DE-JA-VU AT SAMBALPUR

Original in Assames: Dr. Dhrubajyoti Das
Translation: Bibekananda Choudhury

Stratford-upon-Avon, Lake District, Wessex, or Santiniketan each of these are a model example of national and international heritage and place of tourism interest. These four places are no less than a place of pilgrimage for the devotees of world literature. These four places - the birthplaces and workplaces of the four stalwarts of world literature William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy and Rabindranath Tagore respectively have turned into a symbol of national pride. It is ludicrous to mention that the birthplace of William Shakespeare - Stratford-upon-Avon is today akin to Mecca for the literary lovers. This monument of sixteenth century attracts the tourists from all over the world today also. There are numerous such examples in the history of world heritage. But as we ponder about ourselves our spirit dampens.

Let us pinpoint one sole example – we are yet to understand the heritage value of the Sambalpur (Orissa) residence of Sahityarathi Lakshminath Bezbaroa, one of the greatest architect of modern Assamese literature that lie enraptured with his memory. We did not put any sincere effort or rather failed take up any perceptible steps for the past eight decades to preserve the Sambalpur residence where the person who laid the foundation of modern Assamese literature, rendered an unique identity to the Assamese language had spent twenty most important and significant years of his life. The dilapidated condition of the house owned by Bezbaroa is a vivid instance that we, the Assamese people feel least concerned about persons of national character, diversity and stature. Bezbaroa spent a vibrant creative life in this sprawling house lying on the banks of river Mahanadi from 1917 to 1937. He penned the famous autobiography ‘Mor Jivan Sowaron’ (Memoirs of my life) while living here. He also wrote a number of significant short stories, satirical stories and also some literary theories of great importance. After his death in 1938 no one cared to bother about the house. Today lackadaisical attitude blended with our inherent laziness has pushed us to such a stage that in the question of conserving the house we are alternately stepping forward and retracing our steps leading to a  stalemate. Why? To find the factors behind the imbroglio, on December 6 last, we, three teachers of Cotton University (the other two being Dr. Maheswar Kalita and Dr. Ambeswar Gogoi) reached Sambalpur. As our story unfolds here, every sensible reader would be able to fathom how the situation that we noticed have affected our mind spirit. It was some eight hours drive from Puri. The road is also not quite enjoyable. But the euphoria of seeing the legendary residence that had been a childhood dream neutralised the travails of the tiring and long journey. We could not wait and set immediately for our destination on reaching Sambalpur at about 3:30 pm. Our euphoria vanished and we were engulfed by a deep feeling of regret, remorse and sorrow as we stepped into the campus of ninety-three years old ‘Bezbaroa Kuthi’ situated at Nelson Mandela square at Kaccheri area on the bank of Mahanadi. The walls of the twelve room mansion built in the year 1924 are worn out. The plaster from the floor has peeled off. A few rooms have literally been converted into storehouse of whatnots. The rest have become refuge of labourers and a good number of apparently homeless families. Altogether, it’s a total filthy environment, a horrible mess. It is practically impossible to trace out the elements, belongings and furnitures used by Bezbaroa from among the mess. There is no caretaker to look after the house that lay pathetically abandoned. The approach road running down from the newly built bridge over the river Mahandi has divided the 10 bigha sprawling campus neatly into two parts. On the other side of the approach road, there is another house with some six rooms. It was used as his office. Now the walls facing the road have crumbled. Only remnants of the ceiling is visible. Rubbles lay heaped in the rooms. Roadside teastall and Pan shop have been running a flourishing business inside the campus. People are merrily emptying their bladder using the abandoned house as the required protection. Our heart shattered at such sight and we had nothing to do but curse ourselves.

Bezbaroa set foot in Sambalpur with Bholanath Barua. It all happened in the last decade of nineteenth century and the first decade of twentieth century. Bezbaroa severed his partnership with Bholanath Barua and got employed in the year 1916 at a monthly salary of ` 150 per month in ‘Bird and Company’ - a multinational venture. The salary amount was worth a fortune at that time. Noticing his work culture and efficiency, his employer enhanced his salary to ` 200 promoting him to the post of Area Manager and posted him at Sambalpur. Bezbaroa developed a cordial relation with the local government officials in the interest of business. He went on to collect wood for his company getting the thickly wooded jungles of Sambalpur. He started residing at Sambalpur from September 4, 1917. Bezbaroa was one of the five proud owners of private vehicles in the town. His cordial manners, ease of intellectual leadership and cultural excellence help him blend with the people and also became the natural choice to be a member of the coterie of noble citizens of Sambalpur. He was vested with important portfolios in most of the social organization of reckoning of Sambalpur. He had officiated as the president of Sambalpur Club for a long tenure. He was also elected the president of Crawford Girls’ School Managing Committee. He was inducted as a member in the distinguished Bengali Club. Not only that, Bezbaroa was an elected councilor of Sambalpur Municipality for two terms. He became cynosure of the people through drama scripting, direction and stage performance of those including participating on various roles on stage by his daughter trio Ratna, Deepika and Aruna through which a fresh atmosphere of cultural awakening was created. A music school was also running from his house mentored by his wife Prajnasundari Devi. Though transferred to Assam in 1928, Bezbaroa resigned from his job and continued staying at Sambalpur. By this time he had procured this huge campus on the bank of Mahanadi and had been staying in the sprawling Assam type mansion that he completed by 1924 and stayed till one year of his demise.

