I didn’t want to spend all four days of the Puja just pandal hopping (both real and virtual, on television) and dressing up for that purpose. I have done that enough for more than enough years. Also, going on planned tours on Puja has become an equal cliché which too is not appealing enough to me. It had to be spontaneous and completely unpremeditated. I did not have any wish to add testament to Robert Burns’ famous quip “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray” yet again.
And so, on Mahasaptami this year four of us set out to “experience traditional Durga Puja” in the rural ambience of “Mahishadal Rajbari”. The plan was verbally uttered once and agreed upon instantaneously the day before the trip date. And I have become a fan of this impromptu trip planning since.
Chapter 1. The journey: on travel blues and on ‘loos’.
Train travel has always been a cause of great anguish for me. Even if I ignore (albeit with great difficulty) the state of uncleanness Indian Railways is perpetually in, I hate the restrictive and defined nature of train travel in itself. I believe my movement should be dictated by myself and me alone. Where I choose to stop should be absolutely under my control. Although there is this provision in the trains, pulling the chain makes the train stop at such God forsaken and uninhabited places that that provision fails to suit my purpose. I prefer traveling by road, which unfortunately, was vetoed by my traveling partners in this occasion. And so I had to get up early on Saptami at daybreak to catch the 7.03 Midnapore Local bound for Panskura railway station. From there we were to board another connecting train to Satish Samanta Halt station that passed only about 4 times a day. So if we missed this 7.03 train from Kharagpur, it was a ‘no go’ for us, my friend MS, our guide on the trip, had warned.
My other friend SMI, who was to come by the Midnapore local saving us seats, was charged with the duty of buying return tickets for us all. At about 5.50 am I got a frantic call from SMI informing me that the ticket printer at Midnapore station had jammed right before spewing the return tickets, so he had managed to get only one way tickets to Panskura and that there was some chaos involving a woman and that he was coming to Kharagpur by an early train and shall board the 7.03 local from Kharagpur with us all. I was a bit puzzled. ‘Woman’, ‘no tickets’, ‘he was coming over’? I couldn’t make much sense of it, so repeated ‘okay’ after everything he said.
One another thing about this trip, besides its spontaneity, was that I was the common friend of all the people participating in it. The initial four of us, who started on this trip, constituted of three of my closest friends from different phases of my life, college, university and research lab, besides me. So, each of the three people were to get acquainted with each other on the trip. It was this sense of unfamiliarity, with the route, with our destination, and then with each other, that made the prospect of the trip so appealing.
By 6.15 am I was standing by the road, waiting for an auto to take me to the station, wondering all along, where I could find a toilet in Mahishadal. You see, apart from the ‘train travel blues’, the one other thing that bugs me before a journey, is where to find a loo while traveling. Bus stands in our state usually have a ‘sulabh sauchalay’ (pay & use toilet) attached to them. Stations have toilets too but they usually are a lot messier than the bus stand ones. And God didn’t intend women to pee standing up, anywhere, everywhere.
I was deeply reflecting about this serious issue, when the fourth trip member, my friend RS, called me to know where I was. We were to travel to the station together. As I was getting into the auto, I learned he was about finished brushing his teeth the second time that morning. It reminded me of my father, who never fails to brush his teeth thrice daily. And he is sixty six.
RS got into the same auto a few minutes later alright, but without his socks or his wallet. He confessed he had hurriedly stuffed some bills and his ATM card in his pockets but had no time to put on socks. It’s strange how I had “offended” him the evening before by expressing doubt about him getting ready in time and he boasting about his “super speedy, getting ready skills”. I guess the second time brushing had made him come undone.
At the station we found SMI waiting for us with a concerned look on his face. It seems my concerns about the loo had traveled through the ether and had upset him as well. However, he was concerned about serious business, while mine had been trifle. He was so concerned he absolutely refused to have any breakfast, especially hot tea. Instead, he delved into a rigorous discussion of how beautiful the toilets in the railway stations of South India were. He was actively joined by RS and they both went quite vivid in the descriptions. Mercifully, MS made his entry at that precise moment.
