Not a single taxi agreed to go to Howrah Station. It was 7 o’clock in the morning, we were about 2 km away and in a central part of the city. This was in the mid 90s (1990s, not 1890s, just to be clear). This was a time when taxi drivers actually agreed to take you to places without behaving like Shylock’s financial adviser or Heathcliff with a bad hangover. We had spent the night at a friend’s place so that we could save time. The idea was to leave early, catch an early train and reach early so that the day is not lost. But as you can guess, the time we wanted to save wasn’t saved. This turned into an early lesson: saving the day is not an easy thing to do. Plans are never foolproof. We the fools became the proof that day! So after trying for an hour we grudgingly boarded a lazy bus and missed the train we were targeting. The tragedy was that we could have taken a lazy bus in the very beginning (we hardly had any luggage) and we could have lazily caught the train.
The target was Mukutmanipur. This was a couple of years after Puri and the team was almost the same. Only one was lost. Puri was at a juncture where we were still planning our lives. We were still planning our lives during this trip, but our plans had some rudimentary shape. I was in Presidency College, preparing to ruin the futures of thousands; one amongst us was on his way to become a doctor, preparing to save thousands; the third was on his way to become an engineer, preparing to ruin his liver; and the fourth, the one not in the Puri album, was already showing his headmaster-like tendencies. The one that we lost was lost to frustration. He apparently wasn’t doing anything “worthwhile” and his health made him shift far away. He is still there, unwell and unwelcoming. We tried to reach out several times. But death is not the only thing that separates friends.
Missing our train was a big setback. We didn’t have a Plan B. The earliest train on the announcement board was a Bardhaman local. We procured tickets and happily reached Bardhaman in good time. From Bardhaman we figured there would be some automotive communication. The bus stand showed no such motivation. All it could provide was something to Durgapur. So to Durgapur we went. Durgapur told us that there are no direct buses to Mukutmanipur. We would have to change in Bankura. It was well after noon and we were all hungry. But the Bankura bus was leaving. Our faces must have betrayed years of hunger and the conductor took one look at us and told us he will give us ten minutes. In the shed next to the bus depot we had the quickest lunch in the history of our kind. Let me assure you this was no mean feat for the rice was piping hot and the accompaniments hotter. Coming back to the bus we were happy and full filled and the dirty looks from the other passengers never bothered us.
We reached Bankura around 2:30. And as luck would have it, the last bus to Mukutmanipur had left. We stood helplessly at the terminus. Thinking our journey for the day had found its termination; but a kindly gentleman, who was a conductor (conductors conducted themselves with amazing grace that day), informed us that his bus can take us to Khatra. From Khatra other vehicles would be available. We took his advice. Khatra did not disappoint. There was a lovely trekker filled to the brim and we attached ourselves to it. It did take us to Mukutmanipur. We reached around 4 in the afternoon.
The manager of the Tourist Lodge informed us that there is a direct bus from Esplanade in Kolkata that leaves the city at 7:30 and reaches Mukutmanipur in good time. We could easily have taken it.
The Lodgings were dilapidated to say the least. There was one largish building and several ‘cottages’ with two separate double bed rooms in each. We had booked one such unit, but for the first night we had a four bed dorm. That actually served us fine until night. Early at night we woke up to a crashing sound. One section of the bed had collapsed. We were all lightweights (see the photos if you do not believe me), so we suspected the integrity of the bed. However, innocent and good boys that we were, instead of challenging the management we procured some rocks and bricks and re-placed the wooden boards. While we were there no boarders occupied that room, I don’t know what happened to the next person who discovered the structural flaw while finding him/herself embedded.
