On reaching Uherské Hradiště, we located the Tourist Club cottage without any difficulty. It was no cottage – it was a school! Thanks to the three-month summer holidays, the school was closed.
The mystery was solved. During the three-month summer break, the tourist cottage was available. For those months, tourists spent their nights in the small building; for the rest of the year, the village children learnt their alphabets and their sums in its rooms.
The place was packed with travellers. The manageress scratched her head when we requested for a room. “There’s no place whatsoever, not even an inch. Everybody has come for the exhibition, as you can see. People had written to us months in advance making their reservations. You have come here unannounced. How do I find place for you?”
We looked really worried and disappointed. “What do we do now?”
The manageress looked equally worried. “Right now, you will not be able to find any vacant room in any hotel or even in anybody’s house. They are all completely occupied.”
We were heartbroken. “Nothing at all? Do we have to go back then?”
“There is only one thing that I might be able to do, in case you agree to it,” she said. “Upstairs, at the corner of the terrace, there’s some space available, and I can get someone to spread some hay for you. I hope you can spend the night on a bed of hay; many latecomers like you are staying overnight like that.”
“Certainly!” we said, relieved. We left our bags, signed up in the register and ventured out looking for something to eat. At the dining table, Mirek asked, “Do you have a sleeping bag?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Nothing very much, but it’s very handy if you need to spend the night in odd places...like tonight. How will you be sleeping on hay without a sleeping bag?”
“What is it anyway?”
“Exactly what it says. Just a large cloth bag. When you want to turn in for the night, you just get inside the bag. So, no dirty hay, dirty bed clothes, dirty pillows, dirty blankets, none of these things will touch you. If you don’t have one, buy one quickly.”
Immediately after dinner, I went out and bought a sleeping bag.
The fair had opened officially, but the peasants were still to come. So, we decided to take this opportunity to visit a typical local village. About five miles from Hradiště, there is a small village called Vlčnov, famous for the fine needlework on their local costumes. We really wanted to see the villagers at their homes, so we decided to visit Vlčnov and return to Hradiště in the evening.
At the bus station, we discovered that there was no bus to Vlčnov. Disappointed, we were about to turn back, when Mirek had a bright idea. “So what if there’s no bus? Let’s walk.”
Walk five miles! I was quite dismayed, but didn’t want to show it. I made a brave face and asked, “Good idea! We can walk up to there, but how do we come back?”
“We walk back.”
“How’s that possible? How can a man walk 10 miles?”
Mirek was reassuring. ‘We’ll certainly find a cart on our way back; many carts come back this way carrying straw and hay at dusk.”
Thus encouraged, we started on our foot journey. The road was through fields of grain, getting ready for the harvest season. Beautiful it certainly was, but walking on the village road in the heat of the sun was quite difficult for us, untrained in the art of walking.
We were desperately praying for a cart on the way back, otherwise walking all the way would be really fatiguing. Looking around us, we couldn’t find a single cart or bale of hay or a load of straw in any direction as far as we could see. Surely, there was suffering in store for us on the way back!
Vlčnov is a very small village, what we’d call a hamlet, but extremely pretty, and the residents very hospitable, welcoming us gladly into their hearts. We met a peasant couple who refused to let us return to Hradiště that evening. “We know you’ll be uncomfortable in our little cottage. But you must stay over one night and see how we lead our lives.”
This was an invitation we just couldn’t refuse. During my entire stay in Europe, the thought that I could possibly spend a night with a villager’s family in Southern Moravia had never even crossed my mind. We gladly accepted their hospitality. What helped was the thought that we would not have to walk all the way back to Hradiště and then try to sleep on a bed of hay spread on the floor.
The home of Farmer Soban was a clean and tidy cottage consisting of a few rooms, around a courtyard with a duck- house. Across the yard were the stables – in this part of the world, they used horses rather than oxen or bullocks to plough their fields. Behind the stables was a little garden, with apple trees laden with fruit. In this garden, Madam Sobanova spread out a mat for us, and brought us a large bowl of honey, fresh from the hives and some lovely, thick local bread. This was the true hospitality of the peasants of Southern Moravia.
We fed ourselves to repletion and had a long nap under the shade of an apple tree.
Soban woke us up. “We’re going to collect hay and straw from the fields.”
“Now? Why?” I asked.
Mirek explained, “At this time of the year, there’s not much work for the farmers, since the crop is not yet ready for harvesting. They are now busy collecting husk, bits of grass, hay and straw and storing them in their barns. When winter comes, and no grass grows in the frozen ground, and all the trees have shed their leaves, these bits of hay and straw is food for the horses and other animals. All over Europe, in early summer, you’ll see the same sight. In every field, you will see stray and hay being gathered, cut, bound into bales and loaded onto carts, which return home in the evenings, filling the road, the village and the fields with the sweet smell of newly mown hay. Until this wonderful redolence wafts past your nostrils, it won’t even feel like summer.”
“Then, let’s go and join them in their task of cutting hay and grass!” I was quite excited.
We found ourselves in a field of clover, where the plants were half as high as us, the flowers waving and heaving in the breeze. Standing in the middle was Soban, who gave me a huge scythe and said, “I believe you wanted to join us in cutting grass. Here you go!”
I rolled up my sleeves, lifted the scythe and took a swipe at the roots of the clover plants. Nothing happened – the plants simply leaned to one side and straightened themselves up in the next moment. I tried again and again, but I never could get the hang of using those huge and heavy scythes, with their four-feet-long blades. This was getting embarrassing. I was wondering how to get out of this with my head held high, when Soban’s small son saved me from shame. He had been playing at some distance away. Suddenly, he straightened up with a big smile and ran towards us, eagerly clutching something in his hand.
When he came closer, we saw that he was holding a bunch of clover leaves. The farmer’s wife, Mrs Sobanova, was very excited.
“See what my son has got! A five-leaved clover! Come and see!”
The clamour and the excitement convinced me that they had all gone mad! My friend said, “It’s not madness. A typical clover has three leaves on one stalk. Finding a four-leaved clover is supposed to be the sign of good luck. If you find a five-leaved clover, then you’re a king, my friend!”
“Is that it? I shall find a five-leaved clover just now, just you wait and see.” I dropped my scythe, quite happily I might add, and started searching for the promised clover. But I was dogged by bad luck. Searched as I might, I could not find a four-leaved clover, let alone a five-leaved one. Not that I was really disappointed – the relief of getting rid of the scythe was considerable enough.
Soban’s cart was filled up with clover; the load was about as high as a man. We yoked horse to the carts, sat down on the piles of clover and hay, and returned to the village smelling sweetly of freshly cut hay and straw. I have spent very few such happy, contented days in Europe.
Beep! Beep!! Beep! Beep!!
The blare of car horns woke us up the next morning. We looked out of the windows and saw that two buses were standing outside the cottage and blowing their horns incessantly, only for us. All the village boys and girls were already in the buses which were headed to the fair at Hradiště, and they wanted to take us with them. There was no question of any further sleep. We jumped out of bed and rushed to get ready.
Mrs Sobanova brought us two cups of coffee and told us to hurry. The kids were running out of patience.
“What about you? Aren’t you coming too?” we asked. ‘We can’t go now, there’s so much to do! Let the youngsters go now; we’ll join you in the afternoon.”
Excerpted with permission from Charanik: The Walker, Mohonlal Gangopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Jayanta Sengupta, Rupa Publications.
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