MS has been a great friend since my university years. He is reliable and he is responsible. My parents have only recently started relying on my judgment, and therefore it is a relief for them if MS is part of a plan. They trust his judgment without question.
The formal introductions over, and the loo logos under wrap, we waited for the train to come. This is another irksome thing about trains. The wait. I know you have to wait for buses too, but at least you don’t have to wait by two parallel lines, littered in the most unimaginable ways possible, reeking of the most extraordinary smells that can ever be. And, as RS and SMI, momentarily reverting to the loo logos, rightly pointed out, people take it upon themselves to decorate the rails with their excrements right when the train stops at a station. I am sure my hatred of trains doesn’t seem much senseless now, although RS insists I cannot choose to ignore or demean “the lifeline of our country”.
At last the train arrived and we all hustled into a partially filled compartment after much stumbles and false steps. I have always felt that there is a sense of triumph associated with securing train seats in India. So, triumphantly we seated our precious behinds and off we took to a whole day of uncertain gaiety.
High school physics teaches inertia through example of trains. It was quite relatable back when we were school kids. But now that the railways have introduced MEMUs, the feeling of inertia and the drive to overcome it are hard to experience when one boards a train. But we still had our conversation inertia to overcome.
SMI is a great conversation starter. He has a bubbly personality which can break through any gloom. And true to my expectations, he got the conversation ball rolling in no time. But be not alarmed, I shall not prolong this piece with every word that we uttered on this trip. Some are very personal, some openly offensive to some of our acquaintances, but most of them simply silly, just like it should be when a cohort of youth meet.
I have heard people getting incredibly hungry when they board a train. I don’t. But I do feel like drinking tea when the vendor comes calling “chai, chai”. I asked the guys if they wanted to have tea. They wanted to have tea in ‘khuri’ (small earthen cups) only, not in plastic ones. I was again reminded of my father. Their ages, summed, would make more than sixty six. Now it made sense!
The scent of tea vanishing from the air, I miserably started reflecting on that one problem that kept nagging at the back of my mind. Where to find a loo? I couldn’t possibly “go” in the wild with three guys keeping me company!
And right at that moment, as if answering my unuttered prayer, my cell rang, and there at the other end of the line, was my salvation. When we had decided to make this trip, I had called one of my lady friends, SB, who lives in Mahishadal, informing her that we would visit her place. She had regretfully informed me that she was down with fever and couldn’t meet us. Now, she was calling to tell me, she had got herself treated in time and would join us when we reached. I was impressed at her commitment. And, man, was I relieved to have a girl on the trip! Loo worries vanished into thin air.
Chapter 2. Marching into Mahishadal: on ‘Autumnal Gold’ and ‘Heritage, Old’
Panskura station remains very busy in the morning with gunnysack bundles of vegetables and flowers getting loaded on to Howrah bound trains. We meandered our way through all the bags and crates and squatting vendors to board the Haldia bound train that entered the station just as we got out of ours. MS’s father was saving us seats in the overcrowded train and we took our seats as Uncle got out on his way to work, however, not before offering us delectable Haldiram’s boondi ladoos!
The topography of Purba (East) Midnapore presents a stark contrast to the semiarid lateritic topography of Pashim (West) Midnapore. As the train rattled and prattled through wide green fields of freshly reaped paddy and lotus infested water-bodies, I noted this abundance of bright pastel shades all over the land, almost as if van Gogh had been there at work and had left but moments before. My district is usually all red and dusty green and brown. The rich golden green shades of Purba Midnapore mesmerized me, so much so, I didn’t mind the man sitting beside me resting his sleeping head on my shoulder. This is another interesting thing I have noted. People sitting beside me, in buses usually, which are my preferred mode of transportation, inevitably end up falling asleep with my shoulder cushioning their drooping heads. It has now happened in trains as well, in a different district. I had no idea my presence was so soporific!
