow when the servant took her down for a wash. We took up the water in our folded hands and, sniffing it, found it charged with the acrid smell of cattle. We also looked on with delight when the elephant of Joyka, a near neighbour of ours, waded majestically into the river and disported herself in it. She had a young companion, not her own calf though, who also came with her on occasions and had his bathe in the river.
If we loved the river where it permitted even those of us who did not swim to take inconceivable liberties with it, we worshipped it where it was deep, and there were such spots. Just as an old family fallen on poverty happens to keep a few pieces of . valuable antique furniture, so our decayed river had, every two or three miles of its course, a large pool where the water was deep, dark, still, and cool. There was one such pool within the town about half a mile from our house, just behind the excise depot and the Government treasury. It was an oval expanse of water where we often went to bathe and swim. At our strokes the water broke into white streaks resembling crushed ice, and we could never dive deep enough to touch the bottom. Once we took a sounding. Even quite close to the bank the water was twenty feet or a little more. The place was the home of the big and fierce-looking but silvery
chital fish which at times nibbled at us. We were told by our elders, I cannot say whether truthfully or with the sole object of keeping us out of mischief, that in the middle of the pool these creatures attacked human beings in shoals. On the far bank stood thick clumps of very tall bamboo with a border of scrub near the water, and almost exactly opposite our ghat a sandy lane opened out like a funnel. Down this path peasant women with earthen pitchers appeared off and on out of the dark jungle, walked into the water and bent over it, filling their gurgling vessels. We could always see the gurgling although we could not hear it. After they had filled their pitchers the peasant women went away.
Brick buildings were such rarities in our parts that one dilapidated pile to be seen from the ghat about half a mile to the west made a deep impression on us. It was a half-ruined mosque, standing on a terrace jutting well forward into the bed of the river. Its outlines always stood out against the sky, and against the sunset they were etched more distinctly still.
The contrast between the general poverty and the few surviving heirlooms of our river vanished for about four months every year. During the monsoon season it filled out, became swift, oral all events moving, and permitted navigation all the way through. After the first few showers the narrow watercourse would begin to gain on the low meadows and mud-flats on either side and reach out towards its old and higher permanent banks. Little by little the water rose and became muddy as well as full of life. The first crowd to hold revels in it were the frogs. We heard their croaking throughout the day and throughout the night. Then arrived the leeches, which frightened us not so much by sticking to our shins, arms and backs as by the threat, imagined by us, of creeping into the body cavities, of whose existence and vulnerability children seem to be so acutely and painfully onscious. At the next stage of the rise of the river came large parties of peasants from the hamlets surrounding the town. They came with bamboo fishing cages and small fishing nets fixed to bamboo poles slung on their arms. They had- flat and wide-brimmed leaf hats on the head, but nothing beyond the thinnest of modesty clouts below the belt. They ran into the water with loud shouts, scattered into small parties, and plunged and shoved in search of fish. They came in this manner every day until the water became too deep for fishing by this method.
Last of all came the boats which were the sight of the season we loved best. Every year they came like migratory birds, in twos and threes for the first few days and then in larger numbers. Some chose to be moored in unsociable isolation, some even midstream, but the majority preferred the appointed mooring-places, and lay huddled together. When the boat traffic got into its stride these places looked like small plantations of bamboo shorn of leaf, for the usual method of making these boats fast was to tie them by the bows to the bamboo poles with which they were propelled, after driving the poles deep into the muddy bottom of the river. In most cases the boats also had oars and masts, but the first were folded away for use in really deep water, while the masts were laid flat on the mat-and-bamboo roofs, since in the wooded areas about our town there never was enough wind to make sailing possible. Punting was the normal method of propulsion of these boats. They were all country boats, having the outlines and general shape of the model boats found in the tombs of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. But they could be classed by function like modern steamers and by power of propulsion like the ancient galleys. The tramps had no roof and carried poor people, market produce, or even fish, according to chance or expediency. The others stuck fastidiously to their line, the passenger boats to passengers and the cargo boats to cargoes, each being exclusive in its way. They were always kept spick-and-span, for, as the boatmen were in the habit of saying, "The fortunes of boat and wench alike depend on the make-up." Even the smell of burning paddy-husk which always hung about them (owing to the braziers being kept perpetually burning to feed the hookah) was clean and "astringent. In respect of power the boats were graded according to the number of boatmen they had. The smallest had only one boatman and were called "single-handers". The next class with two men passed as "double-handers", and the largest boats used for passenger traffic were the "three-handers". Ordinarily we travelled in these. They were our triremes.
During the day the boats were a pretty and friendly sight. At night they became something more, mysterious. They themselves could be seen only as blurred masses, for their little kerosene lamps could never break up the nearly solid darkness around them, but the reflections of these lamps seemed to set the fringes of the river on fire. When the water was still, there appeared to be an illumination going on two or three feet below the surface of the water, and with breezes and ripples swaying ladders, spirals and festoons of amber-coloured light made their appearance. I was sorry to hear that thousands and thousands of these boats had been ruthlessly destroyed at the time of the Japanese invasion scare of 1942.
A less companionable vessel also visited us occasionally. One of the annual or biennial visitors was the budgerow of Mr. Stapleton, the Inspector of Schools. As the house-boat stood moored a little stand-offishly, we, the boys, gaped at it in wonder. It seemed to be a palace in comparison not only with the other boats but also with our houses. But in spite of its beautiful lines, its red, white and green paint, and its essentially aquatic presence it was not, now that I recall the picture after more than forty years, quite in keeping with the surroundings.
A more congruous pageant was provided for us on one day of August or September, on which took place the grand boat race of the year. Scores of racing boats came for the occasion. They were open, narrow, and long boats, brightly painted on the sides with red, yellow, blue, green, and white floral or geometrical patterns, and with tigers, leopards, peacocks or dolphin heads on the bows and sterns. The crews, varying between ten and thirty men, sat in two rows, oars in hand. These oars too were painted, but they were not fixed like ordinary oars to the sides of the boats. They were small and carried in hand by the men, who alternately struck the gunwales with them to beat time to their boat-song and plunged them into the water. We gazed bewitched at the boats as they darted past us one after another to the accompaniment of tremendous chorus, and we trembled with suspense when the fantastic Ootar boat, which looked more like a rainbow floating upside down in the water than a boat, came gliding with its apparent disequilibrium in the path of the shooting racers. We thought it would turn turtle and go down. But of course it did not.
We watched the race from land as it was not considered safe for small children to venture out in a boat for fear of collisions. Once, however, we went out in a boat, although not at Kishorganj but near our ancestral village, where the waters were broader. While the boats raced in the gleaming midstream we dawdled in the darker backwaters, looking on the race and at the same time luxuriously trailing our hands and feet in water. We not only stroked both the kinds of water lily, the red and the white, which were to be found on our side, but tore up their succulent stalks, which dripped cool threads of water. It is a strange and in some ways a most revealing experience for a terrestrial creature like man to get into intimate tactile relationship with the weeds and plants of water.
If the picture on the river during the rainy season at Kishorganj was the Deluge and the Ark made homely, gregarious and sociable, we were no less steeped in the spirit of water on land. Everything was wet to the marrow of the bone. Neither we nor our clothes were ever properly dry. When we were not slushy we were damp. The bark of the trees became so sodden that it seemed we could tear it up in handfuls like moss. We could not walk from the hut which was our bed-and living-room to the hut which was our kitchen and dining-room except on a line of bricks laid at intervals of about two feet or on a gangway made of bamboos, and the meals were more often than not held up by unseasonable showers. Little rills were running off the road cutting miniature ravines in its sides. Our servants were always wet, and their brown skins were always shining.
The tremendous drenching power of the rain was brought home to us by the dripping, coming and going of our father and of our visitors, but above all by the sight of the birds. The ludicrously pitiable appearance of the crows in the rainy season is so notorious that the phrase "bedraggled crow" has become the figurative synonym in the Bengali language for an untidy and dishevelled person. Apart from crows I once had a glimpse of drenched birds which has sunk ineffaceably into my memory because at the time it struck something like terror into my mind. A tall and slender betel-nut palm had been brought down by a rainstorm. Among its leaves was a nest and in the nest a pair of pied mynas, dead and stiff. Their feathers had been clotted by rain into hard and thorny quills and these quills stood up thorn­like on the ghastly white skin.
But one of the most attractive and engaging sights of the season was to be seen in the inner courtyard of our house, when there was a heavy downpour. The rain came down in what looked like closely packed formations of enormously long pencils of glass and hit the bare ground. At first the pencils only pitted the sandy soil, but as soon as some water had collected all around they began to bounce off the surface of water and pop up and down in the form of minuscule puppets. Every square inch of ground seemed to receive one of the little things, and our waterlogged yard was broken up into a pattern which was not only mobile but dizzy in motion. As we sat on the veranda, myriads of tiny watery marionettes, each with an expanding circlet of water at its feet, gave us such a dancing display as we had never dreamt of seeing in actual life. It often went on for the best part of an hour but had a trick of stopping suddenly. No magic wand could make elves vanish more quickly. The crystalline throng was brushed off even before the rustle of rain ceased in our ears.

