We had no information. All we had was a name. We found a train that takes us to this name. This was exactly a quarter of a century ago. The world seemed much more hopeful and our lives were all about the tomorrow.
This tomorrow turned out differently for all of us. Not all the faces that I am looking back to are in my life in that proximity any more. It is quite sad how life manages to ruin even the closest of friendships.
(The old group at Dimna Lake, Jamshedpur)
Since we had no idea how long the train journey would be, we weren’t carrying any food. Well, except one who refused to share (he is now one of my best friends and the most sharing person I know). And we had little money (Rs 200 was the entire budget) and did not think of buying anything! So, when one station announced that we had reached Ghatshila, our hungry hearts found ample satisfaction.
Ghatshila by then had lost its glory. It was no longer the oft-filmed West where Bengalis recuperated. A number of issues, largely political, had created a gap between the destination and popular imagination. It was still in Bihar (Jharkhand was not yet a reality). And tourists were no longer flocking to this once rocking and once-romantic forested land.
We had no idea about hotels. A tout took us to one right next to the station. It was called Snehalata (if my memory is correct, which, as you know, is rarely so). The rooms were expensive. Bigger ones were Rs. 120 and smaller ones were Rs. 80. So we decided to keep looking. After looking at a variety of accommodations – variety is the word – we circled back to Snehalata. Cobwebs, rustic rope-beds, rusted steel utensils, absence of doors and such things ensured that expense should be overlooked. After a lot of haggling we managed to get two rooms, one big and one small, both for Rs 80. Soon we went out for lunch. Our quest ended with an establishment near the railway ‘level’ crossing (you will now find a bridge there) called Nirod Hotel. It had an incredible rate of Rs. 5 per head for unlimited food. I had made a habit of going to Ghatshila almost every year – a habit that ended in 2003 – and we always had lunch or dinner there. Of course, when I was teaching in a school and accompanied the Geography excursion, we had food at the hotel where we stayed. That’s largely because by then my friend’s hotel, Sananda Lodge, had come into being.
How many times did I go to Ghatshila? I won’t be able to tell you. I went there with my friends at least 4 times. I went with my colleagues at least twice. I went with the excursion definitely twice. And I went with Jaya once. That was the last time. Ghatshila was a kind of twice a year thing for me. In fact, I remember going to a PCO (public call office? – this was before the mobile phone revolution) and the man manning it asking me if I was away as he had not seen me for a while. He had actually thought I was a resident!
(Who says the past does not offer comic relief?)
What drew me to Ghatshila so many times? It wasn’t the most beautiful place I had ever seen. Nor was it the friendliest place I have ever been to. But it was convenient. It was cheap. But most importantly, it was the place where the Bengali conception of nature found itself for it was the land of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. If you have not read Aranyak, then you have not known how the forests speak; then you do not know what being a lover of life means. Aranyak is faith. And Ghatshila was where Bibhutibhushan found himself.
Of course, his house was a garage for cycles then (a situation that has been happily remedied in recent years).
Suman has a lovely song about Bibhutibhushan.
Ghatshila still offers you a number of exquisite places. In fact, I would still love to go and take photographs of places which I could not really explore. The forests of Dhalbhumgarh, the air field at Chakuliya are amongst places I have not been to. Places like Burudi Dam, the ghost town near the then half completed Galudih Barrage, Siddheshwar Dungri, the amazing path to Dharagiri falls through a tribal village – all of them seem enchanted.
(The Ghost town)
Even the humble Phooldungri, a small hillock next to the highway, was a place of peace. With the new bridge I don’t know how peaceful it still is.
Ghatshila came to me when I was in the so-called impressionable age. It was the moment of nostalgia-making. A moment of innocence I would always look back to. The last days when life was uncomplicated, when life was full of hope. The fun that we had was untroubled. I remember waiting with my friends next to a deserted highway at 6:30 in the evening. The last bus from Jamshedpur we had missed. We had no idea how we will go back to Ghatshila through eight kilometres of uninhabited forestland. This was the time small sections of unrest were beginning in the region. And the six of us did not have a worry in the world. Around 7:30 a truck came, stopped for us, and agreed to take us to Phooldungri for Rs. 2 per head. We sat cramped in the driver’s cabin, listening to a Govinda-song (Bollywood, not spiritual) on a cracked stereo, and enjoyed every moment of the darkness. It was dangerous. Anything could have happened. Worst of all we could have been picked up by the law.
There are many such memories. On our first time we took a bus to Musabani and just decided to climb a hill. There was no path, no target to get to. I decided halfway that it was too steep, would be difficult to climb down, and I just sat there. The others reached different heights and slowly they came back, every single one of them with their story of adventure. Then on another trip we went to Siddheshwar Dungri, the highest hill in the region. This was with the schoolboys and therefore there was a huge burden of responsibility. While returning we found no transport. A bus came a couple of hours later and all of us had to sit on the roof of the bus. This bus dropped us near Galudih. Then we got a lift from a mini-truck. And we had to walk 14 kilometres after that. The boys were extremely happy. There was not a single complaint. We visited another amazing place called Narwa.
Then on another trip we went to one of the most amazing places next to the Subarnarekha river called Harindungri – it was supposedly the burning ghat. It was completely deserted, and we witnessed a fascinating sunset. Returning in the darkness was nothing less than epic.
I don’t know what Ghatshila is like now. Once it used to be home. For a very long period of time it was a place of taboo as extremism found its roots there. It is now a place people go to. But it never was a ‘touristy’ place. The beauty was in its wildness. The river was wonderful.
Apparently once upon a time the water of the river carried gold particles washed off from the mines nearby. Apparently once upon a time a number of people could be seen collecting and filtering that water in search of gold. Those days are gone. The mines are there, but legends have disappeared. The hills are still fascinating. But progress is doing what progress does: and as always, at the cost of beauty.
**The photographs are all scanned from old prints, hence they have grains and they are not “HD” quality. But since they represent all the grains that my memory also has collected over the years, I did not think it fit to artificially enhance them!