About three quarters of an hour after boarding the train, MS alerted us that we must take positions near the door and get ready to jump. I was about to ask why this sudden suicide pact when he clarified that we were about to reach Satish Samanta Halt and that the platform was very low. We were already getting out of the conventionalities!
Satish Samanta Halt has a quaint little platform located on a raised earthen bank with a little shade some way up along the line and the ticket counter below the bank. We went down the stairs, which were broken, prompting RS to make rude remarks that I must have visited the place before and broken the steps with my weight, how immature, and then started walking along the dirt road towards the town market.
It was a pleasant walk. There were several small Pujas along the way that we visited. My local Puja has become so tortuously commercial, cacophonous and artificial, these suburban Pujas with their limited scopes but unlimited sincerity seemed incredibly sweet to me. I felt like enjoying Durga Puja truly after a long, long time.
I had done some homework on local history the day before, mostly because I failed to answer who Satish Samanta was when my mother had asked, on learning our destination station name. She is a great history buff, especially, history of Indian freedom movement. Embarrassed at not knowing, I had read up on him and Sushil Dhara and the Tamralipta Jatiya Sarkar on the trusted Wikipedia. I was actually eager to pass on the facts to the guys, but they ridiculed me for being a tape recorder and parroting info. How immature!
MS had asked one of his students to join us and take us to the most important Pujas of the town. As it turned out, the boy belonged to a family of freedom fighters who worked with Satish Samanta and Sushil Dhara! Right at your faces, guys!
Mahishadal Zamindari was founded by one Janardan Upadhyay Garg, a trader come from Uttar Pradesh in the 16th century. His estate, at that time, is said to have earned revenue of seven lakh rupees annually! His descendants later extended his zamindari and founded the two palaces in the 19th and 20th century respectively. They were conferred the titles of Raja and Raja Bahadur by the then Viceroys of India. At present, the palace grounds and the palaces are rented out to film shooting parties and the royal descendents have their lodgings elsewhere. But I believe the royals visit the estate on Durga Puja since it is their ancestral celebration, and I think I spotted them at the Puja mandap on our way out. But we shall get to that later.
The estate Puja is a homely affair just indoors to the Old Palace gate. After walking through rows of tall palms and beside a huge pond with water lilies, we entered the Old Palace grounds, through an archway that was lined with silken cloth of blue and white. MS said that behind the cloth there were the horse shelters, now abandoned. I tried taking a sneak peek, but the cloth was stretched too tight. Above the archway was the Nahabatkhana, in disrepair, but sprouting beautiful wild flowers.
The idol was in the Durga Dalan and was a ‘ek chala’ structure with Maa Durga, Laxmi, Saraswati, Kartic, Ganesh and Mahishasura and all their pets (vahans) united on a single frame. Most modern Pujas have separated idols. Joint families are impracticable in modern city living. In villages and rural areas, however, they still continue, a vestige of the past, celebrated in such single frame structures annually during the Pujas.
I am not sure photography of traditional Pujas is permissible. If not, forgive me father for I have sinned. But the small idol in that old verandah amidst smoke from the dhunuchi was so irresistible; I just had to have a snap for keepsake. The Pujaris and the drum beaters getting ready for the aarti were too gracious and turned a blind eye to my indiscretion.
We proceeded to the Old Palace steps for a brief rest. The Palace was closed up and we could only get into the long corridor in the front. The stairs and the corridor both were marbled in that classical black and white checkerboard pattern. I am a sucker for such architecture.
MS pointed out the prisoner cells at the ground level of the Old Palace of the Rajbari, which I wanted to explore but was dissuaded with scares of crouching spiders and hidden lizards. The grounds, I was told, was teeming with monitor lizards. Now, lizards are something that is best viewed from a distance, I believe. What with their tendency to spontaneously shed their tails and in occasion, unfortunately spotted by me, to eat the sloughed skin off their tails, yuck, I do not fancy running into lizards of any size and shape or kind on any occasion. But God must have noted that, for before the day was over I did run into, not one, but two monitors, but more on that later.
