Dawn is just breaking in the eastern steel town of Durgapur on this delightful Sunday morning, different from the rest in that India has just won the Cricket World Cup and this unpretentious little town is in the grip of a pleasant hangover. The hard mud on the streets is stained with colour, and posters of various members of the Indian cricket team at different stages of their careers flutter in the balmy morning breeze.
At the small, shabby bus-stop at Benachity, there is no news-stand; or perhaps there is one whose owner is still lying in a victory-induced stupor, reluctant to be awakened from his thrilling dream-like reality into the more pragmatic demands of his work. The compact, colourful, slightly dubious-looking bus we have just boarded creaks and groans as the passengers trickle in, settling themselves on its very tiny seats. The driver and conductor linger outside in the fresh air for a last whiff of their cigarettes before shutting themselves in for the long, rather unsettling five-hour drive on not the best roads in the country.
A festive atmosphere is palpably visible even on the almost deserted streets; last night’s revelry has left clear signs of the transports of delight that this town has been sent into, thanks to the exploits of a bunch of much venerated men on the cricket field. As always, sport has proved its ability to unite and uplift, and what can be more fitting in India than securing the most prized possession in the game played in every street, nook and cranny of its tiniest village! A bus passes ours, accoutred in festal adornments, a largely blue poster of Indian cricketers pasted on a corner of its windscreen. Elsewhere, ashes lie thick on two clay lamps on a platform, in front of garlanded, tilak-adorned posters of Zaheer Khan and Sachin Tendulkar- the prowess of the cricketers on the field has indubitably been aided by plenty of prayers.
The bus sails down a section of the Grand Trunk Road, NH2, before taking a detour- which actually lasts almost the entire length of the journey- through various hamlets in West Bengal’s Burdwan district. (Burdwan was actually Bardhaman- I assume an Englishman couldn’t have cared less about the correct way to pronounce the name of an obscure Indian district during the long years of colonialism.) On the highway, this early, vehicles are few; predatory birds swoop down on carrion- probably a stray dog startled by a truck rearing down on it full throttle. Automobile repair shops begin to raise their shutters slowly and send out for their first tea trays.
The ancient springs and joints of the bus creak with the shrillness of a bird in captivity as it jolts over practically non-existent roads, stopping with a sudden jerk in the middle of nowhere to pick up a passenger. We are in the heart of rural India, which, though untouched by much progress and hard-pressed to eke out a proper living, sees tea stalls displaying bright packets of potato chips and sachets of shampoo concocted by foreign experts. A man goes out to relieve himself on a thinly wooded slope; elsewhere, women gather dung in baskets and pat it onto the mud walls of their thatched huts. The drying fuel bears imprints of the fingers of their work-calloused hands. The ’road’ presses past cowsheds where men are having their first glasses of tea, and a warm, not unpleasant dairy odour wafts in through the open window. Breakfast is being made ready in tin-roofed shanties, golden jalebis and samosas sizzling sibilantly in large, soot-blackened cauldrons. It is a hard life here, but these men and women work uncomplainingly. Their brown faces break into ready smiles, and they don’t frown or wince as they pack themselves tight, skin rubbing against sweaty skin, paunch getting in the way, in these tiny buses (or on top of them). The women wear the brightest colours imaginable, their washing fluttering in the wind or spread out to dry on grassy slopes consists of sarees in the loudest hues of yellow, purple, orange and green. They bathe in small muddy ponds and wring their clothes out in the same infested water; these are the people who will play a major part in deciding the future of the state in the forthcoming elections. Greedy vote-seeking frenzy is in evidence on the walls of low-roofed buildings in the shape of crudely-painted party symbols and slogans. Party flags, alternating with the Indian tricolour brought out for the World Cup, are stretched out between poles. What has been done or will be done to improve the lot of these villagers is an open-ended question- the most untrained eye can see the lack of basic amenities in these villages even during a fleeting trip through their roads.
The sun is beginning to rise in the sky and tinge the cool morning breeze with its warmth. The sky is a cloudless, hazy white, forming a pretty complement to the dazzling green of the paddy fields. The smooth low carpet is furrowed by brown irrigation channels, and out of the seeming smoothness startlingly rise small copses of trees- which came first, the trees or the fields? The countryside is generously dotted with ponds, their surfaces glistening and untroubled in the distance, but textured by ripples as they come closer and catch the rays of the sun.
