As a child, my grandmother’s gold necklace had fascinated me. My fingers would trace its delicately moulded design and feel the intricate lattice work. My imagination fired with a sense of adventure from voracious reading, I would ask her from which hidden cave or niche had this glittering ornament been retrieved. It was a gift from her mother, she would answer with nostalgia, made by skilful artisans from “the village of Modpur across the river Ganga”.
Over the years I came to learn that Modpur, a small town in West Bengal, is well-known for its extremely skilled goldsmiths. The clientele of these artisans include not only Bengali women such as my grandmother who prefer gold ornaments, but even celebrities and film stars across the country who value jewellery made by the “Modpur boys”. It was only recently that I got the opportunity to meet the heroes of my childhood on a visit to the Modpur administrative block in Howrah District, separated from Calcutta, as my grandmother had reported, by the Ganga.
What I found in Modpur is that there is hardly a household where a son, brother, father, uncle or son-in-law is not ‘missing’. In search of better work opportunities and more money, goldsmiths and gem-setters have migrated to faraway cities like Bombay, Hyderabad and, most importantly, Surat, a thriving industrial town in Gujarat famed for its diamonds, jewellery and textiles. Some have even sought their fortunes in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates.
Traditionally, the goldsmiths of Modpur were a small community with the male members handing down the skills to the new generation. When demand for their skills in the export-oriented production centres of western India first sprung up, small groups of artisans made the shift to Surat and Bombay. As their skills became more prized, the trickle turned into a flood. Today, even agricultural workers are abandoning their land to become goldsmiths and migrate.
Two factors stand out in the phenomena of migration from Modpur. Firstly, it is largely the migration of single males. Secondly, the migrants leave home as young adults, barely out of their adolescence. The obsession with making money has drawn young boys away from their studies, with Modpur’s schools now losing the bulk of their male students by Class 8. Laments one school headmaster, Ashwini Adak, “Once the boys turn 12, it’s difficult to retain them. Their nimble fingers are best trained to be skilful goldsmiths. It is the lure of quick money…”
If the schools and soccer fields of Modpur are bereft of young boys, the village’s fertile fields lie uncultivated, a phenomenon unheard of in highly populated West Bengal. Equally bizarre are the garishly coloured concrete buildings mushrooming in the midst of paddy fields, overshadowing the older mud huts. “These two-storied palaces belong to goldsmiths, local boys who now work in different cities and visit home occasionally,” says riksa puller Bharat Dhara as he pedals down the village road. “The huts belong to people who never left Modpur.”
Like so many others, Dhara’s own three sons left Modpur 12 years ago to work as jewellers in Surat. “Why should they stay on here, to labour as a riksa Puller like me? I was once a farmer, look what has happened to me, having to pull this riksa.” His eldest son had just completed Class 8 when Dhara felt that school was a waste of time because it would not lead to a job. “I didn’t want them to suffer, so I let them go.
Migrant goldsmiths such as Dhara’s sons are hailed as the new heroes of Modpur, men who seek their fortunes in distant places and return prosperous. It is the money from the earnings of these jewellers that has triggered developments in villages and in Modpur town itself. Homes now sport television sets and music systems, fancy clocks and crockery. Locals can recognize the destination of the migrant from the appearance of their houses. If the structure is formidably ornamental, the owner is assuredly working in Dubai. Almost as ostentatious, would be the houses of goldsmiths in Bombay or Ahmedabad.
What has prompted goldsmiths of Modpur, whose skills were prized by Bengali clientele such as my grandmother, to migrate on such a massive scale as to leave the area empty of males? Why were traditional agricultural families suddenly willing to abandon their fields?
For the last two decades, Modpur and its surrounding region have been witnessing an unprecedented upheaval associated with the industrialisation and urbanisation of a sedate agrarian economy. Proximity with Calcutta has had a great impact on Modpur. The urban pressures of the large metropolis have pushed people out, westward across the Ganga. According to the Block Development Officer Krishnendu Basak, Modpur is becoming “more a business than an agricultural community.”
The construction of the National and State Highway 6 (NH6) that cuts Howrah District close to Modpur has also triggered a flurry of economic activity. Frenetic developments are taking place along the highway, with acres of industrial estates and residential blocks sprouting up on the farmland. Under the circumstances, farmers either hold on to the land for speculation or sell out to factories and residential high-rise complexes. “The price of land in my village has gone up at least 20 times in the last few years,” said Prasanta Mallick, a village elder.
