When does a small town grow up? Or does she really grow up? Deep in our hearts, we want our small towns to be that lazy little place where we can return to once we are tired of all our quests. Caught between the urge or the compulsion to modernize and desire to remain that quiet refuge, small towns do grow up sometimes in an unplanned manner, haphazardly while clinging to little things and moments that set them apart. No matter how fast or decidedly progress marches he can’t take away those little jewels that make our small towns special!
My hometown Agartala is one such small town. She was once a quiet little place once, green and pretty, even boring. As a girl, all I wanted was to leave her behind. She wasn’t enough to hold all my ambitions, my dreams, my aspirations. I enjoyed her quiet rainy afternoons though, the starlit nights, birds chirruping in the morning and the song of the cuckoo. I wondered where the two-rupee hawker lived or the ice-cream seller. Or the old man who lost his mind would come to our place occasionally for food, where did he vanish.
Agartala had its own stories and tales, some silly, some intriguing, some even mysterious. I would listen wide-eyed when Dida (my grandma) would tell us stories about how snakes would seek revenge if hurt. Snakes are loyal and faithful to their partners; she would tell us. And if a human being hurt or killed their partner even inadvertently, they would eventually sting that person to death. In those days we would often see snakes, though non-poisonous water snakes, in humid and green Agartala. We would listen to her stories in awe hoping to never harm a snake.
Then there were supernatural tales, of the sudden emergence of people who had perished. They would appear before their loved ones but cause no harm. Then there were sometimes spicy, sometimes mundane tales about far off relatives or people we may have known.
I enjoyed those stories immensely, I loved every bit of my beautiful green Agartala (though I may not have known it then), but she wasn’t enough for me and so I left chasing the stars that shone so bright. I caught a few, a few I dropped along the way and a few stared at me from a distance and continued to inspire me. I left thinking when I came back one day my Agartala will remain the same, waiting to welcome me back in her lap.
I would return often not so much to Agartala but to meet my family. On each visit, I would notice Agartala changing slowly though she still remained by old girl. Then one day when I came back and looked for the old hometown, I almost couldn’t recognize her. There were buildings everywhere, huge courtyards with coconut trees, beetle nut trees, so many flowering plants were gone. The black crows that would wake us in the morning with incessant cawing have suddenly vanished. Agartala has become a concrete jungle. There were vehicles honking everywhere.
As I sat by the window lamenting my city lost, I suddenly heard an old familiar sound – tring, tring, a cotton shredder on his cycle playing the strings on his simple shredding instrument. People still get their razai, mattresses and pillows made at home in Agartala, I thought in delight. As I looked out, I could see a few sparrows flying from tree to tree. There was a cuckoo singing far away. And in the afternoon suddenly the sound of the loudspeaker announcing some so-called Ayurvedic practitioner who could cure any ailment resonated in the neighbourhood. Suddenly the memories of growing up in Agartala came flooding back – the cuckoo and sparrows fleeting, the squirrels and black crows are missing though. The loudspeakers on rickshaw announcing Jatra or release of a new film, the two-rupee hawker, the cotton shredder, the aachar seller…
Much is lost but Agartala has managed to hold on to a few pieces here and there. I can still find my old girl, hidden amidst all the din, trying to retain her old charm!