An old mud-brown sculpture of a stout man, holding a torch in his right hand would intrigue us as children.
During summer holidays, when we would go visiting our native village, the other kids would tell us strange stories about the mud man. Some believed that he was a ghost (who walks at night and scares unruly children) and others felt he was an incarnation of God (who gives love and blessings). The mutually contradictory opinion about the statue baffled us. However, we created our own versions of stories about the statue and related them with relish to our interested peers in school. All of us were obsessed by the dominant spirit of the mud man.
Years later, as teenagers, we were to know that the mud man was neither a ghost nor God, but a freedom fighter, who had initiated the Non-cooperation movement in the area and died a martyr. It was great to personally come across a revolutionary (albeit in a statue form) at that time when we were studying the national movement in school.
The chapters on the Revolt of 1857, nationalist movement, rise of extremism, Partition of Bengal, Non-cooperation movement, Civil Disobedience Movement, Quit India Movement etc were fresh in our minds. I learnt from the oldies of the village that the mud man was very daring and an expert in disguise. Legend has it that once when the ‘goras’ had attacked the village to arrest the revolutionary, he disguised himself as a shepherd and set them on a wrong trail. He had actively participated in the national movement and had laid down his life for the country.
Fired by some kind of zeal to explore more about the nameless and uncelebrated martyr, I had once ventured on the top of the uninhabited building to take a closer look. Years of rainfall and unsparing sunlight had discoloured him, but the resoluteness in his stone-eyes and pride in his bearing did not go unnoticed.
The abandoned statue had become the favourite haunt of pigeons, crows and sparrows and the spot definitely had an eerie feel to it. The mud man appeared unfazed by his surroundings in his single-minded purpose to spread the message of patriotism.
But he was no longer heard by the villagers. Times had changed and they couldn’t associate with his ideals and the passion that drove him to take on the British. Martyrdom and rebellion was a thing of the pre-independence era; the new age demanded people to be reasonable, competitive and make a good, comfortable living. Nationalist spirit was no longer prevalent. The new gods and ghosts in the village were a few nouveau riche, who had done well for themselves. Legends were made out of stories related to them and the kids hardly talked about the once-prominent mud man.
Later, I visited the village again as a grown up. The area had developed only to turn into a concrete jungle. The once lush green surroundings, barns of cattle, wells and farm-houses were nowhere to be seen. The serene feel of a village was almost gone save for an occasional mowing of a cow or the presence of some hookah-smoking elderly carrying the look of the lost world.
The day was 15th August. Villagers had tied the national flags to their dish antennae. A netaji was supposed to visit the village to hoist the national flag. He arrived grandly in a helicopter, dressed in crackling white kurta and pajama, which was in sharp contrast to his ‘hush-hush’ repute.
He basked in the thunderous applause which ensued as he reached the dais. And then for more than two hours, he talked about his great feats and the promise of other greater things to come as the public yawned with boredom.
The announcement came later. His followers declared that a statue of the great netaji would be erected at the same place where the mud-man stood. The followers gave some ‘valid’ reasons to topple the old statue stating that there was no historical basis about the mud-sculpture being that of a freedom fighter. Finally, it was decided that a guest house would also be constructed at the site, which appeased those who were little uncomfortable with the announcement.
With a heavy heart, I turned to look towards my mud man. Faded and disfigured against the sky, the statue was visible from afar. He seemed to know that his existence was being questioned and his ideals were no longer valued. But somehow, the torch which he held in his right hand appeared higher than ever.
I silently bid good-bye to him and in the background, I could hear the netaji singing the national anthem ‘Jana Gana Mana’ in his parched voice.