Memories of a Receding Past: 27


After receiving that very warm send off at Ahmedabad I travelled for over 24 hours to reach Raipur. There were two changes on the way – one at Surat and the other at Bhusaval. At Bhusaval I ran into an old student of my father who was a regular visitor at our place. He was the guard of the Bombay-Calcutta Mail that I caught at the dead of the night. He nicely had me settled in on my birth and told the travelling ticket checker to take care of me.

An inspector escorted me to the house at Raipur that was curiously located in what was known as Byron Bazar. The origin of the name I could not ascertain as all inquiries met with a blank. Even today the Internet shows the remarkable development in Byron Bazar but gives no information about the origin of the name.

The house was a big bungalow in a huge dusty vacant compound with a few inhabited servants’ quarters on the fringes. The bungalow itself was divided into my residence and my office of about 14 clerks and three or four supervisors. It was located on a dusty crossroads and the roads leading to which were all dusty.

If one goes by the photographs now it would seem that Byron Bazaar has had a huge makeover and the kind of development unimaginable those days. Half a century ago it was spurious socialism that suppressed development. Poor remained poor and the rich became richer. The first impression, therefore, of mine as I wound my way from the Railway station, was of stark poverty. Ahmedabad, from where I moved to Raipur, was an affluent place and appeared prosperous. Raipur happened to be just the opposite.

My eldest brother was the collector in the next district of Bilaspur. It was 80 miles away by train. I caught the first train after depositing my luggage to provide enough time to the officer I was to relieve to organize his departure.

Bilaspur too was in the Chhattisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh. It was yet to separate to become a new state. Far away from Bhopal, the state capital, these two districts and Bastar were largely neglected.

Brother was there at the station as I alighted from the Bombay Howrah mail. He took me to his huge 19th Century bungalow that had a porch to accommodate an elephant. The porch had even a staircase for climbing on to the elephant’s back as it stood in the porch. This was truly a relic of the past. Later I happened to see that the bungalow had enormously big grounds through which even ran a small river. My brother’s pariah dog had a busy time chasing out intruders all the time from the big compound.

I visited Bilaspur several times as it was refreshing to be away from Raipur. Raipur was a highly unionised place and several predecessors of mine happened to have breakdowns because of their aggressive behavior. During one such visit my brother took me to a place called Korba which, in fact was a colony of people working in the coal-based thermal power plant. Korba and the surroundings were sitting on a huge coal field and that is why the plant was sited here. The small town that was developed was very pretty with small bungalows surrounded by teak trees. The authorities took care to fell only those trees that were on the proposed buildings sites; others were allowed to remain. One cannot but appreciate the consciousness for environment that was displayed in this remote corner of India more than half a century ago when degrading environment was not an issue and generally it was taken for granted.  

At Raipur I had to look after the postal operations of three districts, Raipur, Durg and Bastar – all were backward. Raipur was traditionally a district headquarters and had, therefore, a semblance of development. The biggest urban centre was, however, the Bhilai Steel Plant and its township adjoining Durg, the headquarters of the eponymously named district. Bhilai town was laid out in a linear manner taking care to see that the smoke from the plant does not blow into the town.

As stated earlier the trade union branch at Raipur was very active. It was led by one Brijmohan Singh who also used to be the national Vice President. While he was very polite face-to-face he could create a problem out of nowhere. Anytime was good enough for him to ring up the Sr. Superintendent in the house. Since I was regular club-goer he must have tried and failed to get me and later he probably gave it up. I spent only seven months in Raipur and I can claim that Singh hardly gave me any trouble.

The district club is a phenomenal institution that was left behind by The British. It was a place for officers to meet in an informal environment, play games together without any regard to the hierarchy and if necessary resolve some official problem. While the club at Bilaspur was rather sleepy, the one in Raipur was lively. Some officers used to come with their respective wives. Some young IAS and IPS officers used to be around and teaming with them I had a roaring time. We played tennis and billiards to our heart’s content. Where do you get a table to play billiards on for free? One could do that for hours in the Raipur Club.

While I used to move around on trains and my Lambretta scooter acquired while at Ahmedabad the most interesting journey was by public transport to Jagdalpur. I will write about it later but first, the trip to Simga, a sub-divisional town. I had to go and approve a rented building to open a new office the demand from the local people for which was pending for a long time. Simga was 28 miles away hence I took off on my scooter with an inspector on the pillion. It was the road to Bilaspur – wide and leafy with very little traffic. I approved a good looking building the rent for which was within my powers.

