I visit Gaur in winter. ‘Someone has died,’ informs the driver that day, his tone reminding me, in a bloodless way, of my first school lesson: Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. My co-passenger is my new friend, Jim Ishmael. I had met him the previous day and because he is the student of a student, he chooses to address me as ‘Ma’am’. I am taken by his name. It is the best kind of cocktail I can imagine – Joseph Conrad’s man in Africa mixed with the egotistic, wanderlust-bitten American of Herman Melville. No, he does not tell me ‘Call me Ishmael,’ so I settle on ‘Jim’.
‘What could be the religion of the dead man?’ wonders our driver, Ganesh, as he stubs out the incense sticks stuck into the crevices of the dashboard. Guru Nanak and Lokenath Baba sit together at the front, their white beards in brotherly togetherness, inhaling joystick smoke. Jim and I do not answer the driver’s wayward question. He probably thinks we have not heard him, for he raises his voice and offers a self-explanatory truism, ‘Whether he is burnt or buried – for either way, we go back to the earth – drivers know that the road is the ultimate destination.’
The silence of the cold December morning disturbs me in a way that is difficult to explain. So I tell the driver, almost without thinking, ‘The dead man must be cold’. But the driver is not paying attention to my words. ‘He must have been a driver,’ he continues with his monologue, and before I can ask why, he gives me the reason: ‘Only drivers know that the road to death is the road itself.’ With a co-passenger named Jim Ishmael, it is perhaps not extraordinary that explorations of death filter into my consciousness like the sunlight between the thick foliage of the mango orchards that line the road on either side, their imagined sticky syrupy sweetness still half a year away.
The 16 kilometres from Malda to the ancient ruined city of Gaur pass in a favourite Bengali indulgence: criticism. Jim finally starts talking, and his conversation lights up with complaints – against politicians who have not served Gaur well, against teachers who have been miserly with marks, against the general rules that maintain balance in the world, against the Archaeological Survey of India and history itself. One of his questions unnerves me: ‘But why do you care for history? Why do you want to know how dead people lived?’ Before I can take shelter in George Santayana’s words, that ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,’ he has convicted me: ‘I hate two things: history and religion. Both are about
One side of the narrow street from Chaitanyadeb’s temple to the ruins of Gaur is lined with quaint kuchcha houses. Their walls carry drawings of cows and elephants; the lines have an ancient air about them, one exaggerated by the sight of women sitting on verandas, making biris. Some of them smile when I press the button on my camera, a few look away shyly, and most of them are indifferent to the gaze of the passers-by. There is a tiredness about the place that even the young domesticated animals seem to share, of a poverty that is visible in the skin that wraps rib cages of both man and animal, so that my colloquial use of the term rich history sounds inappropriate. Even at the entrance, the temple looks trampled upon by a history of dust and weariness; and all around, women are tying straw into bundles, young bleating goats pulling a few from those bundles, and an open toilet where human and animal defecation give the feeling of a life of exhaustion.
As I fold my hands in a short prayer to Ma Chhinamasta, Jim calls me from behind. ‘You believe in god?’ he asks. Caught in the act of being Homo spirituosi, I am about to blame it on my Hindu-brined reflexes when Jim interlopes with another question: ‘Do you believe in death?’ Not until I die, a part of me wants to say – but by then, Gaur has arrived in my viewscape. The immense expanse of the brick ruins against the gloomy blue of the December sky, the dust-to-dust drama being re-enacted in the fine spray of silica that catches sunlight decides it for me, and so I say, ‘I believe more in death than I do in immortality.’ The goddess Chhinamasta, holding her own severed head in her left hand, the ambiguous look in her eyes that does not let me decide whether it is compassion for the dead or pity for those alive that lights them, seems to agree with my response. Or that is what Ganesh thinks, paraphrasing the goddess’s answer for me.
There is an ordinariness in the Gaur ruins that blurs the divide between past and present, a seeming seamlessness that speaks through the shadows of trees, the moodiness of the sky, the sound of water dripping from somewhere – invisible but to a rhythm that interferes with counting moments: All these must have been the same, centuries ago? These and the cows – white, black, brown, their tiny humps seem like dots on hillocks as seen from a distance, cows that gave Gaur its name. Actually, its oldest name is Lakshmanavati, after Lakshman, Ram’s brother. But it is as Gaur, from gau or cow, that history has chosen to remember it.
It was Gopala who founded the Pala Empire. This was during the seventh century, and the dynasty continued to rule for nearly five centuries – the reason they were also called the Palas of Gaur. Gaur’s good fortunes continued under the Sena dynasty, as well, but it was the Muslim invasion in the 13th century that forever changed the life of Gaur. At that time, the sultans of Bengal shifted their governing capital to nearby Pandua, plundering Gaur of its riches. A hundred and fifty years later, however, Gaur’s crest rose again, as it became the capital under a new name, losing its Hindu mythological connections to the cow for the symbolic heaven of its new title, Jannatabad.
