A glimpse of our local history
Every place has a history. It might not be as exciting as the histories of other places, may lack the chutzpah it requires to be written about in best-sellers, but it is history nevertheless. It is a misconstrued but popular notion that a place needs to be ‘interesting’ to be looked into and documented. What is interesting? Who defines the yardstick by which we measure the interest-worthiness of a place? Questions like these and many more popped up in our media class when we were given this project. It is true indeed, a place might not have a history which is rich, exciting or unexplored, but it is history and thus it becomes a responsibility to research and record it. For if our history is lost, then so are our identities.
Sundergarh is a small district in north-west Odisha nestled by Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and other districts of Odisha on all sides. It was one of the princely states which changed several hands before it finally came under the control of Odisha Division few years before independence. Interestingly, Sundergarh is also the place where both my grandfather and grandmother were born and spent their childhood.
Birkera, the village of my grandfather’s birth is a modest little village in Sundergarh with a laid back vibe and friendly village folk. A dusty road leads to the sleepy village; it has not changed for as long as my 74-year old grandfather can remember. One is greeted by hordes of jackfruit and mango trees swaying in the breeze with thatched kutcha huts dotting the whole expanse. Farmers stand ankle-deep in the fields while others go about drawing water from the various community wells that are scattered through the village or sit under shady trees catching up on village gossip. One can’t help but be reminded of how this place has been following the art of slow living long before it became a thing.
During old times, the people of the village mostly engaged in paddy farming in addition to scouring the nearby forests for timber and mahua flowers. In fact, grandfather fondly remembers sneaking into the forest as a small kid with his friends to gorge on mahua flowers which were at once sweet, pungent and aromatic. In the months of March and April, his mother, along with the other women of the village gathered the mahua flowers to sell in the market. Despite known for its fiery liquor, mahua surprisingly has many other properties which my grandfather was more than eager to share. Back in his time, they never bought oil from the market as they used to extract oil from mahua seeds for all kinds of purposes- from cooking to applying on hair. Many pots of oil could be extracted at once using the local indigenous method of extraction.
This dependence on forest produce has changed in today’s times. Since the government has fixed a very low MSP (Minimum Supply Price) for forest produce like timber and mahua, villagers no longer find it profitable to sell these products in the markets.
Birkera several decades back had an abundance of fruit trees, everything from jackfruit and mangoes to lemon and orange were aplenty. The weather conditions have changed since then, partly due to excessive industrialization on the fringes of the village and partly due to global warming, and today it is no longer possible to grow oranges.
Since farming forms the mainstay occupation of Birkera residents, most of their time during the year is spent on fields. Grandfather tells he used to get up along with his father and other siblings at the crack of dawn during sowing season to prepare the land. Cow dung was dried and powdered to be used as a natural fertilizer for the soil. When the harvest season came calling, grandfather used to skip school to help his family and friends work on the field as they scrambled to finish the process before the winters rolled in.
The winnowing of the crop in process
During the festive season, delicacies varying from extravagant curries to local sweetmeats like arissa pitha (deep fried flat discs of rice flour and jaggery) and rice ladoos were lovingly prepared and served along with an unlimited supply of local rice beer and mahua. On such special occasions when large people gathered, food was served in plates made of sal leaves. Even the temporary tents put up to accommodate the people were made of sal leaves.
Arissa pitha is a sweetmeat of rice flour & jaggery deep fried to perfection
One common thread that runs through all of my grandfather’s childhood anecdotes and stories is the love and respect for nature the people had. If they took from nature, they gave back lovingly too. An instance is the mango tree which found centre stage at his house. When building the kutcha house, the lofty mango tree came in the way of the construction. Instead of cutting it down, they built the property around it. Till a few years ago, the tree bear juicy mangoes before it was cut down over a family feud, my grandfather bitterly reminisces.
It was also the time when family relationships were different, he says. He disapproves of the fact that family bonding today means going out to dinner where everyone is on their phone, compared to family bonding of his times, which meant fishing trips to the local pond with his father. The subsequent conversations between them will be forever etched in his memory.
It is interesting to note that not all of Sundergarh is quaint villages untouched by modernization. It is home to industrialized towns as well. My grandmother for instance was born and brought up in the town of Rajgangpur and today is quick to point out the change the place has witnessed before her own eyes.
My grandma, lone girl among six brothers all elder to her, lived on a large estate which was almost self-sufficient with its own fields, cattle and poultry, and even a little stream which trickled through the property! Like my grandfather, my grandmother had parents who farmed for a living. They had paddy fields and unlike my grandfather’s village where the process of farming was a collective effort by the whole village, all work from sowing to storing the grains was done on the estate itself. They had numerous trees of custard apple, tamarind, mangoes and jackfruits on their property. A tamarind tree and a jackfruit tree have survived the ravages of time and still stand proudly at the same spot they were planted more than 70 years ago.
Food habits of her time were unique and intriguing. Dairy and dairy products were never consumed, save for goat milk which was sometimes given to infants. The lack of calcium intake was made up for by incorporating millets like ragi in the daily diet. Eggs were also not eaten, as they preferred consuming mature chickens. During monsoon, grandma hungrily remembers the tender bamboo preserve which her grandmother and later, mother used to prepare. Even today my grandmother slaves over the long drawn process of preparing the preserve (which is then bottled up and sent to us whenever she visits!).
The stone grinder which my grandmother's mother used to grind pulses
As a young teen, balancing school and chores was something my grandmother did with élan. Even though the only time she got to study was when everyone had gone to bed, she was never behind in her academics. She animatedly recalls one incident where her hair was singed by the lantern when she fell asleep over her homework. Sometimes grandma even faced literal obstacles, in the form of goods trains blocking her way to school. Not to be bothered, grandmother and her friends would just hold their bags close to themselves and wiggle under the train to reach the other side.
The happy times were about to change when the OCL Konark Cement opened its manufacturing unit in Rajgangpur in the 1950s.
The fine cement dust would find a permanent place over everything it touched, no amount of dusting or cleaning could get rid of the wretched stuff which was everywhere-on the streams, on the fields, the clothes, even the hair. It is a problem which still exists today, though it has invariably got better, grandmother muses. “One got habitual to it” she says.
Rajgangpur has undergone considerable, if not momentous change, from the time my grandmother was not even born, pre-independence, to today’s era, post-liberalization. A well-trodden path which led to their house is now cemented and the town is well-connected with the cities of Sundergarh and Rourkela by State Highway 10. Even the kutcha mud houses she lived in as a kid have been replaced by pastel coloured brick-houses. Electricity has transformed the town with its touch and grandma laughs that kids there no longer have to get their hair burnt in order to finish their homework. When asked how she feels about the place she spent her childhood in, transforming, she says that change is inevitable and one has to accept it.
Today, my grandparents have comfortably settled in the town of Rourkela, a place they moved to with all their possessions and dreams in tow as a young couple. Both of them still identify with the places they have called home be it through regular visits to their hometowns, the ancestral recipes which find a place on the dinner table even today or the little anecdotes which have somehow found permanence in their slowly diminishing memories.
Grandfather is part Rourkela and part Birkera, and always will be.
Grandmother still has Rajgangpur coursing through her blood, mingled with a bit of cement dust.
Their stories resonate the truth that though we might move out in search of opportunities, adventure or purpose and make different places our home; our origins will always hold a special place in our hearts.
This is an essay written as part of a media class project: Looking into Local History
"Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times."