I was ten or 12 years old then. Standing in front of our house, Suresh Master would often call me, “Gopal, are you home?” My name is Gopal Mandal. I used to be a student of Suresh Master back then. Nowadays, children cannot even imagine what could possibly compel a teacher to visit a student’s house. I had not gone to school simply because I did not want to; this was the reason for his visit to our house. He had come to take me to his pathshala.

Our village was named Hirapur; it was located near the river Matla. Once upon a time, this area of the Sundarbans was covered by a dense forest. It was an abode of animals. During the rule of the sahibs, these forests were acquired. One of my ancestors, Nataraj Mandal, who came here from Khulna district, became the owner of a hundred bighas of land after clearing some forest area. In those days, no brahmins or kayasthas lived here because of the lack of basic facilities. Though there was a railway track from Kolkata to Canning, the way beyond that was full of rivers, furrows and forests.

In those days, to reach our village, one had to cross the Matla from Canning by boat, and then walk through a mud path for around five miles. During monsoon, the road became so muddy and slippery that one risked falling at every step on the way to our village. One had to cross this road to bring all the essentials from the town of Canning. I have heard that my grandfather, Brajmohan Mandal, went to the town once every month to get all the essentials. He used to start his journey at dawn and returned late at night. But he never returned alone. Villagers always accompanied each other. There were several reasons for them to journey back home as a team.

In those days, there was always a risk of tigers attacking the village for hunting cattle and humans. Moreover, there was also the threat of dacoits and thieves. Frequently, one would find corpses floating in the river. My grandfather was not afraid of those things because he knew very well that if one feared death, they would not be able to live in that forsaken area of the Sundarbans.

My ancestors were independent then. Free. Physically, they were strong, and their mind was full of courage. They had conquered forests to become owners of the land. They used all their strength to plough the field with the help of bulls. The land was fertile and they enjoyed cultivating the paddy fields even as they got drenched in the rain. They utilised the spare land near their house by growing vegetables. They went fishing in rivers, streams and ponds. What else they could they ask for? People like my grandfather, who belonged to the lower castes, started facing problems when some higher-caste people began pouring into the land. Earlier, these higher castes used to live on the other side of Matla – mainly Canning and Sonarpur. They had never had the courage to cross the river and invade the forest on the other side of Matla as they were afraid of tigers. Moreover, they did not have the prowess to turn a forest area into cultivable land. Poor farmers would do the farming and the beggarly fishermen would go out fishing, while the higher castes only enjoyed the fruits of others’ labour.

However, one needed to be crafty to savour these fruits. When intelligence made a man devious, he would naturally start to take advantage of the situation using unethical means. Religion was often used to rationalise such unethical behaviour. We come across many scriptures in the Hindu religion – those of Manu, Jagyabalkya, Kattayan, etc – which endorse ruling over and exploiting the lower castes. In these scriptures, some facts about the origin of the world have been described in such a way that even the rich literates would be awestruck – forget about the poor, illiterate people. In the Manusamhita for instance, it has been said that this world was in complete darkness at the time of its origin, in a state of deep slumber. Nothing could be seen. Neither logic nor knowledge could help us understand this state. It was then that the divine power, which is beyond perception, created the elemental forces and other sensory things with an inexorable power of creation and then revealed itself, effacing the darkness of the world. The wily tales start after this description.

A narrative of discrimination is revealed – amongst human beings, the same human beings whom God himself had created – that divides human beings into standard and sub-standard men belonging to higher and lower castes, respectively. The story goes that for the prosperity of the world, the divine Brahma had let the brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas and sudras arise out of his mouth, arms, thighs and feet respectively, their responsibilities and occupations predestined to ensure a systematic functioning of the world.

