We were sweating profusely – all four of us. It was quarter past eight in the morning. The month was probably June. The year was 1992. The sea was deceptively placid. But the weather was unbearable. Puri is not known for its song of ice and cold, but such a warm welcome was completed unexpected.
This was my 10th or 11th time in Puri. Puri for the Bengali people is the destination. Whatever happens you will always find Bong faces (almost always looking for daal and bhaat, the staple Bengal diet) in the famous triangle known as Di-Pu-Da. In case you are wondering, it stands for Digha-Puri-Darjeeling. For ages this was the outer rim for the Bengali holiday crowd. It isn’t any more. It is now slowly being replaced by Da-Bang (Darjeeling and Bangkok). And Puri is also changing into the hectic holiday hotspot that we all hate!
So, like all Bengalis I knew its weather well enough and was seriously surprised.
It all started because we were desperate to get away after our traumatic higher secondary examination experience (a trauma which paled into nothingness when the results were published). Four sets of parents (without meeting) came to agree that Puri would be the safest place for a trip by four late-teen boys. All four of us were experts as far as the lay of the land was concerned. And we started with just the little amount of drama necessary to mark the beginning of such an expedition.
Three of us, with at least one parent each, had dutifully reached Howrah Station on time.
The fourth one was nowhere to be found. This was the age where mobile phones were found only in science fiction, so we were quite clueless. The train came dutifully too.
We boarded. We found our berths. We settled our luggage (three large bags). The scheduled departure time came. We were all sitting with heavy hearts. Then my father, who was standing on the platform, shouted those wonderful words – “here they are”. The train had just started moving. We rushed to the door of the compartment. A suitcase flew in and behind it stumbled in my friend, profusely sweating and with a large grin on his face. Apparently their car (an ancient black ambassador loved by local and amateur mechanics) had broken down on Howrah Bridge and they had to run all the way. Just in time my friend’s older brother had decided that they should run, a moment’s delay and he would have missed the train. We will always be indebted to the elder brother for this.
My mother had arranged our accommodation. It was a Holiday Home (essentially homely places which do not serve food but allows you to cook) two minutes away from the sea. There was no view; the idea was that we must not have luxury. This was to be an educational trip where we would learn to be self-relying and to be able to adjust anywhere. Something that has stayed with me: it doesn’t matter whether I am in a five star hotel or a shack with dirty blankets, my sleep is equally uncomfortable.
I must confess that we were drastically good boys. We had promised we would not try to do any adventurous sea-bathing. We did not. We only dipped our toes in the shallows. We had no encounters of the alcoholic kind. We did not go to the temple! We smoked only once. And that too inside the room – how could we do that in public with elders around! Fortunately, such sanskari-ness was not deemed politically motivated then!
We had one large room in the Holiday Home. There were three rooms on the first floor which were let out and on the ground floor lived the owners. The person in charge was an elderly man of exceptional irritability. From the first moment he set eyes on us he had decided that we boys will wreck havoc on his premises. He did not hide his opinion and flatly told us that the only thing we were allowed to do was to breathe – and not too loudly. Since we still hadn’t reached our havoc-wrecking stage, we were fine with the rules. We did, in fact, go out of our way to please him. I don’t know if we actually succeeded or not, as we left the Holiday Home two days earlier than scheduled. But I will come to that in a couple of minutes.
There was only one other set of people populating the first floor at that time. It was a family of four: the father, the mother, the young boy (age anywhere from five to ten, I still am very bad at guessing the age of children) and the young girl. The young girl had also appeared for her higher secondary examination and seemed not to have had as traumatic an experience as we did. You can imagine our excitement (terror to be precise, we were from an all-boys school) with having such a family in the next room. And we were deeply disappointed not to find them on the customary day trip to Konark and Nandan Kanan.
To add quickly, those who have been to Udaygiri and Khandagiri will be unpleasantly surprised to see the sheer number of nonsensical sapiens that think that our historical heritage is merely a theme park!