Near the Old Palace, just a short walk away, is the famous Gopal Jew temple, founded by Queen Janaki Devi in the 18th century. On either side of the entrance to the temple, are two bell chambers, both double storied, with the upper storey probably serving as a watch-post or Nahabatkhana in the old times. Only one bell remains in one of the chambers. The existing bell is a huge iron affair with engravings that looked like Chinese to me. But of course, I am no expert on ancient scripts. The bell lacked the clapper. I wonder if they sounded the bell by ramming the heads of prisoners and wrongdoers on the inner sidewalls, just like they show in Chinese action flicks!
The temple is a brick and cement structure towering above the heads of the palm trees surrounding it. It is of the classical style with three cylindrical spires on top and two cylindrical turrets at a lower level. The idols of Radha and Krishna inside the temple were richly adorned in silk finery and jewels. I had read that the original idols were stolen about fifty years back and that the present idols were recently installed. But I decided not to speak the fact out loud, not for the fear of being ridiculed by my friends again, but because there were a lot of devotees in the temple who might not have taken kindly to my factual statement.
There were two smaller one spire temples in the premises, one of which housed a Shivalinga. Also, there were two roofless chambers; one of them decorated with garlands of marigold and banana leaves. I guessed it was where Hindu weddings took place. In fact, there was one wedding going on in the main temple when we went in.
RS went up to pay homage to the deity and on his way out ran straight into the arms of the silk clad, garlanded groom. I was half expecting the bride to stand up and slap him for trying to steal what was now rightfully hers. I guess that’s a sign I need to start looking for a wedding present for RS.
I had read that there was a Ram Jew temple and a Dubey Palace near Gopal Jew temple. As I sat arguing that Wikipedia couldn’t lie and that the locals were ignorant, SB made her entrance with that patent sunshiny smile of hers. Another round of introductions ensued, at the end of which we decided to move on to the New Palace grounds, much to my annoyance for I still refused to believe that the internet could lie. A solid temple and a palace can’t just vanish into thin air!
Chapter 3. In the New Palace: on ‘Film Props’ and ‘Covert Ops’
Between the Old Palace ground and the New Palace ground, there are a number of water bodies and groves. We climbed a small mound to get a look at the once well maintained moat just inside the estate fence. There were some casual speculations on whether the moat housed crocodiles in its time, but I seriously doubt it did. For one thing, the moat wasn’t deep enough to keep the crocs from climbing out and snacking on the unsuspecting serfs. And frankly, petty thieves wouldn’t risk getting across the moat and I don’t believe Mahishadal Rajbari had serious enemies who would catapult soldiers to lay siege on the palace!
Local youth used the palace grounds as ideal hangout places, I gathered. SB admitted she and her friends did the same when she was in school. People picnicked here frequently too, as was evident from the heaps of Styrofoam plates littering the ground. ‘The Ugly Indian’ is a hard to ignore reality.
We passed through a small tin gate with ‘No Entry’ painted on it, into the New Palace grounds. It presented a stark contrast to the unkempt Old Palace grounds, with its well maintained grass lawns bisected with red graveled, brick-lined walkways interspersed with painted benches under small shade trees. In the centre was a large circular brick lined cleared area with a small canon mounted on a cement podium. And right behind was the two storied New Palace, freshly white washed with painted blue borders.
Entry to the palace was by purchasing entry passes worth ten rupees from a small guard post near the gate. SB obliged us by getting all the tickets as a treat for visiting her place. Being a local, she seemed to have acquaintance with most of the palace staff. This familiarity paid off moments later, and I will come to that in a few minutes.
We were ushered into the palace by the ticket checker at the gates and three small canons on the corridor welcomed us in. I personally find this excessive display of armours and weapons, a silly attempt to intimidate. But then, I was born and raised a free citizen.
