There’s a beautiful bend in the river at Samtaber. That is where the place gets its name from. Ber means bend, in colloquial Bengali. The river Rupnarayan takes a wide turn here and almost fences off the village. It is an idyllic place, a peaceful little nook, ready to inspire imagination in even the most prosaic of souls. No wonder, the celebrated Bengali author Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay called this place his home for the last twelve years of his life.
I had been there once before, when I was a student of class seven. It wasn’t much of a visit, I was much too young to appreciate the place’s significance, and honestly, the place had been in disrepair. So, when my friends expressed their desire to go on yet another small trip (travel bug having bitten them nice and proper), I decided to revisit Samtaber and re-jog my memory.
To get to Samtaber and Saratbabu’s house, one has to get out of the train at Deulti station in Howrah district. Black etchings on a marble plaque on the platform inform visitors that they are on the right track if they have come to visit the residence of the great Bengali novelist. Emboldened thus, we set out to explore “Biprodas’s Pallisamaj”.
Before the trip, AC had asked me if we would have to walk the entire way from Deulti station to Saratbabu’s house. I had assured her saying cycle vans have become a trademark transport at the village and suburban levels and that we were sure to find some at Deulti. Thank heavens we did. Otherwise, I would have had to justify myself giving false hopes to my friends.
The six of us distributed our weights proportionately onto three cycle vans and off we set for Saratbabu’s house along a dirt road between arable lands golden with ears of ripe paddy, interspersed with brick and mud houses and lots of small lotus infested pools of water.
The puller of the van carrying RS, SMI and RJ had perhaps thought we had come down for the weekend and headed straight for a guest house named “Nirala Resort” a short distance away from the railway station, en route Samtaber. Deulti, on the banks of the mighty Rupnarayan, boasting of the last residence of the equally mighty novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, is indeed a perfect little getaway for the city dwellers. And “Nirala Resort” promises to provide just that little rest-stop.
At a place called “Panitraash”, our vans left the road along which we had been travelling steadily for about half an hour and took a left turn. As I was wondering if the entire village there had had an epidemic of hydrophobia somewhere back in history (‘pani’ meaning water in Hindi and ‘traash’ meaning terror in Sanskrit), our vans stopped in front of a pond with cemented embankment and steps leading down. Opposite the pond, there stood the fenced compound of Saratbabu’s house.
The gate is a wooden picket affair, crowned with the pretty pink bracts of bougainvillea. The red tiled walkway leading up to the house is neatly brick-lined, as is the garden on either side of the walkway. This picture was a stark contrast to what I remembered back from 1998. It had been a scene of neglect and dereliction back then, rendered almost washed-out by the incessant rain that had been falling all morning. The carefully planned out garden, the vivid colours of the flowers and the tiles and rafters of the bright white two storied house I was seeing now seemed to say that revisiting ‘Yarrow’ is usually less disappointing.
A Maruti Suzuki Ertiga was parked in front of the house when we had arrived. Now I got to see its travellers in rich finery, being informed about the place by an older caretaker. I slid along with them as the caretaker gave us a conducted tour of the house.
The caretaker, Mr. Dulal Manna, enthusiastically showed us around the house, inside the two ground-floor drawing rooms and Saratbabu’s study. The ornate ‘SC’ inscribed on his desk gave me chills. To reach such a stature where one’s initials don’t abbreviate, rather add to the importance, is any aspiring author’s dream. Sadly, my dream is taking a long time to come true.
My father had visited Samtaber and Saratbabu’s house almost 30 years back, before my parents’ marriage. He had let onto me some of the feelings and observations he had had then, for comparison. I found what he had observed in the house to be there alright, but what he had witnessed around the house and on the way there had changed remarkably. But I shall get to that later.
The idols of Radha and Krishna that Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das had given Saratbabu are still worshipped in one of the drawing rooms. My father had remembered that clearly, being a Krishna devotee himself. The little idols with their indistinct eyes and faces complained of loneliness in that empty house.
Anybody who is familiar with Saratbabu’s writings knows very well how brilliant a portrayer of village social life and living he was. His character portrayal is perhaps more vivid than his descriptions of village scenes. The two volumes of Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex in his drawing room cabinet prove his interest in the study of human nature. Like I always say, a good author is usually a better researcher.
The backyard had a wooden ‘Dhaner gola’ or ‘paddy store’ where the yields of the land used to be stored and processed. The wide open spaces and the wooden staircases made us all quite nostalgic, although being born and brought up in strictly cement housings; we shouldn’t have felt that way. I think it is the memories of our fathers, handed down to us through bedtime stories that made us feel that way. RS went on to proclaim this would be the setting he would want his kids to grow up in. Without Wi-Fi? Tough luck.
The upstairs bedrooms were locked but with provisions for sneak photos being shot through the open windows. What struck me all through the house was the severe austerity of the place. Perhaps it was new; perhaps it has always been that way.
The ‘samadhis’ of Saratbabu, his wife and his brother Swami Vedananda are in the premises, fenced by brick wall. The river Rupnarayan can be seen in the distance; it once had been close to the house, it is said. The upstairs balcony has a unique collapsible wooden extension near the cage of the ‘munias’. Caretaker Mr. Manna said that Saratbabu would stand by the balcony and write on that plank, looking across the fields towards Rupnarayan. Necessity is the mother of inventions.
