Bettiah, a dot on the map of Eastern India, in the heart of Champaran – the land of indigo farmers – where Gandhi started his fight for an independent India in 1919. My grandfather was a part of Gandhi’s movement. Someone who was repeatedly jailed for his resistance to the British and suffered many a lathi charge at their hands.

My Dad grew up here, he is proud of saying he had “basic education” here, then a new concept in schooling. He learnt how to weave his own cloth and didn’t wear anything but loom spun cloth – also known as khadi – until he went to college. All these stories of his growing up, in the acres upon acres of fertile, rice-growing land owned by his family, in and out of neighboring homes where everyone was a distant relative, drinking milk fresh from the cow, plucking and eating mangoes and lichis straight off the trees and owning a piece of land, that was so pleasantly known as the phulwari, they provide a sense of nostalgia for me (that’s if one is allowed to be nostalgic about things one hasn’t experienced first hand). This land came alive for me in these stories.

And they weren’t all just stories, I did visit during summer vacations from school. I remember riding in the front carriage of Khalil’s bike as he took me around the fields, the mango orchards and his home. I can still reconstruct our ancestral home from memory. It was a large house facing the community pond. There was a well on the left and a small cottage a few steps away where my grandfather’s younger brother – my granduncle – used to practice his yoga. As kids my cousins and I used to converge upon his cottage so he could give us the sugar candy we call misri.

I have fond memories of sleeping outside in the large courtyard that was surrounded by rooms on all sides, listening to someone telling a story or playing antakshari with my cousins. Some long-lasting impressions were made here.

1981 was probably the last time I visited. As a shallow teenager the ancestral home, its secret corners, hide and seek games of earlier youth had all ceased to fascinate. The heat, the dust, the mosquitoes and the severely curtailed freedoms of movement and attire that a growing girl faced in a place like Champaran had sucked all the fun out of these visits.

Twenty four years later I often think about my roots, my beginnings. We have a family tree that can be traced back to 12 generations or more, my roots go deep unlike most of my acquaintances in this country who often express a strong desire to retrace their roots and aren’t able to. But this knowledge, this realization – what if anything does it mean to me? I have a sense that I must value it but it doesn’t inspire anything other than occasional nostalgia. I feel a twinge of guilt that this may be even less meaningful to my daughter, unless she grows up to be a searcher, a seeker, who feels incomplete and has an intense desire to live and breathe the same air as her ancestors, even for a short period of time. It could happen, she might want to strap on a backpack and say – Mom, I want to visit Champaran – I might even let her go, despite being worried sick, more about a disappointment I sense she may feel than about her safety; the latter being something that’s a given.

I sense she may be disappointed because things have changed. My parents went back home for the first time in several years this year. They had intended to spend a couple of weeks there but were back in 5 days. The mosquitoes and the general discomfort only on the fringes of the major disappointment at a villager squatting on a broken cot in the corner of the courtyard with his goats tethered nearby. This was the flourishing stronghold of our very large and extended family. This is where my grandmother reigned supreme all those years ago; servants, visitors, vendors were in and out all day and now there was a lonely man and his goats! The walls were crumbling, the roof was leaking and sadness reigned supreme. What will things be like when the backpacking bug is upon Anoushka?

We deserted our hometown, we haven’t the slightest connection to it now and it isn’t something that happened with my generation. Dad tells a story of when he first went home after returning from the US, PhD degree in hand. He was conversing with a woman who had attended to him when he was a baby, his nursemaid perhaps. She had lovingly asked if he was coming back for good and my Dad had suggested there was nothing to return to, there were no prospects. Several years down the line, my Dad was older and I was old enough to appreciate things more deeply, I was stunned to hear what he told me the woman had said to him when he had mentioned the lack of prospects, this unlettered woman who had never set foot outside the village, had said “Here my child, there’s land!” Of course the sentence loses a world of meaning in its translation from Bhojpuri. But there we have it – back to the roots – to land. What can one possibly lack when one has land? I often think of her remark. I don’t even know why I do, but I do all the same.

Speaking of land, and as an aside, is something that triggered the above; a highly detailed map that a friend shared with me when I told him my parents were in Bettiah last week. He pulled up a satellite mapping of the entire region. I had never known any geographical details about Bettiah, other than knowing it was in Bihar, in Champaran and close to the Indo-Nepal border. Here it is showcased in great detail with roads, neighboring cities, the whole lot! One can even see Motihari to the east of Bettiah – the birthplace of George Orwell. Have never had a clearer picture of the land of our ancestors. Perhaps Google Earth or other such technology will save us all the hassle of Anoushka expressing the desire (if she ever does) to actually go there! So much is increasingly possible, virtually!

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  1. Thanks for dropping by my blog. Very insightful post, especially to those who aren't native anymore. We are all citizens of nowhere in this age. The distance from the roots is the only varying factor. I'll be back to read more.

  2. How beautifully, sadly evocative!The more one hears it the more likes your literary 'voice' Pragya! Somewhere there's a book waiting to be written…

  3. This was a lovely read prags.I am glad i came by!:)

  4. I read the entire article with a lot of interest, excitement and tears rolling down my eyes. Your insight ignite memories of my childhood. How lively a description! I can only add a few words. The area is very fertile but has one of the lowest rate of literacy in the country. Our house is virtually in ruins and your description is accurate. Your grand father, my father was an illustrious freedom fighter who sacrificed a lot for the country. He was befittingly called “Gandhi of Champaran” and is still remembered every October 2, a day day he shares as the birth day with the great Gandhi whose name had prefixed “Mahatma” while he was satyagrahing in Champaran Jail that my father also inhabited later during the Freedom movement. He was virtually killed by the British stooges twice in his early life and thrown away presumed dead. In nearby village to Ranipur there is Brindaban Ashram, as you mention with the busts of both the Mahatma and his disciple. The Ashram is in ruins too just like my father’s home but my own efforts brought a Navodaya Vidyalaya to the village, a quality higher secondary school conceived personally by late Rajiv Gandhi, India’s prime Minister once. There is so much to write. Perhaps some day I shall post my own memories of my childhood for the sake of Anoushka, if she ever develops an interest. If I live that long I shall take her to that great land I so fondly proudly call the “Pavitra Bhumi of Champaran”. You also have a written family tree of 26 generations starting in 1170. Each name in that tree bears “Mahamahopadhyaya Pandit…..”. I hope you know what it means. If you write more, I shall comment more take it from your father.

  5. Pragya Madam writes with finesse and class while we boors bumble along….but seriously, such elegant writing about a deeply emotional thing. I have suffered similar loss of connection with land, even if now only in a city. I do hope you will capture those 26 generations in a beautiful tree and maybe write about each of them. Kind of like Roots, but much more. You have the tools and technology which others didn't before. Do consider it. Yr frndVM

  6. hi pragya, here's another oldtimer with tears streaming down his rough cheeks… I identified myself with your dad so much, I wept. The same thing happened to our family, the same comments, and same going away… my grandpa went to jail for independence too… and finally our family Haveli crashed down last year. I've been feeling unspeakably homeless eversince. Amazingly well-written, keep writing…there's a novel hidden in this post.cheerz!

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