Once you accept the fact that Jhoomritelaiya does exist, there are several ways you can get there. Catch any train that passes through Koderma, and get down there and figure out that you are actually in Jhoomritelaiya (Koderma exists as a separate town, but its railway station is in Jhoomritelaiya). Or drive up around the beautiful hill-ringed Telaiya lake and down NH 31. Jhoomritelaiya is a small town - one main road, a few chowks with Gandhi and Netaji statues - and before you know it, you're almost out of there. So you'll stop, and maybe you'll walk into the electronics shop run by Shyam Sundar Singhania.
Singhania will welcome you with a jovial hospitality that will pleasantly surprise you. That's because you haven't met anyone else from Jhoomritelaiya yet. They are all similar in this Jharkhand town: gregarious and exuding a certain old-world decency that you had given up on. It's a town of good people.
You know of Jhoomritelaiya because you remember those Radio Ceylon and Vividh Bharati listeners' choice programmes in the '70s and '80s where half the requests seemed to come from this place which no one had a geographical fix on. Maybe you even remember Ameen Sayani pausing and saying that he had just got a telegram (a telegram!) from Jhoomritelaiya requesting that he play "Phoolon ke rang se" from Prem Pujari. Maybe you've seen some Hindi films where the name was mentioned, without the scriptwriter having any idea about where it was, whether it was at all.
But once upon a time, Jhoomritelaiya was at the heart of the world mica trade. Everyone here either owned a mica mine, or worked in one, or traded in the mineral. "There were more than 600 mines around here at that time," Singhania will tell you. "Everyone was rich, everyone was happy, and since we are far off from any big city, we turned on the radio, and we sent requests and felt proud when our little town's name was heard by the world."
Then, the invention of cheaper synthetic substitutes for mica, the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was the material's biggest foreign market, and the government's ban on tree-felling for mining purposes devastated the business. Today, only a few mines are operating. Mine-owners like Singhania have shifted to other businesses. And the forests teem with mcc militants.
Almost anyone above 40 you will meet in Jhoomritelaiya will tell you how he sent hundreds of song requests to radio stations in the '70s and '80s. To save time, they had the addresses printed on postcards and had rubber stamps made of the names of singers. So all they had to do was write out the title of the song, stamp the singer's name and send it off. They will tell you that it all started with big mica trader Rameshwar Barnawal and paan-shop owner Ganga Prasad, both now dead. Everyone in the town then started sharing their passion. In the old-timers' eyes, you can still relive the innocent thrill of having your names read out on radio. At the height of his obsession, Barnawal would send 40 to 50 postcards a day.
Walk over to Barnawal's sprawling mansion on a side street and meet his sons Pankaj, who runs a drug store now, and Chandan, who has a two-wheeler agency. They don't listen to the radio any more. "Now we watch TV. Those days are no longer there." Go out then to the main market and ask people if they listen to radio. No, no, no.... None of them do. "We all got mired in the business of life," Shyam Sundar Barnawal (no relation to Rameshwar) will tell you. "In those days, we would hand over the keys to the mica mine to the manager in the morning, and lock up in the evening. The day we spent relaxing." In the '60s, when Sampatlal Purohit, editor of Hindi film magazine Yugchhaya, wrote in his editorial that he did not have enough money to build a house, Jhoomritelaiyans spontaneously sent him cash. "People from all over India would send song requests to us so we could mail them with a Jhoomritelaiya address," Barnawal will tell you. "They thought this gave their requests a better chance."
Poke underneath the bustle of the town and everywhere you will find the wistful remembrance of a joyous past. Wistful, not unhappy, definitely not melancholy. The people of Jhoomritelaiya have accepted their diminished economic status with good humour. You will not find anger in this little community. Not even when you meet Dayanand Bhadani, scion of the family that owned Chotturam Hosilram, India's largest mica-mining company. Thirty years ago, the Bhadani family figured among the 50 richest families in the country. Today, Dayanand Bhadani owns an electronics shop. He will show you sheets of mica that he still has, including the variety that was used to coat spaceships: Rs 9,00,000 a kg. "Our mines and factories employed 10,000 people. We sold mica two or three times a year, and the rest of the year, we would travel around India. Diwali time, each family would spend Rs 20,000-25,000 on crackers." Then the mining business died. "No, mines don't die," he will tell you, with a smile. "People's energy dies. If the government changes its policies today, we can start off again." Yet he seriously mulls the option of seeking his fortune elsewhere.
Kishore Chatterjee runs the electronics shop next to Bhadani's. His great-grandfather heard of mica and came to Jhoomritelaiya from Bengal in 1896. "People here loved music so much that when the mica business ended, most of them started music and electronics shops," he will tell you with a chuckle. But he has now started a shop in his ancestral village: "Back to pavilion."
They are all settlers, descendants of plucky men who came here from all over India in search of mica and money and created this town between the two villages of Jhoomri and Telaiya. Life was so pleasant that even those who came on jobs never left. Then times changed. Millionaires were no longer millionaires. There was massive unemployment. People migrated, people started their lives all over again. It became just another small town.
No. It became almost another small town. Do not for a moment think of leaving Jhoomritelaiya without a feeling of loss. Binay Singh, son of a mining engineer who came here to work and never left, runs a computer academy among other things and represents the happy, pioneering, can-do spirit that built this town. "We are very hopeful, now that the new state of Jharkhand has been created," he will tell you. "We have mineral wealth, we have entrepreneurial spirit. We will build new industries. In the '60s, we had 100 crorepatis in this town. Why can't we have that again?"
You would like to believe him, with all your heart, as you are leaving Jhoomritelaiya. At the edge of town, maybe you will stop for a last cup of tea.And maybe you will meet a young man who will tell you: "The other day, there was this phone-in interview with Kumar Sanu on Doordarshan. And someone called up from Jhoomritelaiya with a question!" You will see those smiles on those honest faces, and you will leave Jhoomritelaiya happy. In fact, there are several ways you can get to Jhoomritelaiya, but there's only one way you can leave the place. Happy