A guava tree that had been planted by Saratbabu has been carefully supported by cement props when the state Heritage Commission undertook the restoration of this house and declared it a state heritage in 2007. I personally feel that the restoration work has been beautifully done and that the place has been brought back from the snatches of ruin by this effort. A little piece of literary history has been beautifully preserved in that antique timeframe amidst that traditional ambience which is so dear to the readers of ‘Biprodas’ and ‘Ramer shumoti’.
We walked along the village brick path towards the riverbank after asking for directions from some local women. My father had observed small mud houses and lots of sweet shops selling hot ‘jalebis’ back in his time. I however, saw brick houses and school buildings. We could have done with some sweet shops, all of us getting hungry from our journey, but not one shop was to be seen anywhere.
On the way, I spotted strange advertisements (a poster of ‘Paat Kuan Mistri’ or dug-well artisan, and graffiti on a cement bench notifying the mobile number of a diver). A city girl like me found these exceedingly odd. RS man-handled a goat, barely a week old, SMI found his long lost friend washed ashore and stuck on a date plant, his straw body a little limp from being submerged too long, and all of us gazed transfixed at a dead dog floating by in the river, its body bloated so taut, I mistook it for an inflatable toy.
The river bank was littered with human feces, as is the norm in the villages, making our stay there very brief. It wasn’t yet midday and we were clueless as to our next course of action. RJ saved the day. She had just gotten off her mobile and informed us that there was a wharf nearby from where we could hire boats for ferry. Nothing is more memorable than a boat ride. And since it was memories worth safe-keeping we were after, we all were on board; SMI needed some assuaging, but he came around quickly.
From the front of Saratbabu’s house, we hired a motor-van to drop us at Barakalitala from where we were to hire our boat. There is no end to the new experiences I gather with every trip I make. The intolerable vibrations of the motor-van as we went along the rough broken brick-road made SMI swear at me to his heart’s content, as I clung on to a piece of rope hanging from a support beam, for dear life. God, I love these enriching experiences!
Through courtyards of houses, displacing playing children and barking dogs, bewildering old men sitting in their front lawn smoking, we went on our royal carriage to embark on the regal boat ride. But the ferry was not in time.
The men at the wharf informed us that boat ride was restricted these days owing to a boat capsizing in the river some years back and killing a few dozen people. Even if we proved brave-hearts enough, there was no boat there at the moment to take us. Talk about man proposes and God disposes. We sullenly walked to a big tree and sat beneath it.
The girls were hungry. They hadn’t had breakfast that morning and Saratbabu’s house, although open, wasn’t exactly a real estate ‘open-house’. However, some biscuits and water, some charity shown to the village idiot (who however showed preference for RS and shook hands with him) and some good old gossiping soon restored their energy and spirits, just in time for our boat ride, as one of the men from the wharf came calling us.
A boat had been found. A motor propelled skiff. It was partially ladened with freshly cut grass. We haggled with the ferryman and made him agree to cross the river for us and drop us off at Kolaghat, two stations before Deulti. An hour long journey on a small motor-boat on the mighty Rupnarayan, that was more than 40 meters deep at some places, and treacherous for its tidal activity, was just the sort of adventure we were looking forward too, SMI included.
Now these stupid jokes about fat ladies getting on boats and coming down are seriously overrated. In spite of RS making rude comments, I managed alright and by my newfound wisdom I encourage all obese women to keep your middle fingers ready for anybody who expresses doubt about your ability to get into boats, unassisted or otherwise.
I had been on Rupnarayan in manually rowed boats, twice before. But we had just been field sampling and had been afloat for about twenty minutes each time. The vastness of the river had not struck me this hard before. For the whole hour that we were on that boat, drifting gradually away from the safety of the shore into deeper waters, around bends and fishing poles rising lonely from the waters, I kept expecting to see river dolphins. I had seen about 5 dolphins in one of my previous boat rides, from very close, foraging for food in the incoming tide water. Though, I strained my eyes, I couldn’t see one, probably because they were scared away by the sound of the boat’s motor.
The river Rupnarayan has been subjected to tremendous pollution load, chiefly because of the rapid industrial growth in Kolaghat. The Kolaghat Thermal Power plant alone is a major source of chemical and thermal pollution of the river waters. Added to that is the domestic pollution from the burgeoning human population along its banks. Sighting of river dolphins, I fear, shall soon become a rarity.
Nature’s greatness has a strange calming and humbling effect that affects even the most insolent of beings. We were mostly quiet the entire time except for when SB noticed that she had been dangling her slippers on top of a picture of some deity in the boat’s hull, and stood up to move aside. I think my weight balanced the boat and prevented it from toppling over.
The ferryman was a rogue and made us get out at a terribly dirty flight of stairs on the banks of the river, littered with fish scales and rotten vegetables. I was taking a last look at the river before turning my back and starting on the return journey, when I saw a humped back fleeting away from view into the waters close to the boat. I didn’t know if I had seen it correctly, but right then another humped back, quite big and shiny, took a smooth dive back into the depths of the mighty Rupnarayan.
Call me idealistic, but sightings of these beautiful creatures somehow manage to lift my spirits. I can’t help wondering what they do in their vast underwater playground, in the murky depths, in the ebb and flow of tides. Man is constantly poisoning their homes and food, yet dolphins, and whales, and dugongs and manatees, keep on grazing these vast watery pastures, singing a carrying tune, and smiling, smiling always. You think I am being overly poetical? Have you seen a dolphin up close, or its photograph for that matter? Doesn’t it look to be always smiling?
God painted them with an eternally happy face; just as he painted us humans with vengeance in our hearts.