Photography is not allowed inside the New Palace, probably because royal descendants still occasionally call it their home. I shall be honest and confess that the three rooms open for public viewing, did not impress me much and I did not miss taking photographs there. The first room, near the entrance is a huge drawing room with carpeted floor, Belgian mirrors on the walls, shabby couches with moth eaten upholstery, wooden Victorian (or Georgian, I have no clue) cabinets and marble tables and teapoys. There were three huge oil portraits of three generation Rajas, equally degraded. I learned from the security staff at the door that these belonged to Raja Ishwar Prasad Garg and his son and grandson. It saddened me a little. “How the mighty have fallen”! Perhaps, our state government could extend some help for restoration?
The other two rooms comprised of the arms display and the trophy room. I hate these parts. In all the museums I have been to, and they make quite a big list, I take the least time in going through the arms gallery and the trophy room. Man should not make a spectacle of his intentions, instruments and victims of torture.
On the walls outside the arms gallery and the trophy room there are old photographs of all the famous people, musicians, politicians, freedom fighters and the like, who had visited Mahishadal Rajbari in its heydays. There are also two framed declarations or Sanads from the then Viceroy of India, conferring the titles of Raja and Raja Bahadur to the then rulers of Mahishadal Raj estate, Jyoti Singh and Shakti Singh Garg, respectively. Another framed parchment displayed the signatures of three rulers, of which I thought Raja Shakti Singh Garg’s was the most aristocratic.
In the arms gallery, there was a wall clock manufactured by Ansonia Clock Company of the USA which displayed time of the day as well as the date of the month. It intrigued us all. You see, we belong to a generation where our mobile phones tell us everything we need, from time to date to our ‘to do’ list, even our Facebook status, if there is internet connection in it. So, the fact that people three or four generations prior to ours tried to incorporate ‘multitasking’ in their daily use devises, is naturally intriguing to us who consider our own parents to be the most ‘backdated’ in the world.
I knew that Mahishadal Rajbari was a popular film location for period flicks. SB also confirmed the same, informing us that the first fifteen episodes of a popular Bengali serial named ‘Sati’ were filmed in the New Palace. Before entering the palace I had noticed the palace walls being painted and masons securing wooden scaffolds on the outer walls of the west wing of the palace. I had thought it was for the festive season, but soon found out that a production unit was there preparing the set for the shoot to start.
The director (identifiable in his white T and shorts and an unnecessary cap, indoors) was explaining to one of his or the Rajbari’s staffs that he wanted the natural light to fall on the walls at a specific angle so that the walls would look bright. I thought tough luck. I know nothing about direction but know one thing for certain. Plastic cobalt blue paint on indoor walls will always appear dark unless artificially lighted.
Making our way between the filming party and other visitors to the palace, SB, quite unexpectedly, discovered that one of the stair cases leading up to the second storey was unlocked. Entry into the second storey was strictly restricted because that level served as the residence of the few members of the royal household who still had their lodgings there. SB had been complaining moments before saying she had visited the upstairs rooms before and that it was unfair. We realized it was because of all the chaos from the filming party that the stairs were closed shut. In the melee, somehow, the west wing staircase had been left unguarded for SB to chance upon.
She didn’t hesitate and slid right through the gap in between the collapsible gates and started climbing upstairs. SMI and RS followed suit. I hung back for a second to wait for MS, but not finding him anywhere, started sneaking in. MS wouldn’t have approved going up in any case. He is a stickler to principles.
The staircase was a marble spiral one with ornate railing on one side. There was a window on the side wall a few steps up along the stairs. At the top of the stairs there were two armchairs and a cabinet and a door leading into the inner quarters. With great trepidation I followed my more courageous confreres inside.
The verandah into which the stairs led was marbled and had a row of rooms on one side. The first room we peeped into appeared to be a dining room with large cabinets and dressers and a dining table at the centre. SB and RS walked smartly through it to the corridor at the other end and I hastily followed them half fearing somebody would apprehend me if I was left behind.