Another curious sight of the season was a palmyra, fan-palm, or toddy-palm, as it is variously called, standing in water midway between the two permanent banks of the river, exactly in front of our house. These trees normally grow on high ground, and there were seven of them in a straight line on the western side of the front lawn of our house. There was also one on the low meadow before it which once was the bed of the river and in our time became flooded in the monsoon season. How the palm had grown in that situation was a mystery, for during its childhood it must have been totally submerged for three or four months every year for many years. But there was no doubt that it had survived the unnatural experience. In our childhood it was a full-grown tree, with the lower seven or eight feet of its shaft under water during the rainy months. The spectacle did not strike me as unusual until I had revolved it over in my mind a good many years later. As children we took the palm's presence in the water for granted as part and parcel of the landscape to which we were born.


  1. "Radha Nag's recently-published Atmaghati Nirad Chandra is a welcome answer to Nirad C. Chaudhuri's Atmaghati Bangali and two-volume Atmaghati Rabindranath. In more than a decade since the publication of the first volume of this trilogy on the dire self-destruction of the Bengali people and their greatest poet, no Bengali has raised his voice against this charge - perhaps because it was framed by a Bengali who penned them in a respectable university town in England, clad in a Bengali dhoti, sitting on a Bengali mat. Nag's beautifully-produced 80-page volume bears ample proof of its author's commendable economy of expression. She has used NCC's Bengali works to show that obscenities abound in them. The writer who held an honorary D.Litt. from Oxford, it seems, could not make his points without outraging the proverbial British sense of decency. Chaudhuri the author, shows Nag, had been so trapped by Chaudhuri the man that he often makes unseemly self-revelations. And it may not be improbable that he was deliberately ribald to cater to popular tastes. Nag's book is written in a delightfully ironic style and if she's sometimes hard on Chaudhuri, she has been so for the sake of truth." - The Statesman, 09.04.2001, Calcutta Notebook

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