Work in progress

Work in progress
Several old bungalows in the Anglo-Indian settlement of McCluskieganj are now hostels for school kids. Here children play on the grounds of St Jones Bungalow after school hours, Photo Credit: Supplied Photo

Quaint-colonial to the up and coming urbane -- Jharkhand has many faces

Anjum Hasan
March 26 , 2014
11 Min Read

An hour before Jamshedpur, the landscape is still gentle, helping to distract us from the autorickshaw ride. The vehicle is thrown about so savagely on the pitted road, its insistence on forward movement seems comic. The idyll of paddy fields, low lying hills and buffaloes dreaming in ponds is dwarfed by huge pylons through which electricity races to feed the smokestack industries that shimmer in the distance. We’re in Jharkhand, heart of North India’s industrial belt and also home to 32 tribal communities, as a very punctilious officer will later inform me at the Tribal Research Institute in Ranchi. Belying the city skyline ahead, we pass adivasi houses with their curvilinear backs to the road, mud walls lined with delicate motifs in turquoise and rust, windows facing inner courtyards. A few minutes later, the natural world and the invented merge in the timeless image of a dusty red goods train rolling atop a viaduct against a background of clean blue sky and rocky hill.

Jharkhand’s tagline could be ‘come home to paradox’. While the Maoists are tearing up the countryside, Jamshedpur is insulated by hyper-urbanism — its Tata colonies echoing Lutyens Delhi through their wide, tree-lined roads and the faded elegance of their red brick bungalows. I find it both marvellous and disturbing that all this is courtesy the brute fact that there are minerals lying under our feet. Later, at the Tata Galleries housed in the Russi Mody Centre for Excellence, I notice how the heroic aspects of this Herculean, century-long mining project are emphasised at the expense of others. Panels feature nostalgic, black-and-white photographs of early 20th-century pioneer-engineers in sola topis, working out of what Jamshedpur started life as: a huddle of corrugated-roofed sheds. Other panels reiterate J.N. Tata’s dream of making Jamshedpur not an industrial outpost but a model city different in every way from ravaged post-Industrial Revolution English towns such as Manchester.

The Tata dream seems to be holding up. The roads improve as soon as we hit town. “The Tatas don’t wait for potholes to appear,” says Arun Yadav, district president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, who has noticed our newness. He has also, with utmost graciousness, adopted us for a day in order to show us the town also known to its inhabitants as ‘Jampot’. We’re driven at a regally slow pace in Mr Yadav’s Maruti, on a tour that encompasses the whole town, despite his assurance that this is only ‘level one’.

It’s obvious that Tata rules: in the sprawling Jubilee Park with its altar to J.N. Tata, made to commemorate the golden jubilee of the city in 1957; the zoo set up to mark the diamond jubilee; the Dimna lake fringed by hills with their various Tata guesthouses; the high street in Bishtupur, many of its shops housed in Tata-owned structures as old as 80 years; the Telco township, where the landscaping incorporates the natural lie of the land; and, of course, the enormous Tata Steel plant that sits in the centre of town, constructed in such a way that its fumes blow south towards the railway station at the edge of town, instead of north into Jampot. Mr Yadav keeps a charming commentary going: what Khushwant Singh said when he stayed at a Tata guesthouse and saw the moonlight on Dimna lake, what Russi Mody gave himself on his 70th birthday, where you get the best littis in town.

Litti—a uniquely Bihari snack—has its share of fans who are found every evening in a lane off Bishtupur Main Road, where the pushcarts gather. But the real excitement is elsewhere. “This is an ice cream-loving town,” declares Mantosh Roy, who has just opened Jamshedpur’s first Baskin Robbins outlet, and is standing proudly before it. I can see the ice cream lovers over his shoulder: ladies in shiny saris sitting on plastic chairs, waiting for their hot chocolate fudge, husbands in fresh kurtas squeezing into the parlour and kids falling over each other. We had been swamped with flyers for the opening as soon as we reached town and I was expecting something king-size. The outlet, though, turned out to be just a balloon-decorated booth. The buzz around it reveals how Jampot is an interesting admixture: at once arch-progressive and among India’s oldest planned cities, and yet still curiously hungry for cosmopolitan thrills. The next day, the local newspaper, Avenue Mail, seems to have missed Baskin Robbins but carries a full report on the opening in town of a branch of the restaurant Little Italy.

We take a smashed-up bus to Ranchi whose video offering is all of the Ramayana being narrated by an over-made-up lady executing frantic mudras. According to yesterday’s paper, the Maoists put a landmine under a bus and killed a bunch of CRPF personnel in Latehar district, not far from here. This morning’s paper has the same news and I wonder why they must repeat it, till I realise this is a new landmine under a new bus. The Ranchi bus station, when we finally reach it, is a wasteland. The Maoists have called a blockade in the nearby districts of Gumla and Simdega, which has affected traffic into and from Ranchi. We want to get to the railway town of McCluskieganj, an old Anglo-Indian settlement some 70km away. A good samaritan draws us an elaborate map for how to beat the blockade and find McCluskieganj: it involves a combination of walking, autos, buses, tempos and loads of superior karma. We thank the man and decide to spend some time in Ranchi till things pick up again.

The road into town is lined with Christian missionary institutions on the right and Hindu ashrams on the left. I think of British writer Norman Lewis who travelled in these parts 20 years ago in search of what was left of India’s tribal culture. In Palamau district, he found that Muslims had joined the contest between the Lutherans and Jesuits for the souls of the tribals, while the priest at the temple tried to bribe them with sweets. “A few of the villagers,” he writes in A Goddess in the Stones, “had managed to benefit from all three religions, satisfying the mullah that they were unable to grow the regulation beard, while kidding both Christian contestants along, and even secretly visiting the Hindu temple to keep on the right side of the prominent goddess Durga.”

