Far from the Urban Crowd

Warning: Long personal post from a privileged man’s point of view, may be deemed as objectionable by those with stronger sense of outrage than mine.

Colour coding: Red means warning. Brown means instruction! Blue means skippable personal rant. Black is the body of the post. 

Usually blog posts regarding travel record experiences that are deemed worthy. They speak about mighty mountains, distant dreams, high histories or anything that is remarkable. The usual rarely finds space in such posts. The appreciation for the ordinary died the day an entire planetful of people decided they must become extra-ordinary. Sitting in this global lockdown there is a minute hope that people will reconnect to their everyday sides and start appreciating all that we take for granted. Life itself has become a luxury for those who are walking the actual 500 miles and finding death, slavery and exploitation everywhere. A privileged few like me end up fuming unsuccessfully at the comprehensive callousness coupled with acute avarice of the powers that be. There never was a time when survival of the fittest was not in force – but the unadulterated inadequacy of the concept called humanity had never before been so visible.

We are told that the rural areas have seen a lot of progress. I have had occasion to visit such areas which are beyond the map. These are areas which have nothing but pure poverty. The nearest medicine shop would be eight hours walk through densely dangerous forests. I have seen hunger. I have seen people become desperate for one single meal that the entire family will share. And I have also seen fantastic fables which give some people the right to decide the fate of ordinary men. There never was an age of the ordinary. There never will be. Once all this is over we will all go back to our ravenous routes.

But today I will give you the story of a privileged couple’s journey into an area of non-privilege. The people involved are all real. They have struggled much. They have achieved much. Though all that achievement seem rather immaterial when we speak in terms of hundreds of crores of debt being forgiven. We do live in a strange country where people who earn crores fail to pay taxes and people who earn nothing contribute most to the growth of the nation. But the world is such. And all attempts to change it have failed.

But let me change the tenor here and let me tell you the story of a journey. My initial plan was to talk about England. But since foreign travel is banned, I thought let’s not risk going to Europe even in memory. I promise it will not be bitter but it will be quite ordinary.

I have no photographs from this day. I did not have a camera then. Mobile phone cameras were still a novelty; they had not become the self-confirming requirement of today.

**

I generally become friends with my students. Some become closer than others. Some end up hating me (unreasonably or for some causality that turns everything caustic). This student-turned-friend (name withheld for obvious reasons) invited me to his wedding. I still remember the first time I had seen him. I was a brand new full-time lecturer facing a small honours class. My habit was to take attendance by calling out names. This boy’s name immediately reminded me of James Dillingham Young (you know, the paradigmatic romantic hero of O. Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi’). I mentioned that. And he said he loved his name because of this echo. I think I will call him James. The Boy Who cannot be Named does not at all sound good.

So young James was going to be married and he invited me. I often get invitations to students’ weddings. Quite often I cannot attend, but it is such an honour to be invited. I have nothing against those who do not, for I feel they know me well enough to realize exactly how awkward I feel attending such events! So my heartfelt thanks for the invitations and my deepest gratitude for not inviting me!

James wanted me to go to his village near Kakdwip. He gave me directions and told me how to reach by road or by rail. He insisted we go by train. An unseasonable rain made us miss the designated train. The next train was not viable. So off to Esplanade we went and got on a bus towards Kakdwip.

Nishchintapur map1

After about twenty reminders to the conductor of the bus we were offloaded at a desolate spot on the highway. We were the only people under the huge overcast sky.

This was midday. The shanties were blissfully shut. And one lone auto rickshaw was giving this place a touch of modernity. I was under the impression that this place will bustle with a variety of transport. But having no option we went to the auto and found the driver enjoying his siesta. He was alert enough and happy enough to have two passengers. The only thing was he would not start unless the auto was full. My city allows four people in these vehicles. The suburbs allow five. Some rural areas go up to seven! How difficult is it to understand that a vehicle with two rear wheels and one front wheel is not designed to carry four people in the front? But this particular man blew my mind by saying he usually takes 10 to 12 passengers.

india-auto-rickshaw

It was a standard sized auto, not those Vikrams or Tuk Tuks. I asked how much the fare was. He said five rupees. I offered to book the auto for 50 rupees and he agreed.

It was actually quite delightful. I had told him that I was going to a biye bari (wedding) in Chandipur. Our auto-mate seemed familiar with the venue. We crossed a pleasant level-crossing next to Nishchinta-Pur Halt rail station.

b_rail
This is a different place, but the feel is the same

Then we found ourselves on a small road with green paddy fields all around. There were villages dotting the horizon.

b_road
The road described was slightly better than this one

We reached a kind of market. And I thought this would be it. But no, the auto kept moving. After a journey of ten odd minutes (which seemed like hours) the auto stopped.

