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Friday, January 04, 2008

My latest holiday trip

I fell in love with travelling ever since a friend’s family took me along on a three-week trip around Himachal Pradesh shortly after my secondary school-final (ICSE) examinations. That was all the way back in May 1980. We travelled from Kalka to Shimla, then on to Kulu and Manali, and onwards again to Dharamshala and Dalhousie and Chamba, before making a very long bus trip to Kalka on the way back home. I was poor then, and had had no idea how I could afford long trips, but that particular journey was an eye-opener: because I travelled with a large group, and they made do on a shoestring budget, I ended up having an enormous amount of fun at almost no expense at all. And I still have very vivid memories of even tiny details of that trip – which is why I scoff at pupils in class 10 and 12 who cannot write interesting and fact-rich essays about trips they made only a few months ago! I swore to myself then that I was going to travel as much as I could, for as long as I could, alone and with friends and family, in luxury or otherwise… but travel I would. Over the last 27 years I have kept that promise to myself, and I am deeply thankful to providence that it has given me over all these years the continuing zest, good health, money, leisure time and family support without which it couldn’t have been done. I have travelled all over India, to famous places and obscure, all over the North and in some places down south, even abroad once, when I went to the USA in 1991. I could have done far more ‘phoren’ trips by now, but several reasons have turned me off – the lure of India’s own unending and yet-unexplored riches, for one, and the fact that so many loud, brash and culturally-ignorant newly-rich Indians are ‘doing’ those Thomas Cook/Cox and Kings budget trips these days (Europe in 14 days, when it should take that long properly to see just one great city like Rome or Paris!) that I would hate to be caught up with them and come back with disgusting memories. And I hope to keep travelling for many more years: it is one of the few pleasures of life that have not dimmed yet, though I have tried a great many. But one thing has changed: I now look forward more and more to beloved old boys travelling with me or at least making the arrangements for me (an old teacher’s privilege, which I am proud to say a lot of ex-students gladly grant): in another decade’s time it will be my daughter who does most of that, I hope, and feels happy to do it.

It has almost become a routine: I take two breaks from my teaching schedule every year, one in mid-May and the other at the end of December. Some years I visit my in-laws in Kolkata and go city-seeing during one of those breaks and make a long holiday trip the next; in some years (as in 2007) I make two long trips. So last May I went to Nainital (this was the third time, after 1987 and 2001), and on December 21st, 2007 I left with my family for New Delhi en route to Amritsar. I had wanted to make it a leisurely trip, with lots of sleep and adda and good food and walks and photo-ops. and not too much running around in cars, and that’s the way it worked out.

As is customary, I took a class till almost the very last minute, then caught the evening Rajdhani Express to Delhi. An old-boy was travelling with us. We were all bursting with excitement, my daughter only most visibly and unabashedly so, at the grand prospect waiting for us – of ten days of carefree relaxation, laughter and animated, no-holds-barred friendly conversation. In no time at all we were at New Delhi station, where Subhadip, a much younger but very favourite old boy who has become my point-man in Delhi over the last three years, took us in hand and ushered us off to a very cosy little hotel right outside the station where we could bathe, lunch, rest and chat over the languid afternoon (a lot of people won’t believe that at such a convenient location in the capital city you can get a three-bed hotel room with airconditioner, water heater, TV and carpet for a measly Rs. 650 per day, not to mention the decent and reasonably priced meals they provide. Beats the Rail Yatri Niwas or the retiring room at the station hollow any time!). The same evening we took the train to Amritsar. I was boarding the new-design Shatabdi Express coach for the first time, and both the layout and the décor were huge improvements on the older versions: if the food had been a little better and the speed a little greater, I could well have imagined I was travelling in Europe or Japan: my fellow-passengers did not even chatter or yell into their mobiles or litter their surroundings too much, as Indians are wont to do while travelling! It was pretty late night when we arrived at Amritsar – we didn’t find it bitterly cold as it had reportedly been only a few days ago – and checked into a pretty decent hotel that wasn't too heavy on the pocket either.

The whole of the next day was spent sightseeing locally. We took in the Golden Temple, of course – and I had to be content with prostrating myself before the Harimandir Sahib (the sanctum sanctorum), the crowd trying to enter being too huge and forbidding for my weak faith to tackle. The museum attached to the Temple is worth a visit, I will say this: a lot of people miss it. The afternoon ceremony at the Wagah border was quite a spectacle, though I found the whipped-up patriotic hysteria somewhat disconcerting. It was much better to see Indians and Pakistanis waving to one another at the end of the proceedings. My daughter’s sudden sickness gave me a jolt, but she recovered quickly and we had a very comfortable six-hour drive to Dalhousie next day. We put up at the PWD Rest House right next to the police station – it was not too posh, but with wooden floors and ceiling, an old (and disused) fireplace, a huge bathroom, quite adequate bed and blankets, a sunwarmed corridor (long live the greenhouse effect, given the chill in the air!) and an ever-ready-to-oblige caretaker, it had an old world charm with which we fell in love at once, and the local walks along the quiet roads with magnificent mountain panoramas all around and snow piled in drifts all along the roadsides were so enticing that we made up our minds at once that we were going to spend the next two days simply lazing around the town. (I have put up some pictures on my orkut album which all my ‘friends’ there can see). The mutton biryani at Sher-e-Punjab near Subhas Chowk was delectable, though your true Hyderabadi might turn his nose up at it.