We walked into a relatively dark passageway and stood in front of a door leading into an equally dark room, of which, I could not make out a single thing with my myopic vision. SB walked straight into the room, closely followed by RS, and SMI was about to enter when my cell rang!
In that cool dark royal interior my cell phone tune sounded oddly impudent and insolent. I tried grabbing it from the case in which it hung around my neck and turning it off, but in my nervousness, it took me quite some time to do so. In that little while, perhaps my cell phone ring brought forth two persons, one confronting SB in the room and the other hurrying towards me from a different room at the corner of the passage.
It was MS. I was so pissed at him, I curtly told him to wait below for us to join him. The person approaching me was by now facing me and quite rudely demanded who we wanted to meet. I did not know what SB was doing inside; all I could see was that she was having a very toothy chat with the other person. Lying on the spur of the moment is an art I am yet to master; so I pointed at SB and told the man that my friend over there was a local and had come to visit an acquaintance. I am a coward, I admit.
The next few seconds saw us being herded down the stairs with some shouts at invisible guards about the lapse in duty. SMI stumbled on the threshold at the foot of the stairs, but we were too focused on leaving the palace to stop and wait for him to recover his gait. We practically rushed out into the bright sunlight of the courtyard and towards a perplexed MS.
Chapter 4. In the Palace Grounds: on ‘Royal Tales’ and ‘Lizard Tails’.
In the shade of a tree on a bench at some distance from the palace, SB recounted her encounter with the person upstairs. She had used the references of her palace acquaintances to gather some info. The man, she said, was the adopted son of the wife of the last Raja of the estate. He lived there with his family and tended to the estate. SB was very impressed with him and his manners and kept repeating, “Isn’t it great that he didn’t shoo us away but talked so politely?” The adopted son, it seems, had asked the attendant to take us downstairs and told him we had mistakenly climbed the stairs and that we meant no harm. It was the staff who had done all the shouting and yelling. Typical!
Our nerves calmed and breathing normalized, we walked across the lawn to look at the statue of the last ruling Raja, standing proud on a cement pedestal in the centre of a circular stage. The filming party was layering the circular stage with wood for reasons known only to them. The plaque at the base of the statue informed us that the Raja had died only at the age of forty four. As I stood gazing at the imposing figure staring down at us, feeling sorry for his premature death, SB informed us that he had many mistresses and was quite colourful a character. I don’t know how she got onto such a fact from more than sixty years before her birth, but I admit the statement instantly made me feel less sorry for the Raja.
RS drew our attention to a figure keeping watch from the upstairs balcony of the palace, which turned out to be the adopted son guy SB had met. RS said he had been watching us for quite some time now. It is natural, I thought, to keep a wary eye on first time offenders. As revenge for being watched, RS photographed the clothes spread out to dry on the balcony and commanded me to tag them ‘Royal Laundry’ when I posted them online. The last ruling Raja glared down at me from his pedestal.
As we went trudging across the lawn retracing our steps out of the palace grounds, a sky blue sedan drove past us towards the estate Puja pandal. It seemed oddly out of place in that old world ambience replete with sounds of bells and chimes and incantations coming from the Gopal Jew temple complex.
We took a small detour inside the palace grounds to go visit the hangouts of SB when she was a schoolgirl. It was by a small lake beneath a huge mango tree. SB happily recounted her school day adventures when she and her friends would steal half ripe mangoes and would be chased by the man who had taken lease on that tree. I felt odd. All such stories of stealing mangoes and being chased, to me, belonged to the generation before us. We had mango soft drinks bought by our parents. I felt oddly alienated.
In the middle of this self pitying session, MS had to repeat that threat of monitor lizards roaming wild in the grounds. And as if on cue two steel gray creatures, each about a feet and a half long, crossed the road right in front of me. I hope I didn’t shout out too loud.
A debate ensued about the activities of the lizards behind the bush, where they could be seen moving about, rustling the shrubs, sometimes violently. The popular opinion was in keeping with the nature of the grounds, which was a perfect place to romance one’s beloved. But MS and SB believed that the lizards were too small, that is young, to be actually ‘courting’. Although there is ‘no age for love’, we did not press the issue and moved on.
