Sunday, April 22, 2012

Scratch Your B@!!$

Mahesh Company

In the twelve weeks that I have been in Maheshpur, I have tried to glean every bit of information on the history of this place. Sadly, not much could be learnt except that parts of the Sundarbans had been parceled off by leases since the time of the British Raj.  Environment, Population, and Human Settlements of Sundarban Delta a book by Anuradha Banerjee deals with and records, that after the East India Company took over, leases were granted between 1770 -1773 in order to reclaim land and supply timber. Thereafter one Mr. Princep (1822-23) designed the area into blocks and numbered them into lots or Lats and hence the name 24 Parganas originated. The area was mapped by Morrison (1814) and was the basis of Lt. Hodges (1829) land surveys and the task was completed in 1831 and is known as Hodges Map of Sundarban. Mr. Dampier the then Commissioner along with Lt. Hodges defined the line of forests that came to be known as the Dampier Hodges Line. Since 1830 almost 3800 sq. kms south of the Dampier Hodges Line had been cleared for cultivation and settlement. Land records from 1839 reveals that Zamindars were given 99 year leases. They were known as Latdars who could sublet to Chakdars, who could sublet to Raiyats and so on. Outright sales were allowed from 1865.

I gather from hearsay that Mahesh Company was the Latdar of the lot south of Basanti Bajar and hence our little village is named – Maheshpur. This bit is of course sheer conjecture, but, I like to risk it. After all, much of history is based on informed conjecture.

I do not know whether the Late Rakhal Chandra Pandit had bought his land directly from Mahesh Company or there were other owners in between, but, the fact remains that he had come before India’s independence and settled here is true without a doubt. It is also true that he established the first school in 1959 and named it after his wife – Jashoda, and to that end gave away 60 bighas (about 20 acres) of land.

Elections at Maheshpur Jashoda Bidyapith

The school is run by an elected committee. The committee members belong to different political parties and the electors are the parents of the students. All very well, but what do I see? Having stayed and studied in big cities I have never seen this excitement around a school election. Obviously they are all in the fray for big stakes. This election reached a crescendo last week. The contestants held meetings addressed by important political bigwigs, they campaigned door to door in the scorching sun and the rhetoric was acrimonious. For six seats in the school committee there are eighteen contestants. Some of them even cast aspersions on the reasons for the late Rakhal Chandra Pandit’s benevolence.

I asked around to understand this and was told that with the money drying up in the Gram Panchayats (village administration), the focus has shifted to the schools, as they are now considered milch cows. The list of candidates reveals much else.

The arrival of a contingent of policemen raised the ante in this otherwise sleepy hamlet. While writing this post I have been informed that the elections have passed off without incident.

Scratch Your B@!!$

Also in the last twelve weeks I have had few visitors from the city.  Smriti my partner of thirty three years and the ebullient Laurent Fournier have been the only exceptions. Piyali and Soumik came over for a day to discuss their projects for the proposed artists’ workshop. Chhatrapati too came with them and planned to stay a night. Just about when he had just dug in his heels and started to enjoy the photo - ops that Maheshpur presented him, the scare of a Tsunami tumbling over to Maheshpur sent panic waves through Kolkata and his family and friends made frantic calls for him to return. But, the person who sent some of the locals into a tizzy was Kaushik – Khoj Kolkata’s manager. Kaushik was born with physical disabilities which however has not deterred him from riding a motorcycle or climbing trees or excelling in the area of multi-media applications. In fact he has never tried to apply for anything under any handicapped quota. He does not consider himself to be incomplete or challenged. His ever smiling face and his willingness to extend himself is worthy of respect.

Kaushik posing in my "Canning Hat".
So, Kaushik arrives at the site on Saturday and is immediately surrounded by schoolboys and adults alike. They shamelessly stare at him and short of touching him they inspect his impediments.  This was irksome to say the least. I refrained from saying and held my peace. Then one of my workers gathered up enough gall to ask him, “What kind of accident were you in?”

“I was born this way,” Kaushik replied without the minutest change in his smile.

“Please don’t mind my saying so. But, I think you had done a lot of bad things in your past life,” the smart ass opined.

This got my blood boiling. I gave the smart ass a piece of my mind, but stopped short of telling him what I had heard only two weeks ago from a passing acquaintance in Maheshpur. This gentleman seemed to be well read and he had nothing but contempt for the locals. Allow me to narrate what he said.

“People here are all handicapped,” he suddenly started off. 

“Mentally and psychologically handicapped,” he clarified seeing my questioning gaze.