In the last 27 years most hill stations around India have changed greatly for the worse, what with vastly increased population, traffic congestion, noise, garbage and smoke pollution, water scarcity and power cuts all the time; on top of that too many of them (like Gangtok and Nainital and Shimla and Mussoorie) have become too snazzy for my taste, with their cyber cafes and shopping malls and discotheques and pubs. Dalhousie charmed with its nearly-unchanged ambience. I had seen it as a boy, so long ago, and remembered it as a very laid-back little hill town lost in time and mists, a town which had nearly-forgotten associations with Tagore and Subhas Bose. Much before that, around 1853, Lord Dalhousie’s illustrious general Napier (the conqueror of Sind) had discovered it, dubbed it a ‘walker’s paradise’, seized it from the local rajah and re-christened it after his boss. What a delight it was to find, in 2007, that it had retained much of that old beguiling charm! May God grant that the Dilliwallahs (and their Gujarati and Bengali clones) with their huge families, bulging pockets, enormous cars and crass manners do not ‘discover’ it in sufficient numbers to drive that charm away within a few more years. Whatever such folks touch they spoil in no time at all – and then they go off to pollute Bangkok and Pattaya, Singapore and Dubai!

So Christmas was celebrated in Dalhousie, with my daughter Pupu painstakingly decorating the little Christmas tree that she had lugged all the way from home. Her smile removed all my secret niggling doubts about whether she would find all her efforts worthwhile eventually. At the local church, founded 1870, we found, of all things, turkeys strutting around and gobbling in a cage! True to character, Pupu befriended all the caretaker’s children and their local chums, romped around with them all day in the sunny courtyard, clicked photos galore on the Handycam she can now handle better than her dad and treated them to cakes and chocolate and icecream out of her own pocket money in anticipation of her birthday, so that they all had tears in their eyes when the time came to part. Not a bad achievement, considering it was all done within the space of two and a half days. Nor, though I say it myself, was it a mean feat for an oldie like me to be up and around on his feet, up and down steep hill roads, for seven and a half hours a stretch!

The drive to Chamba took us longer than expected, because we first set out for the famed valley of Khajjiar and then had to abandon the plan (the road was so snowbound that the cars began to skid in a way that was too hair-raising for my middle-aged domesticated tastes) and make a long detour. So we arrived in Chamba barely in time for a late lunch. We put up at the Circuit House, which was a pretty elegant pile, though, strange to say, they did not serve any meals. The walk around the little market town (also the district HQ which had just celebrated its centenary by putting up an ornate memorial gate on one side of its trademark maidan) in the afternoon sun was pleasant enough, though after the tour of the museum my wife’s shopping spree began to tell on my legs as I waited patiently outside. In the evening I went down with a stomach upset and a fever brought on by over-exertion: nothing spectacular or alarming, just a reminder that age is catching up on us, and from now on we must learn to take it easier as the years roll by.

We paid through the nose for the drive back to Amritsar from Chamba on the 28th, apparently because it wasn’t a busy regular route, so the driver charged us for the round trip. By that time our whole family was reacting the way it predictably does towards the end of every long holiday: home sweet home was calling us back loud and clear. We put up at the same hotel in Amritsar again. Waking up at 3:30 in the night was mercifully less harrowing an experience for sleep-lovers like us than we had feared it might be, and I, for one, managed to stay awake all through the train ride to Delhi. The same evening we took the Rajdhani back to Kolkata. We spent a couple of days attending to mundane tasks and looking up friends in the big city, then drove home in the morning of January the 2nd.