Village follows village on this narrow trail, and occasionally the bus breaks out in relief on an almost unhindered course on a series of potholes, the only obstruction coming in the form of stray goats that wander into the path of “civilisation”, before squeezing itself into yet another hamlet and rubbing shoulders with cycles and motorised rickshaws. The bus halts for a while at Katwa and allows a number of vendors to come on board: ’Pepsi’ in orange, cola and lemon is being sold in the shape of ice candies in narrow tubular plastic covers, as are various other candies, the wares being called out in Bengali in strident, confident tones. Having disgorged most of its burden, the bus sets off again with that last, heartening burst of enthusiasm that comes from knowing that the destination is not far away. Alas, this is the worst stretch of the journey, the most nerve-wracking and joint-wringing of all, and it is with mixed feelings and slightly enervated enthusiasm that we disembark at the rickshaw-stand in the pilgrim town of Nabadwipdham.
When you land in Durgapur, fresh from the sanitised ostentation of Bangalore and the politically charged flag-waving cheer of Kolkata, the sudden quietness of this peaceful small town comes as rather a shock- especially when you realise that this place is going to be home for the next six months. You can no longer complain about there being too many malls in the city, exorbitant auto fares and boring weekends. The numerous trees, clean and well laid out roads and abundant numbers of birds should rightly be more enjoyable than all the trappings of urban living; I admit, then, that three years of living in three different cities have effectively ruined me for a quiet life out on the prairies or the moors (like I’d once hoped to have).
I’d like to conveniently rest part of the blame on living with people my age- you can’t even watch Splitsvilla with your parents, let alone curse the copious amounts of inanity on it- but on the flipside, you don’t have to worry about which take-away your next meal is coming from, so all’s well. Now that I have plenty of time on my hands, I can introduce you to Durgapur. And we begin our virtual tour at Bhiringi More, which opens into a street lined with shops and populated by that portion of Durgapur which isn’t flocking to the newly opened Junction Mall.
The shelves in the display case of ‘Khawa-Dawa’ are lined with metal trays; a man carries in a tray of syrupy brown gulab-jamuns and spills them into a waiting plate. Fingers splayed, he rolls his hand on the sweets, spreading them out, all notions of hygiene thrown to the wind. A customer scratches his ankle with his key before attacking his ras-malai, while his son points to a heap of fly-encrusted squares of mysore-pak. My sanitiser-toting self cringes; but it is a generally accepted truth that food cooked and eaten in unhygienic conditions is delicious, provided you’re prepared to ignore the after-effects.
The lights flicker and go off. Emergency lamps, giving out thin slivers of neon light, are turned on to brighten the dingy interiors of not-so-welcoming hardware shops and restaurants. ‘Kwality Lodge’ next door promises ‘veg., non-veg. & delicious food’ at the restaurant downstairs- quite a choice there- as floral curtains billow on the balcony in the breeze rising gently now, revealing doors behind which perhaps a budding writer is hard at work. (Yes, I am thinking of Rusty!)
In this part of Durgapur, Bhiringi, the roads are chock-full of pedestrians, rickshaws and two-wheelers. Occasionally, the outrageously coloured cuboidal tin boxes on wheels that pass for ‘mini-buses’ lumber by; they are packed with people sitting or holding on for dear life as they press against one another in the narrow aisle. The single door is always half-open, kept suspended in mid-air by the agile body of the conductor who calls out for people to join the merry fraternity within the bus. It lurches to a stop without warning, disgorging and swallowing, unleashing frenzied cries from pedestrians and passengers alike. If you’re on a two-wheeler, you’re sure to be reminded of the “accelerator-clutch-brake” advertisement on TV. Or the “streets are full of idiots” ad.
The shops are colourless, much like one another and uninspiring. Dust lies thick on the plastic sheets clothing stuffed toys and the glass counters displaying knick-knacks. A brand new furniture shop, freshly whitewashed and splendidly lit (and evidently provided with a noisy generator), stands out like a resplendent beacon of hope- of what exactly, I cannot tell at this point. A spooky, vine-covered building hulking in the dark turns out, on closer inspection, to be a school; it could well have emerged unscathed from the 1857 Mutiny. The general vapidity and uniform boredom of the area would make an early twentieth-century Main Street in Oklahoma sound like paradise. Some day, though, this place will awake with a start and spring a surprise. I know I should be revelling in the quiet and that not too long ago I raved over the advantages of small-town life. So I’ll also warn you now about the difficult transition it can be, when you move down from a city that has JustBooks, HRC and a house full of boisterous girls.