The brahmins would gain knowledge through their scholarship of the Vedas, performing rituals and collecting alms. The kshatriyas were assigned to the safety of men, the vaishyas would look after business, and the sudras would humbly serve all of them. These sudras are the farmers and labourers of today, involved in all the material productions of the world but detested, exploited and deprived. The scriptures made provisions for dominating the supposedly sub-standard section of people in this hierarchical system of society. If any sudra was found reading the Vedas, he could be beheaded. In the Ramayana, at the request of a brahmin, Ram himself beheaded Shambuk for the crime of reading the Vedas. One would be amazed to learn of many similar customs detailed in the scriptures. For example, a brahmin is considered the highest form of living being; it is his birthright to have authority and lay claim over every creation on this earth. His divine majesty is supposedly boundless, irrespective of his actual knowledge prowess.

Anyway, my ancestor Nataraj Mandal never had to think about all this because he had never read any scriptures. He was a labourer. His hard labour had made him acquire the forest, and while the village Hirapur was settling, he made his own house with mud for the walls and leaves for the shade. He used to cultivate his own land and this land would provide him his daily meals. At the time, the men who had settled here were all labourers. Things changed during my grandfather’s time. More areas of forests had been acquired by then. The area had started flourishing with fields and farmlands all over, and this attracted the brahmins and kayasthas.

Jaydeep Chowdhury was the first among the babus to come to Hirapur; he was kayastha by caste. His family had a fair amount of wealth in the Sonarpur area. They had been educated in schools in Calcutta. Despite owning ancestral property, it is surprising that he settled in a remote village like Hirapur. But people say that he had an affair with a girl from another caste and eventually married her without his father’s approval. As a result, he was deprived of his share in the ancestral property and then came to Hirapur with his wife. No one knows how he found out that this village even existed but surprisingly he acquired a considerable amount of land within a few years of his arrival here.

The source of his accumulated wealth remained a mystery, but many can tell how he had acquired the land in Hirapur. At first, he started his business of usury. It is heard that when his father deprived him of their ancestral property, his mother, out of affection, had secretly given him all her jewellery. Chowdhury’s intelligence must have given him the idea that living in such a village amongst the poor and illiterate farmers with his wife of another caste would be comparatively easier and would allow him to prosper at their cost. Within a few years, Chowdhury became a jotedar of the Sundarbans area.

His business flourished. During those days, famine and epidemics were common. In such times of penury, when the helpless illiterate farmers asked him for money, Chowdhury made them give their thumb impressions on agreements they would never understand. Within a few years, the lent money would sum up to a huge amount with the interests charged, and many of the farmers who had borrowed the money could not pay it back. As a result, they had no option but to give up their land to Chowdhury in order to pay off their debts. Problems arose when any farmer in debt did not agree to give up on his land. Slowly, Jaydeep Chowdhury became an influential person in this locality. A large brick house was built. Footmen, sentry and stewards were employed. A Durga temple was established. A lower-class Rarhi brahmin, Sreepada Mukherjee, was brought as a priest for the temple from Sonarpur and given some land. The villagers also benefited from this. Earlier, there was no brahmin in this village.

Seven villages away, there were two brahmin families, but they were too conceited and had to be paid extra money for performing pujas, last rites, and weddings. To Sreepada Mukherjee, the remote place was like heaven because he was the only brahmin here. He was like a gurudeb to all the peasants and was the priest of Hirapur Durga Mandir as well as of Chowdhury’s house. Several years passed by. Jaydeep Chowdhury was now old. He decided that he would establish a pathshala in the village that would add to his glory, and so he did. But it was difficult to get a teacher. He appointed Sreepada Mukherjee as one but Mukherjee did not agree to teach the lower-caste boys and girls of the village.

He said, “Chowdhury babu, if these peasants were given education, they would no longer obey you; who would listen to you then? They will start advising you eventually and will not obey me either.” But Jaydeep Chowdhury was stubborn. In his youth he had arrived obstinately in this remote village accompanied by a woman of a lower-caste. The same attitude persisted. He became desperate to do at least one bit of good work. He said, “Whatever happens will be dealt with later. Children of the peasants need to be educated.” But then he suddenly died, and the school closed.

Excerpted with permission from “Pathshala” by Shyamal Kumar Pramanik, translated from the Bengali by Nirnoy Roy and Koushik Goswami in Writings from the Sundarbans, edited by Indranil Acharya and Sayantan Dasgupta, Orient Black Swan.