So that’s the kind of stuff we do everytime we make a holiday trip. Here are a few reflections on this last one:

· New Delhi railway station is the pits. And when I, no friend of all things Bengali, say that even Howrah or Sealdah are better by far in every way, that is some insult! I saw in the papers that Lalu Prasad is undertaking a huge project to deck it up and civilize it – he has my best wishes.
· If you are not on a business trip and not very very keen on the Golden Temple, don’t visit Amritsar. Just get a friend to mail you a video CD showing the whole flag-lowering ceremony at Wagah. And don’t try fish Amritsari by the roadside: if your wife is a halfway-decent cook she can fry bhetki filet far better, and she’ll burn a much smaller hole in your pocket. Also, funnily enough, I saw far fewer turbaned heads in Amritsar than I had expected.
· It’s not only deep down south that English and Hindi fail you! In the Punjabi heartland roadside dhabawallahs can hardly make sense of anything but their own lingo: our driver had to translate even the most short and basic of requests.
· Dalhousie was beautiful, but it only made my heart ache. Thousands of well-heeled Indians are now dashing off to Switzerland to savour its alpine charms, the way the Japanese used to do in the ’60s and 70s, so much so that (someone told me recently) road signs are being written in Hindi there these days! – yet our mindless government (of course, it’s made up of men whom we elect in our own likeness) will not give enough time and attention and money and care to preserve and enhance the beauty of all our fine Himalayan resorts, which, given a level playing field, could compete with the best Swiss and Austrian attractions, earn vast amounts of foreign exchange, refurbish our image as a civilized nation, greatly improve the economic condition of our hill people, and make Indians like me (I am sure there are thousands, if not millions) feel much better about ourselves. A thought: why don’t our biggest tycoons turn their attention to this sphere as a potentially lucrative business, I wonder?
· We heard about the great tsunami on TV in Shimla in December 2005, and we heard about Benazir Bhutto’s assassination similarly while travelling this time. Merely a coincidence, of course, but rather disconcerting, what?


Shilpi said...

Suvro da, This post of yours was a vivid, delightful and delicious read. I felt as though I were sitting right next to a warm fire and listening to your tales about this latest trip. Minus the part of Pupu or you falling ill - good thing that boudi didn't! (I think it has something to do with the bus/car rides, weather fluctuations and the food of course) I'll wish you many, many more delightful trips. Someday, if all goes well maybe all of you will come visiting...and I can make the arrangements. Yes, yes - it has to be a beautiful place, I know!
Best wishes,

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda,

Indeed we are lucky that we get to access Himalayas so easily, if we wish to. Your post reminded me of my Bhutan trip in 2005. Previosuly, I had heard that it is a very unique country not just because of its natural beauty but also for the people. To my amazement, Bhutan trip did not cost much and all arrangements can be made from Kolkata (it costs very less as being SAARC members Indians get huge discounts). But one needs to plan in advance since Bhutan allows only a limited number of tourists at a time - rightly fearing that the country will become polluted. But the three day trip was tremendously fruitful with an aweinspiring air journey where you could see Everest range as well as Kanchandzonga sitting beside an window seat. And Bhutanese people are very different too. Once you meet them, you would feel that poverty and happiness don't go hand in hand as it is indeed a happy nation.

I wrote about my trip last year on my blog and will be happy to share all information regarding Bhutan with your.

You should make a trip for sure.

But yes, smoking is totally forbidden in Bhutan thus I had to resort to some dishonesty to sustain my addiction. But thankfully did not have to bribe anyone.


Greek.theatre said...


A great read, and a hill station freak like me is sufficiently lured to give his favourite(Darj) a miss, and actually go the whole way to Dalhousie. In fact, I would love to go from Pathankot, take the small train to Jogindernagar- it would be a different thing to do and tell you about.

I am very jealous of what Bijit-da was privy to even as I am 'too happy in thy happiness'. I still owe a trip with you!

I was always sceptical about your Amritsar plans, never dared express it, as 'boudi' is a great Gurdwara enthusiast.

The thing about Delhi station and the unfavourable comparison with our domestic ones, reminds me of Hyderabad and Bangalore airports- space crammed garages compared to the huge NSCBIA at Dum Dum. Kolkata is an old city, an old imperial capital and still retains much of what others would not gain in another twenty odd years.
- Arani

Subhanjan said...

Let the world be my home and let me be a cosmopolitan. It is one of my many dreams with which I live each day. No wonder, such a dream makes me a true lover of travelling; be it in a very simple and humble way or in an elegant style. But I love travelling, just like you do Sir.

The best part of what your post says is the one that emphasises the fact that a bulging pocket is not the only key to a good tour. That one needs to have the right heart and soul to enjoy is something that few realise. This brings to my mind something that I saw a few weeks ago in Discovery Travelling and Living (my favourite channel). It was about going to Switzerland from Italy. The easy, rich, and sophisticated way is to take a flight. But this programme had something much richer to offer; and believe me, it is the most beautiful and adventurous trip that one can have: skiing one's way across the Alps from Italy to Switzerland. No matter how physically challenging it is, what one gets at the end of the day is worth all that exertion. The heavenly beauty of the mountains, glaciers and passes are so powerfully spell-bounding. Your bliss would be heavenly.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Why is it that this post has drawn so few comments till date?

Sayan Sarkar said...

This travelogue was indeed a delectable read. It flooded my thoughts with the memories that I have of Nanital (2004) and Darjeeling ( 2003 and 2007). And I am experiencing the familiar yet still strong feeling of wanderlust resurface.

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