Anyway, all our time in the Holiday Home premises were spent in philosophical discussions regarding the deeply spiritual interactions between men and women. This was duly supported by the timely release of the film Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander and its magical Pehla Nasha which became the romantic anthem for our generation. We had a portable stereo cassette player with us and the song kept on playing practically on a loop. For me, the song will forever be associated with that innocent trip and with the memory of four boys who were still wondering what the future will be like. Three of us became what we wanted to be. One separated from us soon afterwards. Health and a firm disbelief in the fact that friendship does not depend on success took him far away from us.
There is actually no story of romance here. Though we spoke volumes with the father, not once did we muster the courage to speak to the girl. Only one curious incident took place. I was sitting on the veranda one afternoon waiting for the others to come out, we were going to ride the Ferris Wheel that used to be there on the beach then, and the young boy walked up to me, smiled at me, and put an object into my hand. I looked at it. It was an earring! Immediately the girl came and smiled at me apologetically (or not, I still cannot read smiles) and took the earring and ran into their room. I was mystified. And I immediately shared this experience with my friends. My friends were equally mystified. I weighed 40 kilos then (as you can see from the photos) and was a boy with zero confidence. The others weighed from 50 to 80 kilos and were boys with no more confidence. (So we can come to this conclusion that confidence and body weight are not inter-related!) So we never could take this opportunity to break the proverbial ice. And the mystery remains unsolved!
The ice would have remained unbroken even if we had the confidence. For from that very evening the clouds became roaringly angry. From the beginning of the trip it was cloudy and humid (as I have mentioned in the beginning) and it was getting cloudier. In fact, we had just returned from our walking trip to the confluence and were having lunch at a ‘pice hotel’ (establishments which gave you cheap meals) near Swargadwar. There were no buildings after Swargadwar those days. The hotels ended at the holy burning place. There are now hotels right next to the burning ghat! Imagine staying at such an establishment where the stench of death is constant! There were a number of windmills which have since disappeared; as has the lovely forest of casuarinas.
If the rain had started earlier we would have been thoroughly soaked. We returned to the Holiday Home just in time. That afternoon and the evening were completely rain-washed. In fact, it is wrong to call it rain. It was as if there was a wall of water all around us. Through that wall Asheshananda and I went out to the little shack which served us dinner and the man told us that he was not preparing any food since no one would turn up in this rain. His shack was already shaking. I remember returning in that rain – it was only two minutes walk, but we could see nothing. I was glad Asheshananda was there, for without holding on to him (he was the 80 kilo kid) I might have been washed away! We were both drenched to our bones. The umbrellas had given up right after we had begun our recon. That night we had dinner with our back-up bread and jam. We stayed awake the whole night. There was no electricity. The room had large windows and largish openings (the Bengali name for them was ghulghuli – they were designed to let the room be airy, they are not found in modern buildings) – and rain came in through all such places. We collected our luggage on the bed. We sat on chairs. There was one strategically placed candle which gave us light. It was a night I will never forget.
The rain stopped next morning. And we promptly went out. What we saw was quite unbelievable. Most of the sand from the beach was now on the roads.
In fact the entire Sea Beach Road was under about a foot of sand. Cars could not ply, rickshaws could. And the rickshaws had a brilliant time. Everything on the beach was in complete disarray. We could not trust the Holiday Home anymore and thanks to the power of negotiation of one of our friends, we managed to get a room at Puri Hotel.
We stayed there for two nights. During those two days we saw helicopters flying towards the deep sea – there was no early warning and many fishermen were lost – and small planes flying low across the beach assessing damage. Fortunately, train services were not disrupted as the mini cyclone had hit at a time most of the trains had left and the storm had lost steam before it could do any serious damage inland. But the little that it did was enough to tell us just how powerful nature is – we were indeed lucky that nothing really serious happened to us.