As it was 12.30 PM the inspector became fidgety. On asking him, he said he was keen on the 1.30 news of AIR to listen to the Indo-Pak war news of 1965. I said okay and we started for Raipur. As the road was empty I speeded up the scooter and drove at 80 kmph. The breeze in my face almost blinded me and hitting as they did the exposed hands giving them a tingling sensation. Some monkeys were sitting on the middle of the road. Seeing the oncoming scooter the adults disappeared into the roadside trees but a baby kept sitting and watching me head towards him. As I skirted by, he tried and slapped the rear mud guard and as he did so he was thrown yards away by the impact. Suddenly, I realised it was dangerous to drive a two wheeler so fast and I slowed down. We made it to my office just as the newscast was to begin. As I switched on my National Ecko 8 valve radio and the news reader’s deep bass came through, the entire office trooped into my drawing room. That day Indian Army had opened the Barmer front to elicit a round of clapping from everybody

The other tour was to Bastar by a state transport bus. It was a almost 300 kilometres ride on a rickety bus proverbially uncomfortable. But I had to go there as the inspection of the big office there had become overdue. Travelling by the bus to Jagdalpur was quite embarrassing as I happened to be the only non-tribal that day and all eyes seemingly were on me. The rest of the passengers had a way of staring at me that made me feel uncomfortable. Thankfully, the bus passed through some lovely country and one had to look out of the window to take in the passing panorama.

Bastar is on a plateau and the bus had to climb twice on hills that were not very high. The first one was known by the name of Kanker which had a very small settlement. The bus stopped for a few minutes at the rest house where we were told a tiger was seen on the preceding night. Next rise was known as Keshkal Ghati and the road was beautiful snaking its way up with dense vegetation on two sides. It was a tropical forest and a typical tiger country. A one-horse town, Kondagaon, came up next which is currently the headquarters of the sub-divisional magistrate. After that, as I remember it, it was journeying through the plateau with about 100 yards of clearings on both sides, presumably for cultivation, and beyond them were the jungles. Occasionally one would come across tribal men resting in the shade of a tree and as they heard the bus approaching they would sit up to give it a good look and then again would lie back on the bare earth. Clearly, they had nothing better to do right through the day. Relaxing in the benign weather was all that they had to do.

Jagdalpur was quite a surprise. In the midst of the prevailing backwardness and seemingly primitive people shops were illuminated with electricity when we arrived. There were far too many shops selling radios and film music was blaring out through them. It was kind of surreal as well as incongruous. Yet one had to admit it was there and there were no two ways about it. Obviously the shops were of outsiders – non-tribals who had been doing business in Bastar. At that time adjoining areas of Narainpur, Bijapur, Dantewada, etc. were only partially explored. Sukma in the south was still totally undeveloped with jungles all around. Bastar is, however, known for its iron deposits and world class iron ore was being mined at Bailadila to be exported to Japan. It is such an irony that wherever there is wealth below the surface there is also wealth over ground that has to be cleared to get at what is underground. Mining is, therefore, is a very rapacious activity.

I was still in Jagdalpur when I got a call from the Postmaster General (PMG) that I had been transferred to Jabalpur as the incumbent was joining the Indian Army and the post could not be downgraded. So, I returned finishing the inspection in a hurry as the PMG was also going to inspect my office.

When I returned I was told the PMG also wanted to inaugurate the mobile post office for Bhilai, a vehicle designed for which was waiting to be made operational. On the second day of his visit I was asked to proceed to Bhilai to organize the inauguration and arrange for proper publicity I did likewise and met the district publicity officer who turned out to be an old student of my father. He said he would take care of the publicity part – which in fact the PMG wanted being highly publicity conscious.

As it turned out the PMG became a victim of two mishaps. First, his vehicle that was borrowed by our lower level functionaries broke down before it entered Bhilai. I had refused to touch anybody for a vehicle for this very reason. The second mishap was that barring a few reporters no press photographers turned up. Our man, the PMG, was red in the face when he cut the tape. He carried his anger back to Raipur and next day he handed over the inspection report with an adverse comment in its tail. My office staff were wild with anger as, they said, it had never happened before. But that is the way with petty men. He was indeed petty as I saw later in my career as our paths crossed several times.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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