Before I could react and question him, he continued his tirade. “Most of them have one hand, because the other is busy scratching their b@!!$. If they could they would have applied for jobs and other opportunities under the handicapped quota! There are some who have no hands at all…both are occupied in like wise manner!” he signed off. I was bemused by all this as I had heard similar things being said many years ago about the Babus in Writers’ Building. That joke said that one could qualify for the job only if one does not have a condition known as monorchism. Full pay only if you can spend half a day scratching each b@!!

Yes, I am angry.

Olive Ridley Update

The construction is complete. I cannot show you a picture of the shelter without the bamboo scaffolding – Binoy has done the vanishing trick once again and the expert masons arrived two days late, necessitating an extended stay in the humid heat after the unsettling Nor’westers. Work on the clay interior has started and should be completed by mid-week. It now boils down to when all of this will dry off to allow for a coat of white wash inside. Dates for the artists’ workshop and the opening is therefore still in limbo. 

Ulu grass lining and preparation of clay.

Until next week friends!

For more details on Environment, Population, and Human Settlements of Sundarban Delta by Anuradha Banerjee log on to:


Sush Sen said...

First Ridley House looks beautiful. So the coating has Ulu grass to hold the lime- that's great, I was wondering.
The school elections is something I have heard of; but still am surprised to learn about. How is that? If the school committee is so cash rich how come most schools we hear off don't even have infrastructure for the children or a proper midday meal? I think you have every reason to be angry. I wish I was there with you.

Laurent Fournier said...

The kind of thoughts and words you have faced generally leaves me speechless. I just don't know how to reply, it's like looking at a wide and deep gap, it's very challenging to bridge it. Actually whoever put people into categories, respectful or insulting, subtle or gross... tells more about him/herself than about anything else.

I can't wait taking shelter again into the "Bamboo Fort"! Let's hope it will shelter our better thoughts!

Laurent Fournier said...

My dangther Marie, 8 years old, looking at the completed Olive Ridley shelter:

He! Ki sundar!


After we saw the photo of the completed shelter, we went down the blogs to check if there is a photo of the foundation/s of bamboo poles which support the structure above. It is something like this - a heavy ( what is the weight ? ) distributed load on a nos of bamboo ( How many bamboo poles?) poles. The technical details will make the installation interesting.

I believe the bamboo structure as a 'composite' is designed to overcome the turning moment during a storm. May be there will be an occasion f us to learn these details later when we meet face-to-face.

How many Olive Ridley will be built during this phase ? Will you be there during the subsequent phases of building ?

Have you kept an attendance register? It will be interesting to know how many man-days the 1st one shelter took to be built ? Needless to say, during a fair/average weather situation , the man-days deployed will gradually decline.

Was there a figure for estimated man-days ? If a valid estimate is available, one can seriously conclude if the workers are 'one-handed' or not !

Laurent Fournier said...

The total weight of the structure was designed to be about 25T-28T, but in actual construction the dome was made much lighter, and now the dome and the 6''-thick mud floor are equally heavy. With a live load of 0.4T/m2 it comes to about 32-34T. There are 40 columns, out of which 24 take vertical force only, and 16 take oblique force.

Wind calculations have been done to check overturning, as per national building code except for the wind speed which we took as 72m/s (Orissa super cyclone) instead of 55m/s. But that is for overturning only, the strength of the dome and particularly of the overhangs above the openings have not been checked.

I think a huge cyclone could be able to "shake" the dome and create cracks in the plaster, but probably not be able to destroy it.

The bamboo frame of the floor on stilts have been designed as per the national building code.

The actual construction has been close enough to the design on paper to conclude that it has not deviated beyond the (fairly large) safety factor provided for bamboo in the national building code: 3.5 to 4.

We have a full record of the economics of the project.

Abhisek Sarkar said...


Marvelous writing once again. Having said that, one must admit a great deal of research has been done which is not like a barren account of public life (that people like me generally write). Its so intensely human. My leg has slightly improved. I really regret not being there. Abhida this is a great thing that you have been doing. It sounds fake. I know. But let me tell you this, YOU ARE A LESSON ABHIDA, one that we learn the hard way.

michele said...

Abhi, really enjoyed reading the history of the Sundarbans ... thanks for that link. The Olive is looking fantastic (as is Kaushik!). And you know I would be out in a flash if I was around ... more on that later.

I'm also curious as to the next stage .... are there plans to build more?

congratulations to all ... Khoj, Laurent, your building team and you.