Can one walk into a sleepy town in the early hours of morning and feel like one has entered a novel? A bodily jerk on the electric rickshaw has thrown one into a story and shaken away all vestiges of daily life, that have to be reclaimed as phone chargers and bills in handbags. One’s erstwhile chronicles will find no co-ordinates in the fictional life of this small, nondescript border town in rural Bengal. It is not the simple cultural challenge to the city-bred, but a more fundamental incapacity of tethering meaning onto this landscape.
This town is melancholic in every way possible. The buildings everywhere are half-constructed, with gaping mouths of window spaces just swallowing air—a lot like the catfish in the fish market near the bus-stand. All of them symmetrically incomplete and abandoned a short way from completion. They have been in this state of suspension for what seem several years. There is a no attempt to conform to form. Yet, without any discernible aesthetic, synæsthesia abounds. Near the teashop we frequent, there is a dilapidated building built before Independence, now overgrown with weed. It has a stately baroque crest and scraped-off inscriptions on its forehead (and plastic trash spread out evenly in the basement). The illegibility mirrors the everyday existence of the town’s inhabitants. They seem like caricatures because of the security that their imperviousness accords them. Little legends are scattered everywhere. And the tourist finds the ground beneath his feet not just shaky but sometimes not really quite there.
No one could say from the facade that this town is so obscenely rich, or so remorselessly illiterate. There are thriving illegal businesses, and smuggled goods are commonplace. Everywhere is a spectacle of filth and vacancy. The windows of occupied houses are dark through the day and at night. A television flickers on somewhere and that is the only light visible in any house. Police vans, rickshaws, cycles and some small trucks vie with goats and cows for road space. There is not a single privately-owned car in sight anywhere. Paradoxes thrive in these absences and the haunting silences of the noisy streets.
The one thing Lalgola is known for is the old royal palace turned into an “open jail” – a correctional facility where prisoners are allowed to work in town during the day and keep households with families that they return to at night. The workers have successful businesses, we are told. The benignity and idealism of this system of handling criminality curiously blends into the gothic unease this town breeds. Even history cannot be arrested here.
The grime and dirt everywhere is so uniformly dirty that it ceases to repel and gradually shapes into harmony. Dirty clothes and bodies, and dirty little streets.
Brightly-coloured and grotesquely-designed children’s and women’s clothing stun the eyes in windows of small shops. Advertisements of big money lenders and gold loans. Some political graffiti on walls. A few temples and mosques. The ruins of the Raja Bari. A dried pond. These punctuate human existence, here. And the vague orange glow of the Indo-Bangladesh border lights in the distance…
We went out to eat pale, cream-coloured Lalmohans day after day. We kept looking for an idiosyncratic local variety without cardamom-flavouring, which is only usually sold at railway stations. We didn’t find them. There is cow dung in front of our little tea shop; no one is bothered by the intermingling of the stink of dung and aroma of fried luchis. Life goes on as it has, perhaps since the beginning of time. There is no need to even mark time in cycles of the everyday and of festive seasons, it seems.
It becomes more and more like a story one can never partake of, or even imaginatively apprehend. It is as if Lalgola is not a village in India at all, but has a parallel existence outside of the discourses of modernity and tradition, nation and region, city and village. There is no remote attempt at self-fashioning here. The people live in absolute inertness of the everyday. Aspiration seems irrelevant. There is no concept of alternatives here. It all just is. There is no curiosity even about outsiders like us who walk around the bazaar looking at the shops and pointing at signboards, vainly trying the semiotics of this impenetrability.
We were to board the early outbound train to the city on a Sunday morning. At the station there is a dapper police guard shooing off vagrants. The shine of his boots and the straight ironed line of his trouser are conspicuous. A little boy, no more than six years, stands alone at the platform with a backpack almost as big as himself, waiting patiently for the train. The bag reaches down over his back to the edge of his shoe. What must it contain? And where is he bound alone?
The empty general compartment abruptly fills up with middle-aged office-going men, an ethereally beautiful young wife with her hair neatly parted with sindoor, small children, teenage boys with earphones hooked on, and hawkers somehow very efficiently selling jhal muri in the chaos. The lull of the train’s motion soon brings on a comfortable drowsiness. As the train leaves the smoky fingers of Lalgola’s dawn farther behind, a Baul song from the adjacent compartment wafts in—the parting love song about Lord Krishna, infused with the strangest beauty and tender malaise. There are some clichés that can never be let gone of, after all.
All Photographs Courtesy: Subhayan Dutta