As some of you may know, I was writing this blog as I was filming for my documentary The Journey. Now here’s a real double-take: I just saw something while editing my footage that I hadn’t noticed even as I was filming it.
That’s how the countryside deals with the monsoon.
“Sir, do you have a latrine?” I asked the elderly gentleman who was going to put me up in his clay house. The rest of the party was staying in the elementary school, which was a room short. “Sure,” he said. “A well?” I was not about to bathe in the family (or communal) pond in which all and sundry were soaping themselves. The alternative of showering out of a bucket in public view in my underwear was much more preferable. He had a well with a hand-pump that was walled on three sides with old saris to protect the modesty of the ladies of the household. What more could one ask for?
I moved in upstairs for the night, the only time I’ve been in a clay structure two stories tall. Even the steep stairs seemed to be made of clay, though I suspect there was a wooden or bamboo framework underneath. The windows were kind of small and the thatched roof hung over them, so there wasn’t as much breeze as one would hope for in a hot and humid climate, but the place was cleaner than my apartment, and downstairs they had electricity and two hammocks, one each in the verandah and the living room.
Setting my memory cards to download, I wrapped a towel around my waist and headed down for ablutions. Finding a gentleman near my age, I asked him the way to the latrine. “Well, it’s not exactly a latrine.” He vaguely pointed to the muddy woods towards the back of the house. I promptly turned tail and made for the elementary school (in my towel), which, thanks to the Education for All program, had state-mandated latrines, separate ones for boys and girls.
Prices go up. Not by the hour or by the day, more like by the week or month. A notch or two below hyperinflation. Given a handful of coins, I have to squint at the numbers on each to tell apart the new two-rupees from the year-old one-rupee coins. The five-rupees have the heft and feel of half-rupees of my youth. The nominal value struggles to keep its head above the rising waters of the value of metal in the coin.
The driver of the auto-rickshaw would ask each potential passenger: “Do you have exact change?” If they didn’t, they meekly went away. One man fished out a dirty (not torn) five rupee note from his pocket. Exact change. “That won’t do.” He too went away. I was amazed at how easily people accepted the refusal of legal tender. The withering of the state.
Nevertheless, the auto filled up quickly. The five-passenger auto-rickshaws are vital connectors — between major bus routes, or between the train and bus routes, or simply to cut down an unpleasant walk in hot and humid weather — in the Calcutta public-transport system. At the destination, the driver’s palm quickly filled up with coins. My fare was seven rupees; I gave him a ten-rupee note. “Didn’t you see I didn’t refused passengers who didn’t have exact change?” I pointed out the ridiculously obvious: “You do have lot of change.” As I walked away with his coins, he muttered an unprintable perfectly calibrated to be heard.
When the state cannot afford to keep currency in circulation, the market steps in. There is a market in loose change; there is even a Bengali word for the premium shopkeepers have to pay to buy coins. The Change Nazi had reason to be pissed off at me; I had robbed him of a little extra income.
On the bus today from Nimtouri to Bonbhera was a blind beggar with a two-stringed musical instrument. Double-stringed mini-lutes are common in rural Bengal, but this one had the peculiarity that it used as its resonating chamber a small drum, perhaps a tabla, that had lost the central section of its skin. Maybe it was a creative recycling of a damaged drum. Blind singing beggars too are common in Bengal, and I did not pay much attention to his singing. If I gave him two rupees it was because quite a few others (of likely slimmer means) were doing so. The crippled drum doubled as a collection box.
For this generosity we were rewarded with a second song, a rendition of “Lord, the day is gone / Night falls / Take me across” which I’d never heard sung except by the old aunt in the 1955 film Pather Panchali.
The bathroom attached to my room in Nimtouri, East Midnapore, West Bengal. I paid Rs. 300 for this room, which is technically US$5, but another way of looking at it is as 37 Metro rides.
A friend’s wedding present for my parents.
Growing up, if one of us spotted a traffic-cop writing, he would nudge the next guy: “Look! he’s taking a plate number,” with the hushed glee of a witness to a secret condemnation.
After many years, I had the courage to actually sneak up to a “sergeant” to see his terrible notes.