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Rich life in cloistered coalfield

Rich life in cloistered coalfield

A Speck of Coal Dust by Rohit Manchanda. HarperCollins. Pages 230. Rs 399

Book Title: A Speck of Coal Dust

Author: Rohit Manchanda

Sandeep Sinha

The collieries in eastern India abound in mineral wealth and equally rich are the lives of people who reside and work there with their tapestry of emotions. Through the eyes of two young boys, Sameer and Vipul, whose father is the manager of a colliery, the author has beautifully portrayed a life that many would instantly identify with.

The family originally hails from Barnala in Punjab from Vipul’s father’s side and Delhi from his mother’s side. It is their father’s job as a mining engineer that has taken the two boys there and they fall in love with the decrepit place. The narrative, set in the 1970s, is easily identifiable — arrival of house guests and the way they are treated; the dilemmas and pain that schoolchildren suffer, mundane stuff for the grown-ups but what means a world to the kids. Stroll by the Damodar river in Khajoori, dinner at sweeper Thapa’s place, watching Ramlila and the performance of Naiki with her ribald songs and gestures — that’s what life is in a place like Khajoori.

The maalis help with the school task in art and craft, much to the consternation of the teacher, who wants the students to make their own efforts. There are accounts of encounters with Vipul’s teachers, like Father William Clarence Rocqueforte, a Lithuanian Jew-turned-Catholic, who tells Vipul that the best way to get a feel of spoken English in the coalfields might be to listen to BBC programmes.

The family goes on its annual long vacation from Khajoori to Delhi. It was still a generation for whom vacations were meant to be spent with family, as Balram Mamaji tells the butcher with pride, “My sisters have come home for vacations.” There is fun and merriment and a host of meetings with all kinds of relatives, in Delhi, Barnala and Jalandhar. As time wears on, Vipul longs to be back in Khajoori. He feels cramped in staying in houses without gardens or playgrounds around. Along with experiences of a hemmed-in existence, he feels the charm of sharing the same square yards with several other claimants, though there is still the annoyance of not being able to find a place or a period of unchecked peace. At the end of it all, the youngster feels he has exhausted the possibilities that the ancestral places offer.

Change being the only constant in life, Vipul gets surprises on his return. Their pet Rover has mysteriously died. An even bigger surprise is in store. His father is transferred to West Bengal, and coal mines are nationalised. The bungalows will subsequently make way for flats to meet the housing needs of the workers.

The book surprises with its simplicity, sensitivity and elegance of prose. The events are near-realistic and depict the pulsating life in the cloistered existence of a coalfield, home to an immensely skilled workforce that keeps the wheels of the economy rotating.

Rohit Manchanda’s first book, ‘In the Light of the Black Sun’, won a Betty Trask Award in 1995. The publishers have brought out this forgotten classic, under a new name, after a long gap.