Ranchi’s Main Road is at least as long as Bangalore’s M.G. Road and has stores with all the same brands. Cosmopolitan yearnings again. Older vestiges show through here and there: a boarded-up Urdu public library founded in 1945, a red brick Women’s Hospital from 1830 and the beautiful, clean-limbed, dusky-pink Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church built in 1870. A short cycle-rickshaw ride brings us from the main thoroughfare to the Ranchi Museum. This is a cavernous hall with the usual dusty dioramas of supposed adivasi look-alikes smelting iron, making ropes and pounding grain. Amidst the bits of indigenous jewellery, woven fabric and musical instruments is an earthen pot and bamboo sieve-implements used to make the local rice-based brew handiya.

The previous week, walking in a small town in southern Jharkhand, my partner and I came across a group of high-spirited women and children who’d stopped in the centre of the lane to have a drink from their pot of handiya. They handed us leaf cups, inviting us to join, declaring proudly, “Hum log adivasi hain.” “People call this alcohol, but it’s not,” said the old lady who had made the handiya and was dispensing it freely. “It cools the body.” Not to speak of the marvellous, mellow high it gives you.

It’s a little strange now to see the handiya implements imprisoned in glass cages, along with other scraps of tribal culture and history, such as depictions of Birsa Munda, who is to Jharkhand what John Lennon is to Liverpool. Every second thing in the state, starting with Ranchi’s airport, is named after this revolutionary who led a Munda uprising against the British and died in prison in 1900 before he was 30.

We decide to risk the taxi-ride to McCluskieganj. We start early one morning, driving northwest for a couple of hours, and then turn in from the main road at a sign that says, “Welcome to McCluskieganj”. After traversing several kilometres of nothing but soundless forest, each turn in the road promising a destination but yielding none, the first crumbling bungalows begin to flash through the trees. The isolated feeling is not misplaced: McCluskieganj was dreamed up as nothing less than an Anglo-Indian ‘mulk’ in the wilds of the Chhotanagpur plateau by an Anglo-Indian gentleman called E.T. McCluskie, who in 1932 leased 10,000 acres from the Maharaja of a principality called Ratu (whose gorgeous palace we passed on the way).

“Do you want the long story or the short?” asks 63-year-old Noel Gordon, whose doorbell we ring soon after reaching. Enquiries about someone we could speak to regarding the history of the town had led us promptly to ‘Uncle Gordon’. His Anglo-Indian father stumbled onto the town in 1946 and decided to move here after he retired from a jute mill in Calcutta. Though Gordon came of age in a post-Independence McCluskieganj, the town he describes is a colonial haven—a band playing at the club, a Mr Malone screening 16mm films, ladies playing lawn tennis, men going shooting or arriving on horseback armed with double-barrel guns to meet the post on the 4.30am train. By the time they headed home, after chatting with friends and hanging out with girls, it would be dark in the forest and they might meet a bear. “It was fantastic,” says Gordon. “Ranchi was nothing. Ranchi aristocrats used to come here to do their shopping.”

Gordon is brimming with talk: he suspects that his family might be related to the Captain William Gordon who featured in the 1857 Mutiny; describes the career of Job Charnock, whose children, he says, were the first Anglo-Indians; and tells us about his Bengali friends who replaced the Anglo-Indians when they drifted to the West. Are there any Anglo-Indians left? “A few, a few. Cliff Richard’s aunt used to stay over there [pointing vaguely in the direction of the garden], but then she went off to Kalimpong or somewhere and I never saw her again.”

The presence of the railway line was vital in the creation of the settlement, but now the trains bring mostly schoolboys. McCluskieganj has reinvented itself as an educational town, thanks largely to the Don Bosco Academy to which children flock from all over the region, says Sylvia Razdan. She is one of the dozens of settlers who run hostels to house Don Bosco’s student population. She reveals that her great-grandfather was an Armenian bishop, while her grandfather worked the railways in Luxar, a small town near Haridwar. Razdan is not particularly nostalgic about the Anglo-Indian past, and is content to manage her hundred-odd boys, watch a lot of cricket and read Agatha Christies. “This is a ghost town when the school goes on vacation. You won’t get chicken even. Only potatoes,” she says in convent-educated tones, on the sole strength of which, she assures us, she has sailed through life.

Razdan is doubtful, too, about how much of the old Anglo-Indian life remains. “They all left but I don’t know what they left for,” she declares, before sending us off to see the two graveyards — Catholic and Protestant — and the corresponding churches. There may not be much of the community left in town but they must come visiting. Some headstones with dates reaching as far back as the late 1930s and early 1940s look quite new, their lettering clear against marble. The Catholic church is closed and a whole family is napping on the floor in St John’s, the Protestant chapel, below watercolours of rural England and piles of dusty old furniture.

Despite its rundown air, however, McCluskieganj appears tenacious. Many old bungalows are abandoned and crumbling, but an equal number have been renovated, their English names replaced with Hindustani ones. Wherever our taxi halts, passers-by stop to enquire where we’ve come from and why. Noel Gordon was all enthusiasm too as he hobbled out into the garden to show us the fishes in his pond. He runs a nursery school and boarding house for toddlers and as we say goodbye, Gordon called after us, “When you have a kid, will you send her here to live with us?” There was not the slightest hint of irony in his voice, and I wondered if I had made up my mind too soon about Jharkhand being all surreal contrast between ultra-urban and wasted rural. McCluskieganj is clearly still a living experiment in being a little of both.


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