The rapid pace of real estate development coupled with the rise in price of agricultural inputs such as seed and fertiliser has made agriculture an increasingly unviable option for the locals. At the same time, they do not have the skills and wherewithal to take advantage of the modernisation sweeping their own home ground. Agricultural labourers find themselves unemployed, and the craft of setting gems or making gold ornaments suddenly looks attractive.
Meanwhile, there is mental stress for the generation in transition, which is groomed for agriculture but sees the logic in the shift to working with gold. Farmer Mallick says he is depressed with the chain of events. “I have tried to keep my farm going, but there have been continuous losses. Why should I farm at such a loss if I cannot recover my investment or feed my family?” Mallick has now allowed his 13 year-old son to train to be a goldsmith in Bombay.
With agricultural families turning to the gold trade, the traditional goldsmiths who have remained behind in Modpur find the labour market saturated. But the fact is that not many stay back in Modpur when the bright lights of Surat, Bombay and Dubai call. These places offer not only better work opportunities, but loans to be had, prompt payment of all dues and – all importantly – more lucrative pay. If Calcutta shop owners offer Modpur gemsetters 50 paisa to set a stone, the rate is Rs 2 in Surat. It is this difference that makes young boys and men leave Modpur in droves, to take the trains from Howrah Station headed west.
The ornate pink and purple residences with formidable iron gates stand grotesquely among clusters of shabby huts and acres of fallow land. These images provide a chilling contrast and represent the existential dilemma of Modpur today. On the one hand, the migration of the goldsmiths has led to employment, development of the region, riches and hope among families and the larger community and families. On the other, it has also inflicted death, disease, poverty, and immense suffering. If men have left villages as young boys to chase better opportunities, the migration has also left in its wake separated families and discontinued traditions. In short, broken lives.
The challenges the migrants themselves face are not insignificant. It is not migration per se but the work conditions they migrate to that make them more vulnerable to high- risk behaviour. They work for long periods away from home and family, coping with homesickness and loneliness, trying to adjust to a new working environment and culture, and controlling their emotional and sexual needs. If there is one tragedy that encapsulates the many challenges and dislocations suffered by the people of Modpur, it is the visitation of HIV-AIDS.
Many migrant goldsmiths have contracted the HIV virus and have returned home to die of AIDS, some after infecting their wives and unborn children. This year, the husband of 23 year-old Tulu (name changed) died of AIDS after having infected her as well as their three-year old daughter. A few years ago, her father and brother had died of the same cause. All were migrant goldsmiths in Surat. It was three years ago that Rani, 22, lost her husband Balu to AIDS and five months later, her eight-year-old child too succumbed to the infection. “I want to live,” says Rani who is on anti-retroviral drugs to improve her declining immunity. “I am so young, I did not even know about the disease until my husband and daughter died.”
Headmaster Ghosh is a sad man today. Not only have his students left school to become jewellers, he has lost many of them to the disease. “There is hardly anyone in Modpur who has not lost a family member or does not know someone who is sick with HIV virus or is dead with AIDS,” he says. The spread of HIV and AIDS in the local population is grave enough for local AIDS activists to label the Modpur area a high-risk zone. The local network of HIV-positive people has 180 members, most of whom are widows of migrant goldsmiths. Says gram pradhan Subir Chatterji, “We have development in Modpur, but we now also have HIV and AIDS.”
The social cost
The rapid development in the communities of Modpur and the surrounding region has been accompanied by certain social costs. What is weakening – and at times disappearing altogether – with the breakdown of the rural economy, lack of employment and migration, are old family and social values and community ties. While there is now greater freedom and mobility for individuals, there are related problems of alienation and cultural tension. Farmers ruefully admit that their sons ‘look down’ on working the land; and girls refuse to marry men who ‘work and get dirty’. Says riska puller Dhara, “My sons claim they are bored when they visit the village. One of them even dresses like a girl with long hair and floral-printed shirts.”
As societies confront modernisation and development all over India and Southasia, in a hundred thousand communities, social breakdown is in progress. Social controls and values are weakening and individuals and communities find themselves exposed, left to fend for themselves without guidance, empathy or a helping hand. Modpur, in the throes of social transition, is just the reflection of one community undergoing the stress of change. The district and its historical legacy that produced my grandmother’s beautiful gold necklace is today a society at once ‘successful’ and ‘off course’.
Writer’s note: Modpur is a real place, only its name has been changed.