One country, one people but two worlds - Calcutta and Sihora. And the two couldn't be more different...
Calcutta is this huge metropolis - HUGE. Sihora does not even feature in the map of India. One was the seat of British rule in India and the second city in the British Empire - a jewel in Her Majesty Queen Victoria's crown. The other has been a village for most of its existence and is now slowly moving towards becoming a city; in fact, it is still in the village-city phase - having not fully given up one, nor fully moved into the other. Calcutta has the grand Chowringhee, Red Road and the Strand besides other broad roads. Sihora's 'broad' road is the National Highway that runs through it. The other roads are narrow and more like lanes. Calcutta's housing is divided into two kinds - the regular many-storied faceless apartment blocks and fabulously wealthy homes. Most of the houses in Sihora are made of mud and brick with tin roofs; some have thatch on the roofs. There are a few modern houses with decorative gates. Both have their versions of a garden. The beauty is that the two kinds of houses co-exist peacefully, often with the same boundary wall. There are no cafés - for that matter, no place to sit and have a coffee - just small 'hotels' where milky chai is served in glasses, and people sit on benches at long tables. It's one big community in Sihora where everyone knows everyone else and everyone gets to know anyone who may come to visit. Not so in greater Calcutta where everyone minds their own business most of the time. Of course there are the inquisitive ones but their curiosity is more often than not, not very pleasant. In the outskirts, though, people are friendlier.
While Calcuttans can move out of Calcutta, if they so desire, to work and live, there is no chance that the people who live in the villages around Sihora will ever move out. They are born in their villages, live there, marry there, have their children there, celebrate life there and die there... For the people who live in the villages around Sihora, coming to Sihora is big time, and going to Jabalpur, which is a biggish town half an hour by train from Sihora is major!! People in Sihora dream of finding work and settling down in Jabalpur. Big cities, and the metros don't feature anywhere on the horizon of these people. Of course they see the big cities on tv - Hindi movies are very popular - but they know they will never be able to leave their village for one reason or the other. The wonderfully strange thing is that there is no bitterness. They try to send their boys out, but the girls - never. They are quite contented where they are, and happy for everyone wherever they are! One person I spoke to said that he visited Bombay and Delhi, and felt so out of place and unsettled, he just wanted to get back soon. He said Sihora was zillions of years behind these two cities. And as for places like Bangalore and Hyderabad, he said they were impossible to even imagine - they seemed like foreign places. No matter that we are all brown skinned and Indians, the differences are just too, too big - there is too much of a chasm.
There are none of the features that characterize Calcutta, in Sihora - no Park Street, no fancy restaurants, no New Market, no malls, no swanky movie halls, no Science City, to name a few. There is no Dum dum. Then again, the features that mark Sihora out are not there in Calcutta - you can call an auto to pick you up, and pay him many days later, when you walk into a store and don't get what you want, you can be sure, the shopkeeper will take you to the store that stocks what you want. If you want a dongle, and it's 6 pm, which is the deadline for the day to get your dongle activated - no worries - the man at the counter will give you the sim from his dongle for you to use till your connection gets activated - it could be the next day or the day after! People are gentle and very mild. And, you can access Sihora from Dumna, the airport in Jabalpur!
Politics, Cricket and Bollywood connect both worlds. Whether in Sihora or Calcutta, everyone is aware of the Prime Minister and the President and the important people in the political world. They are also very aware of the political parties. Recently when the elections were held in Delhi, people in Sihora went all out for AAP. A young lad I was talking to said they were all for AAP because they felt that the BJP was actually divided into two factions - Modi and his agenda of development was one and the Hindu fanatics were the other. While they were all for development, he said they did not support the highlighting of religious differences as people of all religions worshiped the same God in different ways and forms (despite the clear and forceful distinctions between castes in the same religion). Trying to accentuate religious differences would split the country. He also felt that AAP winning in Delhi would stop the BJP juggernaut. This is a sentiment that many right-thinking Indians, not only in Calcutta, but across India feel. Cricket is as avidly followed in Sihora as it is in Calcutta. As for Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan reign undisputed. Every wedding procession plays the latest hit songs and everyone is well-clued in to all that is happening in the world of films. The young here, like the young everywhere else in India, model themselves on their favorite stars.
A major unifying factor is the cell phone. The computer isn't as yet very popular in Sihora, not like in Calcutta where many school-going children have laptops and a PC is nothing special. But the cell phone is ubiquitous. The smallest village in the most remote place you can imagine has its people addicted to the cell phone. It's amazing. We saw mud huts - the usual kind with cows and buffaloes tied in the courtyard, and farmlands on either side of the road for as far as the eye could see... and... the inevitable communications tower!
Best of all - Sihora and Calcutta could vie for the phuchka and chaat crown!!!
Courier service isn't taken seriously at all in Sihora but, postal services are smart. In fact, as one person advised, you will be sure to get what is sent by post but the courier may never reach you! In Calcutta, everything, even local mail and communications from banks and other organizations, comes by courier - the number of courier companies that have sprouted are uncountable.
When I look at the buses that ply on the main road in Sihora, I get the feeling that all the discarded and bashed up buses from the cities have been junked here - it's a wonder they run at all! Calcutta now has the swanky Volvo buses.
I was quite taken aback by one thing. Casteism is very strong here in Sihora and the surrounding villages. It is as strong, probably, as when it came into existence. The lines are deep and dark between the various castes and sub-castes. Of course, everyone is pleasant and civil, but when it comes to visiting the home of a person who belongs to a different caste, even if that person is a friend in school or college, or at work, it is just not done - and no hard feelings. We don't see this in Calcutta, or maybe the lines are not as deeply drawn.
Once again, there was this feeling of wonder about our country and our people. While there are elements in our social fabric that are corrosive, the overriding warmth of the people, the feeling of tolerance towards all, even if they may not agree with them or differ in many areas, the celebration of certain common festivals, the strong feeling for the need for political stability, despite the games our politicians play - all these and many more intangible threads bind Sihora and Calcutta in one weft and warp.