Nishchintapur1 map

We looked for some structure. There were fields and ponds on both sides of the road. The rain had subsided. The auto-man pointed towards a cluster of trees about two kilometres through the fields and left!

b_field
The sky was much darker that day

We were worried as we were wearing wedding-wear.

20051
Just to give you an idea

I called James. He said he will send someone. After fifteen minutes of appreciating the beauty of rural Bengal we got a little impatient. As the narrow mud path seemed quite uncomplicated, we started. But soon the sticky slippery mud made walking a bit of a challenge. To top things off, soon the fields on either side turned into a number of small ponds. If we fell (we were slipping continuously) we would fall in the water.

b_pond
Imagine walking through those small dividers that separate the ponds! Our path was about two feet wide!

Then we reached a bunch of huts. Seeing a woman washing utensils I asked politely where the wedding was.

b_woman
This is not that lady, but she was similar but with her head covered

She ran away as if she had seen the devil. I realized that we are still in a country where male strangers do not speak to women; those who do are perceived to have no good intention. So thus corrected we continued. A boy in glasses was coming from the opposite direction. We stopped, looked at him. He sized us up without stopping, and simply walked away before I could even ask the question. After walking another while we reached a T-junction and some huts.

b_kids
This is from another trip, but I couldn’t resist including this one

Now we were in a bit of a bother. I managed to find a man. When I asked him about James, he showed me his scythe and told me all non-Hindus should be minced! Then he too walked away (much to our relief) talking to himself about a host of national problems.

IMG_20190930_082747_093
This is obviously a different man in a different place, but his clothes and the scythe are exactly the same

Thankfully the boy in glasses reappeared. He was James’s emissary. It had taken him some time to figure out we were the people he was looking for. We soon reached the venue and were welcomed with incredibly warm hospitality.

Nishchintapur2 map

The only problem we faced was that they expected us to eat what we generally consume in a month. Most of the village had gathered to take care of us. It is not often that as a teacher you find that kind of reverence. There was an element of curiosity. But the sincerity with which we were fed was genuine. This was not the usual bullying where people get sadistic pleasure by forcing you to eat much more than you can possibly enjoy.

After a while we said our farewells. The invitation to stay was earnest but the fear of another meal like that made our resolution to leave all the more urgent.

We followed the same treacherous path and reached the road without any incident. My calculations told me that we have missed the train home. Soon a motor-van appeared and stopped for us.

motor-van

But we saw that the entire seating zone was mud-soaked. Jaya refused to subject her sari to such torture and we bid adieu to the van. Dark clouds had gathered all around and we could sense the rain coming. Then, as if by magic, a bus appeared. The bus belonged to the people from the bride’s side and they were going back. They had recognized us and they gave us a lift till Nishchinta-Pur. Quite soon a Kolkata-bound government bus came. All our martial skills had to be employed to get inside. We eventually got seats. And when we finally reached the city I realized just how urbanized we had become (a flaw that we have corrected since then). Now we are comfortable anywhere in the world.

This unusual experience for us is the daily for many. We tend to forget that some of our commonplaces are luxuries to those who survive in the fringes.

We have travelled much. Our journeys have been full of people and full of wonders. But they have also been full of both the ordinary amazing and the amazing ordinary. Enjoying both is the key to life. Only then can you have actual empathy and appreciation for the wonderful people and places that makes life worthwhile.

 

Earlier Posts:

1. Old Lucknow   2. Colonial Lucknow   3. Going Downhill - Versey to Dentam
4. Going to Garhwal  5. The Walkers  6. Palamau  7. Rishikesh
8. Kolkata Kolkata  9. The Roar of the Clouds - Santiniketan 
10. Of Pests and Men - Uttarey  11. Where Hikers Fear to Tread - Rudranath
12. Old Times  13. History in Ruins - Pushpagiri
14. Once There was a Heaven  15. Serenity  
16. Pilgrim's Progress - Kedarnath 17. Unfinished - Gaumukh 18. Ghatshila 
19. Nothing Important  20. Manu's Alaya - Manali  21. Santiniketan  
22. Little Lhasa - Dharamshala  23. From Varuna to Assi - Varanasi  
24. Tunganath  25. Transitory Blues  26. Gurudongmar  27. The Beginning  
28. Yumesamdong  29. Bangali in Bangkok  30. Mukutmanipur  
31. Rasvanti  32. The Old Town and the Sea   33. Budapest 
34. The Last Post of 2019 35. Travel Travails 36. Cluj-Napoça 
37. Presenting the Past

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