It was the summer of 1975. There was a severe drought in the Manbhum region, and I was to visit Purulia to work out a plan for Food For Work. I was working with a voluntary agency which had taken up a large project involving desiltations and excavations of tanks, many in number,
so that large number of people were able to get food (wheat and soya oil) and at the same time villages could get large number of percolation tanks for irrigation to fight the drought.
My task, set up by my organisation at Calcutta, was to meet the various social leaders, in Bankura, Purulia and Singbhum. In Purulia, I was to meet one Chitta Babu – a Gandhian leader, and my office instructed me to get down at Purulia Bus stop and just ask for Mukti Press. My notion about Gandhians were that they were a rigid lot and that they eat bland vegetarian food.
I reached Mukti Press. There was no one, except a compositor who was engrossed with his composing stick -placing the fonts. I waited for quite a bit and was angry that this compositor, a well built dhoti clad man, completely ignored my presence. So I asked loudly, “ Can you tell me when Chitta Babu will come? I have some urgent work with him.” This time the man turned back, looked at me and said, “I am Chitta Bhusan Dasgupta”.
I was struck by the fact that he was a fair looking, handsome person and had a very affectionate pair of eyes. Besides, there was something special about his smile ! After I explained everything he agreed that the next day he would take me to the project spot to a village called Majhihira.
Those days I was stationed at a church guest room in the adjascent district town of Bankura. I reached Purulia the next morning, quite early, and at the bus stop our man was there with several bags full of all kind of sundry items. There was with him a boy who was aparently sick. “This is my youngest son, he is not keeping well these days and I am taking him to our Ashram at the village .”
We boarded a bus and it took more than an hour to reach at a place called Jabla. Here was waiting a bullock cart and I was told we would make the rest of the journey by this cart. The young boy was placed at a make shift bed on the cart and we set out for the village Ashram. This was my first bullock cart ride and perhaps our man could read my perplexed face and explained “ I normally take a cycle and ride from here to our village.”
By the time we reached the Majhihira Ashram it was late afternoon and I expressed my wish to visit the project spots. I was told by some people around that covering just a few sites would entail at least 2 hours of cycling and that this venture could wait till the next morning. But I was adamant. Chitta Babu supported my idea by providing a cycle and an escort.
It was late evening and when we returned and I was served a glass of chilled drinking water . I was explained that this was the most precious commodity there and villagers around the Ashram solely depended on the water available there. To me this was a strange news. Because those days I was a well-dressed young man in my early twenties. I would normally wear white shirt, white trousers, black shoes, and, to top it all – a pair of black hand gloves ! Though this attire was for my long motor-cycle ride, but I enjoyed fashion this way even if I was without the bike. So this was actually my first piece of learning about the harsh realities of life. I slowly started to get educated about the reality of a drought situation.
A little later, Chitta Babu’s wife, whom the local addressed as Jethima came and asked about my dinner.
I looked at Chitta Babu and said curtly “ In fact I am a strict Non-veg eater, and, I am aware that you all eat vegetables. So, I can survive with vegetable dishes as long as it is tasty.” Chitta Babu smiled and said you can have non-veg dinner. It is true that I, and many of us here take vegetarian food, but that is because of our own choice.” (Since then I was always provied with fish or chiken meal at the Ashram – for decades !)
Soon the ‘Food for Work’ projects started. I found here they had planned for desiltation of a large number of ponds, more than we could sanction with the allotted food supplies. I told Chitta Babu, “Look, if you think that by taking up work on so many ponds you would receive more than the allotted food, you are wrong”. At this Chitta Babu was amused and said “ We are not asking for more food, we think that with the type of “jana sangathan” (peoples organisation) we have here we can manage more work within the limited food you have allotted.”.
Eventually the projects were accomplished quite successfully, I on my part, could learn a new concept called “jana sangathan” and it’s power.
Chitta Babu was addressed as Jetha Moshai by most of the people around. I, for one, could never call him “jethamosai”, for which we were mutually responsible. Slowly over the years we came very close to each other, he always treated me with utmost affection . I started to respect him more and more and became one of his followers. He, on his part, always gave me a longer lien, and allowed me to do things on my own terms. He loved my outspoken nature, I loved his firm conviction on the Gandhian values.
Once just to tease him I said ” since you always eat vegetables you will never really understand the heavenly taste of fish”. He threw his usual smile and replied ” In my lifetime I relished a large variety of fishes…. and in your whole life-time you may not have the chance even to see those variety of fishes !”
Those days I was a regular cigarette smoker and always flaunted a somewhat expensive brand on my shirt pocket. One day he said “ You may smoke openly -never mind if I am around. You are a hard and dedicated worker…. be strong in your objective. You do not need to hide around bushes to smoke”!
I realised how wrong I was about the Gandhians !
I left smoking long back for I was convinced it was a bad habit. But being with Chitta Babu for too long pushed me to imbibe two addictions:
One, I became an ardent supporter of literacy and education in the rural area.
Two, I started loving rural life – the reason that till date I spend most of the time in some village situation.
Persons like Chitta Babus are the rare ones who changes lives by their sheer presence.Thank God he lived long, over 100 years, for I am sure many more young lives must have been changed, influenced by him.
On 18th of February 2016 his followers and co-workers met at the Ashram at a thanks- giving meet for this wonderful soul.