This ebb and flow of destiny continued over the centuries. Eventually, Jannatabad was abandoned for Tanda, a settlement closer to the Ganga, followed by Sher Shah’s 1539 snubbing of the city; the plague; the change in the course of the Ganga; and the present, where history fights for a space in one’s memory as bricks battle the encroachment of the jungle.
Gaur’s architecture is an assemblage of many influences. When it meets my eye after the generous picnic-ready shadows of mango trees, there seems to be something unique about it. This is an adaptation of Mughal architecture, true, but tempered so liberally with locally available material that it evades categorisation. And that is good, perhaps, especially because it is the procession of local names for these places that tempers the traveller’s pleasure.
Baraduari, the mosque that has only 11 doors even though its name claims 12, is the largest surviving monument in Gaur. I trace the dust with my fingers on its 16th-century Indo-Arabic ventilators, an old habit of housekeeping. At that point Ganesh, having assumed the role of a guide, earnestly declares, ‘This is what inspired Rabindranath to write that song, “Je raatey mor duar guli bhanglo jhawrey”.’ I laugh at this manufactured story about Tagore’s muse, but cannot help but wonder at this delicious conflation between the song – ‘The night when the storm shattered my doors’ – and the emerging leitmotif of this journey: death.
Dakhil (enter) Darwaza (gate), an impressive 15th-century gateway, has also come to be known as the Salaami Darwaza. About a kilometre from this place is the Firoz Minar. Modelled after the Qutub Minar, its Tughlaqi style is reflected in the beautifully panelled walls of terracotta carvings. Having skipped breakfast and thus feeling tired, I stop climbing this 84-stair tower after having covered just a fraction of that upward journey. The tower goes by two other names: Chiragdani and the other more interesting Pir-Asha-Minar. That last nomenclature becomes obvious to the eye when the names of lovers conjoined in that universal sign ‘+’ become visible: the asha in the local title means hope for the fulfilment of lovers’ dreams. But Ganesh, never one to miss the opportunity for another lavish spread of gossip, calls it, in his peculiar colloquial, the ‘suicide spot’.
A little later, when I try to avoid his anecdotes, he shouts out for my attention in the tone of a star archaeologist. I had wanted to visit the Tantipara mosque first, enchanted by its name (‘weavers’ village’), but it was the Kadam Rasul mosque to which he had brought us. As its name indicates, he explains, it contains the footprints of the Prophet Mohammed in stone. I am suddenly reminded of my aunt taking prints of my grandmother’s alta-smeared feet on paper and later framing the sheet for her puja room. Ganesh interjects, ‘I know what you are thinking – who had bigger feet, the Prophet or Chaitanya, isn’t it?’ I tell him that I find it interesting that the tomb of Fateh Khan, a commander in Aurangzeb’s army, is built in the Hindu chala style. Surprisingly, he does not run away from my comment, but responds with a miraculous flight of words: ‘Everyone is a Kabir here – Hindu and Mussalman!’
My favourite among all the mosques, when Ganesh compels me to come up with one, is the Chika Masjid. Built in 1475 by Sultan Yusuf Shah, it gets its name from the chika, the bats, that found shelter in it. Ganesh immediately attributes this to the partial visibility of Hindu gods on the walls of the mosque, and when I am irritated with his psychoanalytic tendencies I ask Jim whether he, too, like me, finds it fascinating that a space that once served as a prison was converted into a mosque by importing carved stones and enamelled bricks from a Hindu temple. Jim does not answer.
Jahaj-ghat, the old port, comes as a revelation: I have never witnessed the history of stubborn watermarks. The rivers Ganga and Pagla flow nearby, though as old watermarks on the ruins of bridges show, the river once flowed closer to the city of ruins. A deep moat that once protected it from the world has gone dry in most parts. I am no historian of water, only its devotee. And here, water comes to the eye only in parenthesis, broken and tattered, often without consequence; the Ganga is cruel here, and every monsoon, when the Bengali sings of clouds and counts love to the beat of thunder, the river kills men and swallows homes. The thin bricks have been scarred by an enemy weather over centuries; the ruins were used as a quarry by the locals until the early 20th century, so that what we see now in Gaur is only a fragment of the past, most of it hollowed out by ungenerous time.
A few days before I came to Gaur, an astrologer on a train bound for Kolkata had told me, as we were stuck at the Malda junction for a few restless hours, that all this was in the horoscope of the city: the multiple scars from its fickle destinies of dethronement, its rise and fall and, finally, its predicted death in a swallowing-up by the Ganga. I refuse Ganesh’s offer of a trip to the graveyards – even to the cremation ghat, which played such a significant role in my childhood stories about ghosts.
~ Sumana Roy teaches at the Department of Humanities, Jalpaiguri Government Engineering College. Her first novel, Love in the Chicken’s Neck, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008.