On the way out we passed by the estate Puja pandal and we saw the sedan parked there and somber looking silk clad ladies entering the pandal, while an imposing gentleman pacing about beside the car. He regarded us with indifference and I knew then and there that we were looking at royal blood. As I had suspected, the royals came down for the Pujas every year.
We took the same path by which we had entered, on our way out of the palace grounds. While walking past the water lily pond beside the palm lined avenue, SB regaled us with some legends about the palace and its grounds. The water lily pond, she said, was stretched all the way up to the backyard of the Gopal Jew temple. Legend has it that when any villager had a celebration in his house, puja, wedding, childbirth and the like, he would make a list of all the utensils he would need for the ceremony and put the list into the waters of the pond the evening before the celebration day. The next morning, he would find all his required utensils floating on the water, to be returned when the celebration was over. SB said the miracle stopped after some villager(s) forgot (inadvertently/deliberately) to return the utensils when their need was met.
On our way in, on the main road in front of the estate I had noted a stone bust of a bearded man. Now, MS turned my attention to it when we came out, and informed me that the great Hindi poet Suryakanta Tripathi Nirala was born in Mahishadal and spent his early years there. I believe the soil of Mahishadal has something ‘nirali’ (unique) in it that made possible a whole gang of greatness being born in a span of few decades, in a British ruled India.
We took a cycle van rickshaw, prompting further rude remarks from RS about my weight toppling the van, to Mahishadal bus stand. There, while having a lunch of rice and vegetables at a local restaurant named ‘Suruchi’ we decided to visit Geonkhali, the confluence of the three rivers, Hooghly, Damodar and Rupnarayan. It was a mere 20 minutes bus ride from there, SB informed and since it was just past midday, we were all on board at once.
Chapter 5: Going to Geonkhali: on ‘Entry denied’ and ‘Goodbyes’
The last seat of the bus occupied by us five; we hollered our way towards Geonkhali. The dirt road was bumpy and potholed and true to our age, we hollered louder every time we bumped our heads on the roof or slid off our seats. The bus meandered through courtyards of mud huts, scattering cattle and almost running over chickens trying to ‘cross the road’. All along, I loudly debated the merit of bus journey over train travel, having found a kindred soul in SMI.
Twenty minutes is too short a time to fully enjoy bus rides. Even so, SB dragged me out of the bus and shepherded us onto yet another cycle van rickshaw, commanding the puller to take us to the ‘PHE’ plant. Now, having had some project research experience, I knew PHE was Public Health Engineering and that water treatment is a big agenda on their list. Geonkhali, it seems, has several water treatment plants supplying freshwater to Haldia. I was not too keen to visit a commercial scale cement-&-brick water filter, but, well, when you are having fun, a dumpsite can be Dublin!
The van went through a market place, over a small bridge and then, the three of us, I, RS and SMI, took in our breaths sharply, as the van turned into a road running parallel to the confluence. That vast expanse of water left us spellbound for a couple of minutes. I believe my mouth was agape all the while MS kept pointing at the distance at the directions of other significant riparian harbor sites and dockyards of our state.
I wanted to go all along the metalled road parallel to the confluence till the end, and not stop. But all good things must end at some point. In this occasion, that point was the PHE water treatment plant, looming large on the other side of the road amidst Acacia trees and beside a large canal. We asked our van puller to wait for a few minutes and hurried along the gravel path towards the big iron gates. A small boy was goat herding beneath the Acacias. He left his post and shuffled along beside us as we approached the gate, trying to catch our attention. I looked at him and on cue he started gesticulating. He was mute; probably deaf too. But he was all smiles as he tried explaining through his hand gestures and frequent pointing at the canal beside, the work that the plant did there. We knew what it did; he didn’t know that. The people visiting there, in anything but government vehicles were tourists, and they could be easily suspected to know very little about the place. Applying that logic, the little boy volunteered to guide us. We humoured him somewhat and then bid him goodbye with a ten rupee note. In a country with ever increasing population, children too know that the way to easy money is by appealing to middle class sympathies.