We are really a worthless nation. We do not carry sensibility in our blood. The result is such pitiable condition of a sacred place of heritage. Had it been properly maintained, this Sambalpur residence of Sahityarathi could have been a national treasure and pride of ours. The people of Odissa would have fondly remembered Bezbaroa parallelly with their revered poet-philospher Fakir Mohan Senapati. Bezbaroa’s presence made a deep impression in the socio-economic and intellectual scenario of Sambalpur. He picked up Odiya language as well as Sambalpuri dialect. Though his literary creations are mostly in Assamese, in many of his creations one find the elements of Sambalpur. Local people comment – Sambalpur is blessed by his presence. Though there had been considerable mass base in a neighbouring State for a person of National stature like Bezbaroa, we miserably failed to cash on it just owing to our laziness. It would be naïve to expect the same sense of deep respect that the older generation of Sambalpur carry in their hearts from the present younger generation. Though Bezbaroa has been in the discussion lately because of the debate centering bridge building, demolition of the house – one cannot expect that a major portion of the present inhabitants may fathom the importance of this doyen of Assamese literature. The picture would certainly been different some thirty years back.

After ninety years of construction this house, that was the shelter, witness and company of Bezbaroa’s many major creations has come into the fore. Millions of gallons of water flowed by the great Mahanadi by now. The bridge erected on the Mahanadi divided the residence of Bezbaroa into two, the natural magnificence of which egged Bezbaroa to create continuously. The approach road of the bridge passed through the plot of land once owned and lived by the great doyen without raising an eyeball. His huge property is gradually shrinking while we are sleeping peacefully. Nelson Mandela square has turned into a highly busy area. Two new roads have recently been joined here. A ‘Rotary’ is now proposed to be constructed to ease the traffic. The step included procuring the land by government and the necessity to demolish the house of the legend. A case was fought in the court regarding the ownership of the plot. Sahityarathi, before his death, ‘willed’ this property to his elder daughter Aruna Mukherjee. In 1942, Aruna verbally transferred the property to local businessman Omkarmall Poddar as a gift. The Poddar family has been enjoying the ownership of the property since. Though the property was not transferred to their name, the Poddar family diligently paid the annual taxes pertaining to the property. Ultimately, the Poddar family won the civil suit with the government. The hon’ble court ordered the Odissa government to pay an amount of Rupees Two Crore Sixtyfour Lakh to the Poddar family. During this entire drama, the entire Assamese community was lying dormant – no one practically even batted an eyelid. No one bothered to remember to enquire the status of this legendary residence fit to be converted to a beautiful museum while we had been celebrating birth centenary, one hundred and fifty years occasion etc with pomp and fanfare and all the necessary politics about who would run the show, who would have a longer ‘bite’ in TV channels, whose photo would be prominently coming printed in the newspaper, whose name would don the headlines and so on. There was (still is) a huge scope to build up a significant cultural complex and heritage site under the aegis of the government. Barring the site housing the erstwhile residence measuring about two kathas, (one katha = 2880 square feet of land), various construction work has been noticed to be undergoing on both sides of the road passing through his property. A section of local people informed us that demand has been raised to demolish the house that was used by Bezbaroa as his office. Some proposed a statue of Bezbaroa to be erected n the spot the house stands or, as things stands today, we have to say after some time, stood. The kitchen has already been demolished. Local politics centering the issue is also brewing up. The present government in power is at least sincere in their approach in somehow ‘preserving’ the two houses. The responsibility has been bestowed to INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage). Journalist Deepak Kumar Panda has been working ceaselessly with a group of local literary personalities to put the government plan into action. The call of the hour lies with present State government in Assam in power to assess correctly the goodwill of the Assamese people and take rapid decisions and put them into actions simultaneously.

N.B.: An eye witness account of Professor (Dr.) Dhrubajyoti Das of English Department of Cotton College State University, Guwahati on their of Sambalpur, interested people may learn the basic facts about him from the Wikipedia link below: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lakshminath_Bezbaroa


About the author: Dr. Dhrubajyoti Das is an Associate Professor, Department of English, Cotton College State University, Guwahati. He is a noted poet and writer of Assam. He has contributed more than 300 articles, poems etc. in different newspapers, magazines and journals on diverse socio-cultural-literary issues.

He completed his Ph.D thesis ‘Treatment of Nature in the Poetry of Nirmalprabha Bardoloi and Emilyv Dickinson’ from Guwahati University in 2013.

His publications include Prem Pratidin (Novel), Adim Awegor Juiphul (Poetry), Brahmaputra Ashirbad aru Anyanya Rachona (article), Biswa Sahitya Srishti aru Srasta (Literary article) etc.

He delivered speech as a Resource person on ‘Ethics and Contemporary Society: Role of value Education’ in UGC sponsored National seminar organized by Egra S.S. B. College, West Bengal held from February 28 to March1, 2015.

About the translator-authorBibekananda Choudhury, an electrical engineer by profession, has completed his MS from BITS-Pilani in Systems and Information. He has also earned a diploma in French language from Gauhati University. He has got published works (both original and translated) in Assamese, Bengali & English in popular periodicals and newspapers. His translated poems has been published in 'Indian Literature', ‘Poets International’, Poetry International’, Rupsi Bangla, etc.  'Suryakatha', the Bengali adaptation done by him of the Assamese novelette in verse in the same title by Prayag Saikia was well accepted. His English translated publications include – one short story collection and four poetry collections and one Information Book on Kaziranga, apart from few others in manuscript form. He hails from Bongaigaon and presently stays at Guwahati.


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