The unattached toilet was as large as the room. While it was nothing to write home about, I did have a curious experience there. I had just finished my business and was trying to wash my hands. It was evening. There was only one 40 watt light bulb that gave an illusion of visibility. There was no basin. Only one tap ensured water supply. When I tapped the tap it seemed softer, slimier than usual and quite upset at being twisted. It is quite needless to mention that I suffered a minor cardiac episode. Luckily my heart hadn’t faced as many injuries as it has since then. With grim determination I investigated and found a toad (it may have been a frog) was clinging to the top of the tap and was extremely irritated at being disturbed. The toad probably thought he was the Prometheus amongst amphibians. But I did not feel like an Olympian and that was the last time I went to that toilet. Fortunately, we were shifted to the cottage early next morning.
Our Mukutmanipur trip was memorable for two reasons. One, there were no other tourist in the whole place. It was not the buzzing tourist spot it is now.
We roamed around to our hearts’ content. We went to forbidden places (not knowing they were forbidden).
Two, we experienced the second great storm away from home. Of course, it wasn’t a mini cyclone like Puri. But the storm with lightning flashes over the reservoir was just magnificent.
It did take care of electricity. There was none after the storm. And words like generator and power backup weren’t as common and wasn’t to be expected in Rs. 50/- room! Thankfully it was our last night and we were not habituated to any kind of luxury.
We had another adventure of sorts. We had heard that the local brew called Mahua was something not to be missed. So we searched high and low. With our incredible resourcefulness we failed completely. We were mournfully discussing our failure while returning from the dam. It was late so we had engaged a rickshaw van.
The van driver hearing of our quest offered his service. He gave us two options. First: we could go with him to some place where they serve Mahua with roasted chicken. Second: he would bring some to us. We were innocent; but not as innocent as to accept the first proposal. He took some money from us and left.
And as you may have guessed, we did not see him again until next noon. He returned with the promised Mahua. He gave us a lengthy lecture regarding the distillation and refining of the liquor. According to him Mahua is best consumed early in the day. Otherwise it gets fermented and becomes rather problematic (the veracity of which I had confirmation in a different trip with a different set of friends). It was indeed good. There was no inebriation involved and we just felt a bit heady. The only problem was Ajit Karmakar (somehow I still remember his name) wanted to share our headiness. We had to remove him after he managed to empty one quarter of the bottle in one go.
The trip was, like all the trips of those days, amazing. I mean there was no escapade as such. But we explored, we had unspoiled fun. Life was free of complications.
Our lives had nothing called the mobile phone or internet. The rooms we stayed in never had televisions. The evenings were full of (somewhat juvenile) discussions and lofty dreams. Our world was free of politics of the idiotic kind: though we had serious political arguments. But to this day, even with diverse and contradictory political convictions, we have not been able to cultivate enmity. We talked, we joked, and we had each other as support and encouragement. We still do.
Getting back from Mukutmanipur was as much of a misadventure as the earlier journey. We targeted the early bus. Missed it. Tried to catch it by running after it. In the process my friend lost his beloved water bottle.
We went back to the lodge. Didn’t get tea or breakfast because the manager slept (or pretended to sleep) till we left again at 8:30. Apparently he had the keys to the larder and being a despot, no one dared to bother him.
We got the 9 o’clock bus. But it broke down midway. A number of changes brought us finally to Dakshineshwar. Our trip ended with a happy meal of kachuri and tarkari and jilipi in one of the shops that has now been removed in the name of progress.
Earlier Posts: Old Lucknow Colonial Lucknow Going Downhill - Versey to Dentam Going to Garhwal The Walkers Palamau Rishikesh Kolkata Kolkata The Roar of the Clouds - Santiniketan Of Pests and Men - Uttarey Where Hikers Fear to Tread - Rudranath Old Times History in Ruins - Pushpagiri Once There was a Heaven Serenity Pilgrim's Progress - Kedarnath Unfinished - Gaumukh Ghatshila Nothing Important Manu's Alaya - Manali Santiniketan Little Lhasa - Dharamshala From Varuna to Assi - Varanasi Tunganath Transitory Blues Gurudongmar The Beginning Yumesamdong Bangali in Bangkok