Monday, 30th October 2017

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The road not given to the graduate in chemistry

Discovering the pieces of an ordinary life and its not-so-ordinary ironies

  • Published 16.06.19, 2:37 AM
  • Updated 16.06.19, 2:37 AM
  • 3 mins read
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Arun Kumar in the little patch of sustenance he has crafted Picture by Sankarshan Thakur

Look at the picture of this man, look at it carefully and imagine what or who he could be. Doesn’t strain the imagination, or does it? A farmer. Right, but there might be more. A horticulturist. Right, but there might be more. A not-so-well-to-do horticulturist. Right, but there might be more. A middle-aged, not-so-well-to-do horticulturist in a hot place. Right. But there might be yet more. This man is all of those things, and more. This man is also a Chemistry graduate. There are more things true about people than are often told.

It’s nothing Arun Kumar boasts about or even bothers to tell. A degree in Chemistry? And so what? What did he ever make of it, or from it? What could he? Nothing. He graduated in the mid-1990s, in the dark belly of the wayward derelictions of Lalu raj in Bihar. “I got that degree and there was nothing to do with it, no opportunity to take it further, no jobs, no opportunity. Nothing moved those days, kuchh kar hi nahin paaye… I just could not do anything. I don’t even recall where my degree is, probably eaten up by termites, but who cares, nobody cares…” This man is also a tale of how misguided politics can pervert ordinary lives in whose name it purports to exercise power. But he made something of his life, an underfed but sufficient thing.

Arun Kumar had a bit of what man has fought most wars over — a patch of land. He returned to it and tilled it and watered it and coaxed out of it what land can often give: the fruit of labour. At the back of his wattle-and-thatch barracks now flourishes what might look like a jungle outgrowth but is actually a nursery. “I just put in what I could lay my hands on and this is how it turned out.”

It turned out well and variegated, everything from jackfruit to mango to papaya to banana to guava to custard apple to grapefruit to jamun to sapota to mulberry to teak to sheesham to roses and dahlias and chameli and hibiscus and what have you.

“Do you have mahogany?”

“Yes, I might have a few at the back.” Arun Kumar walks into the thicket, rustling through the foliage, and returns with both hands full. “Mahogany! Young ones, will be ready in about 20 years or so, that is about the time I have taken to make this place what it is.”

In that time, Arun Kumar, BSc, Chemistry, also reared a few heads of cattle into a healthy pen, bred a family of frisky goats, and crafted a greenhouse where all manner of gourds grow amid the tresses of vines. “We make do, it is not such a bad life.”

Could have been better. And here’s the bitter irony of it. Within a shout from where Arun Kumar has created an existence for himself is the Rajendra Prasad National Agricultural University. This is Pusa in the north Bihar district of Samastipur. Pusa is metaphoric to the study and practice of agriculture and animal husbandry. Pusa is how the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in Delhi too is named.

Pusa, the Pusa in Samastipur, is a fertile roll of land more than 1,300 acres. It was marked out by the British for its richness of grass and other natural vegetation and its flat run in the mid-19th century and recommended as a horse-breeding centre to feed the colonial constabulary. Later, at the turn of the century, an elaborate cattle-breeding enterprise was attached to the flourishing stables. Around the same time arrived an unforeseen gift from unforeseen quarters, a gift worth a bob or two, a gift of $30,000 from a certain Henry Phipps of Chicago, USA.

It transpires that Phipps was fond friend to Baroness Curzon, herself the daughter of an American billionaire, and wife to Lord Curzon who was then the Crown’s Viceroy and Governor General to India. The promise and potential of developing that sprawling tract of land in north Bihar may have come up on the Curzons’ dining table, and Phipps, never having been to Bihar, never having had the faintest notion of it, made the offer of the bounty. There exists a view among some that the name Pusa may have come from Phipps — Phipps of USA, and therefore Pusa. Some, of course, dispute that and say the name Pusa predates Phipps and his largesse.

But whether or not Phipps had anything do to with the etymology of Pusa, it is with his grant that the foundations of the agricultural centre were laid and Pusa, in time, came to be known as a premier research and learning institution.

Henry Phipps has an intimacy with Pusa that travelled thousands of miles from Chicago; Pusa has none with Arun Kumar next door. It could easily have had; and profitably. Arun Kumar with his native’s knowledge of the soil and how the elements alchemise with it; Arun Kumar with his instinct for what the earth will give and how; Arun Kumar with his degree in Chemistry. But Arun Kumar doesn’t look to Pusa, the thought has probably never struck him that he possesses what it takes to put to use what he thought went to waste all those years ago. He has been too busy making his life what it is. That is who the man in the picture is, a man making a life of it.