But the watchman at the PHE plant gate was unsympathetic to SB’s pleas for passage through the gates. He kept suggesting we walk along the periphery and get an “idea” what the plant was like. My ploy to trick him into letting us in by solemnly proclaiming we were researchers come for a project report, failed. RS made a fake threat by shouting in my direction, “Madame SDO you must report this incident at once to the Head Offices”. But that too failed to get positive results. When SB’s whining and appeals to the watchman’s human side failed to stir any action, we abandoned all hopes to get inside and started walking back to our van. We decided there would be more fun sitting at the pier by the road watching the polluted waters of the confluence, than there could be staring down at ‘purified’ aqua.
I have conditional vertigo. I can’t look down when I am standing over water. Solid ground presents no problem. Halfway along the pier I made the mistake of looking down and saw just murky waters, no land. I half wanted to turn around and walk off, but stayed. Because of SMI. He doesn’t know how to swim, we all do. But he alone posed most dangerously for photographs, balancing precariously on the edge of the pier. I hate being ‘the chicken’ among friends.
There was some light banter on our way back, especially when we walked past the lone guest house opposite the pier. Named ‘Triveni Sangam: Tourism Complex’, it boasts of a ‘Riverside Café’ and a delightful riverside living experience. MS, although being a ‘Fire Sign’, zodiac wise, is exceedingly attracted to water. We all agreed to pay for his honeymoon there, when he got married.
Halfway on our return journey, the van got a flat tire. And yes, it was on the side I was sitting, and of course, RS didn’t miss the opportunity to point that out. It was by sheer good luck that we got another van almost instantaneously, and decided to prolong the journey a bit and visit the Geonkhali Inspection Bungalow.
The Bungalow is a two storied structure on the banks of the river and has a splendid, albeit a bit unkempt, ground with huge trees and a small pool of water. The main iron gate was closed, but we entered through a small sub-door, cut out into the main gate. Here RS became exceeding obsessed with photographing a dog and a goat, MS became engrossed with watching cichlids in the pool and SMI, SB and I spent the time chatting under a shade tree. The Bungalow being the last stop in this remarkable trip of ours, none of us wanted to budge, I guess. We didn’t; not until the van puller came and called for us.
It has always seemed to me that the onward journey is usually longer than the return one. This time too, we returned to Satish Samanta Halt station in almost no time. SB accompanied us to the station. I could see she was tired and feeling weak. But she insisted on staying till we boarded the train. SMI got our tickets, small rectangular cardboard affairs that have become obsolete in big towns and cities, and we waited on the platform, with SB fondly remembering how she and her friends used to see sundown sitting at the station while in school. Autumn naturally comes with a note of farewell. And here we had the afternoon sun creating a perfect setting for us to say our goodbyes. We knew we had to, but just kept putting it off, till the train was seen rolling into the platform.
The loudspeaker in the Puja pandal near the station blared out the beats of ‘Dhaak’, the traditional drums played at Pujas, as I got into the train and took a seat. Saptami evening worship was starting. The greatest religious celebration of Bengalis was well underway. And I realized I too had inadvertently become a part of the celebrations. Through this trip, I had celebrated my friends. Friends, like MS, who, within 24 hours of returning home from Mahishadal, where he works, had again started with us to be our guide. Friends, like SMI, who, even though he didn’t know anybody on this trip except me, willingly accompanied me on asking just once. Friends like RS, who could have stayed at home and enjoyed his 4 day holiday, but joined us nonetheless to waste one whole day by roaming about in the sun. And friends like SB, who got herself medicated in time to be with us. Somehow, knowing these people and spending time with them, seemed to make much more sense to me than vain pandal hopping in silks and chiffons.
If I am being blasphemous, so be it.