As I write, an unseen vehicle mounted with a loudspeaker is passing by, extolling the virtues of Monday in Bengali (or so I think). We’re waking up already!
Even as the train pulls into the railway station at New Jalpaiguri, I can feel the excitement building up. The dry heat of the plains has been long left behind, and though the sun is a bright circle in the sky, the weather is more forgiving than it was the previous evening at Kolkata. The humidity has been sucked out of the air, and on either side of the track as the train wends its way to this pretty little door to the Northeast, lush green fields catch the first rays of the morning light. Men are out for their ablutions, dark specks squatting amidst the waving crops. The inevitably dingy railway-side towns are passed, their soot-blackened, featureless faces staring out endlessly at the multitudes of people who pass them everyday. The walls plastered with movie posters and painted with advertisements for TMT bars, cement and footwear are a blur of colour and the angles of the Bengali script. At the railway crossings, forced into patience, people bend over their bicycles, waiting for yet another train to pass by so they can get on with their work.
At NJP, we board a jeep that will take us to Gangtok. This is a journey that, on good, flat roads, could be completed in about two hours. It takes us nearly seven, thanks to the rough terrain, a long lunch break when the driver went missing, and traffic jams on the narrow curves of the mountain roads.
But I don’t really mind it. The road first takes us through the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, bordered by sturdy tall trees, an indication of the Alpine vegetation that is soon to follow. I keep my eyes peeled, hoping to sight a protected animal, but the disappointment of not seeing one is overshadowed by the delight of being driven down this road so marvellously shaded by trees benevolent and imposing all at once.
The road then begins to slice through the Himalayas, hugging the hillsides closely as the Teesta begins to make an appearance, a constant companion all the way up to Gangtok. It curves sinuously over its grey-white sandy bed where trucks lie scattered, picking up quarried stone. It is a river of many colours. Muddy brown at first, it changes to a clear blue and then to green flecked with white as it gurgles and splashes through the Himalayas, appearing startlingly from narrow niches in the mountains and flowing down in transparent clarity over bubbles and rock steps carved out in the hillside.
Being in the Himalayas is like feeling a prayer. There is no other way I can describe it, the absolute bliss that descends upon you once you are wrapped almost inextricably in the folds of these mighty mountains, as old as time itself. A sense of insignificance takes hold of me, and I succumb to it willingly- it is a humbling experience to be overwhelmed by Nature, akin to being felled by the enormity of star-sprinkled skies or the endlessness of the ocean.
Higher up, a new world begins to take shape. Houses perch on ledges cut out of the hillsides, prayer flags become ubiquitous. The red temple on the lower reaches almost resembles a monastery. Up here, there is a gentle confluence of Buddhism and Hinduism, made evident by the dashboards in jeeps where an idol of Ganesha reposes by a gold-coloured prayer wheel. The plants turn distinctly alpine- taller and with differently-shaped leaves, some grey from the dust from the mud roads. The flowers are bright and fresh; from amidst the creepers, a red or a white flower makes a surprising appearance. Moss-covered benches are set out at a few places along the way, and sudden foaming streaks appear through invisible cracks, the plentiful waterfalls and springs of the Himalayas.
We stop for lunch in a little bazaar set in the lee of an almost vertical mountain wall. The Teesta is barely visible in the distance through the thick green foliage; the air is getting colder. Goods that come up from the plains are expensive- “the higher you go, the costlier it gets,” explains the girl behind the counter at one of the shops, as she reaches out to a baby girl with distinct Tibetan features.
Not everything is idyllic and peaceful as the woods up in these hills. Where the roads diverge, one to Darjeeling and the other to Gangtok, a pillar bears the words, “Welcome to Gorkhaland”. Further on, more slogans on walls, banners and address boards at shops proclaim their identification with Gorkhaland. A hoarding advertises the Gorkhaland Tourist Festival. Dissent bubbles underneath the delusional calm that lies over these mountains; a few months ago, a couple of French tourists I’d met in Pondicherry had been stranded in Darjeeling due to a curfew.
Today, though, life seems normal. Without incident, we are deposited in Gangtok- and this is a world that I’m unaccustomed to, that I look forward to exploring.