Few people know that hing (asafoetida) that constitutes an important ingredient for preparing lentil curry or dal and other numerous vegetables dishes based on potato and cauliflower caused Lalu Prasad—a teenager then—the first punishment in his life.
It was in 1950’s.
Lalu was a naughty kid of Phulwaria—a nondescript village in north Indian state of Bihar. He dropped the basket containing a bag of asafoetida in the well right at the door of his hut. The asafoetida seller raised alarm bringing several other villagers to Lalu’s door and shouting at his mother Marachia Devi to reign in his son.
“I too was fed up with daily complaint about Lalu’s naughtiness. I was tired of shouting at my son several times. Lalu mein bachpana bahut rahe (Lalu was naughty as child). We were poor. I feared that powerful people might harm my son because of his naughtiness and sent him to my elder son at Patna, the next day Lalu dropped the basket of asafoetida in the well”, Marachia Devi told me this story when I had visited Phulwaria, soon after Lalu had become the chief minister in 1990 to do a story on him and his background for The Hindustan Times.
His mother recalled how Lalu who enjoyed playing with cows and buffalos had wept uncontrollably when her elder son took him away from Patna. “Humko Patna mat bheja, ab badmashi na karab (Don’t send me to Patna. I will no longer do naughtiness)”, Marajia quoted Lalu yelling while leaving home.
Lalu, thus, was banished from his village for his offence.
His mother—alive and in good health then—told me several such stories about Lalu’s naughtiness. It was not because I was a journalist. The old woman opened up to me when I told her that I too belonged to Daraily Mathia—a village barely 30 kilometres from Phulwaria.
Lalu’s mother had an instant rapport with me. She brought out a soiled sheet of cloth from her hut and spread it on a bamboo bench near the well in which Lalu had dropped the bag of asafoetida and which was still functional. Lalu’s nephews and other family members drew water from the well and offered it to me a in a lota (brass tumbler) with beaten rice and jiggery.
I called on Lalu ahead of proceeding to join my new assignment as a faculty at Lovely Professional University, Jalandhar, Punjab in July this year and reminded him about his mother’s story at his Patna home. Lalu laughed heartily. Two other senior RJD leaders, Shivanand Tiwary and Manoj Jha too were in attendance. Lalu recalled how he used to sleep in a corner of huge Peepal tree behind his hut and his mother searched for him.
The CBI officials had raided Lalu’s establishment and had questioned his family members before I met him in early July. The Ranchi court was carrying out trial against him in fodder scam cases. Lalu, his family members and party cadres almost knew that Lalu—sooner or later—would land in jail again.
Five months after I came to Punjab, the court punished Lalu second time in a fodder case, sending him to jail for seventh time.
The purpose of this column is not to go in the details of the case or the politics around it which is a fodder to the ubiquitous channels and newspapers. I simply wonder that Lalu would have been a phenomenal writer in folklore too had he cultivated the interest in writing.
There was a unique way of selling hing (asafoetida) in Bihar hinterlands in 1960’s and 70’s. The asafoetida sellers carrying a bag with asafoetida in a basket on their head moved around in the village streets, shouting, “Le hin Baisakh karar-e (Take asafoetida and pay for it in the month of May)”.
The asafoetida sellers usually descended on the villages in winter and supplied asafoetida to the agriculturists and cowherds. They would return in May to collect the payment against the asafoetida which the agriculturists paid in kind—wheat, barley etc.
Asafoetida was still a commodity for barter system of marketing.
It is hard to tell when exactly Lalu was ‘banished’ from his village for dropping the basket of asafoetida in the well. An archetypal villager, Marachia Devi was not the kind of woman to keep the records of dates and time. I conjectured that Lalu might have left his village to join his milk selling elder brothers in Patna sometimes in 1950’s.
What Lalu became after reaching Patna is known to the nation and the world. Everything has changed beyond recognition in over five decades down the line.
Lalu’s mother died long ago. The asafoetida sellers exist only in folktales. A hand pump has replaced the well in which Lalu had dropped asafoetida and a life-size statue of Marachia Devi has replaced the hut in which she lived with Lalu and other sons. Lalu got a railway station built at Phulwaria when he was India’s railway minister. The village is connected to road from all the sides and is equipped with electricity, hospital and banks.
I wonder if Phulwaria—now equipped with all the modern facilities—will ever produce the Lalu that the old Phulwaria had produced.
(Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and assistant professor at Lovely Professional University, Jalandhar (Punjab)