[The following is a twenty-year old excerpt from my diary. Some of you might reflect that you were in my class then, and some that this happened before you were born. By the way, I was a poor man then, and it happened before the era of the internet and cellphones, if you can believe there was ever such a time…]
Friday night: The last
h passed in the twinkling of an eye marking school examination papers. In the midst of it I did something upon a whim, in consequence of which I have suddenly leaped to one corner of this vast country immediately upon the end of that ordeal. After school yesterday I caught the evening train to mont , snatched a few hours of sleep, then took the early morning flight to Calcutta . After checking into this hotel, a bath and a quick lunch, I loitered about aimlessly in the streets through the afternoon, taking care of a few chores, then, once dusk fell, I crawled wearily back to my room, locked the door, shoved my legs deep into the thick blanket, leaned back on a pile of pillows and settled down to savour as deeply as I could this delicious little bit of unexpected leisure after a long time. Jorhat, Assam
You really can make things happen very fast in this scientific age when you have a mind to, fast enough for any ease-loving, contemplative person to lose his
th, so that one marvels at one’s own antics. I can hardly believe I have so abruptly moved so far away from my usual routine and usual haunts, and that too, to such a very unlikely place. Let me try calmly to arrange the pictures and look them over. Mental pictures are quite like pictures on paper – a single browse gives you neither full understanding nor satisfaction. brea
A senior friend in
had asked me conversationally one day about a Durgapur month ago whether I might be interested in Rotary Club’s Group Study Exchange program. Some ‘smart’ people of my age would be taken to the for six weeks or so as ‘cultural ambassadors’ for our country. Well, it sounded like fun – I hadn’t thought of such things for ages; rather, only last year I had gone to a great deal of trouble to send a young pupil of mine to an International Children’s Conference, and now this invitation all of a sudden for me! I felt a sudden USA ge; yet such was the pressure of work that I had little time to spare for it, so I filled in and sent off an application form in an absent-minded hurry. Then in good time the local club filed nomination papers for me – after which the next thing I heard was that I was to appear for final selections in Jorhat, of all places. It is so located that it could take ages to reach by road or rail, and those who should know warned that the journey would be gruelling, so there was no choice but to take a flight. Hence a luxurious and expensive self-indulgence, almost twenty years since I last flew. ur
Flying is a rich man’s sport, so everything has to be done in style. There were umpteen extravagant expenses ever since I took a cab at daybreak. If only there were some compensations… but alas, the airport at Dumdum was hot and crowded, and the flight was
delayed by a whole hour – think of how cheaply thousands of commoners enjoy such pleasures at or Sealdah railway station daily! Since I hadn’t lost all the anticipatory exuberance of childhood, the flight itself was not bad, despite the lack of leg room, cramped seats and incessant noise of the engines. And I could have done without the excitement at the time of takeoff and landing; not a massage for the heart or nerves. At Tezpur I had sent a message to an air force officer friend stationed there to come and see me inside the airport, at which the captain laughingly assumed I was after cheap liquor, while the mustachioed security man patted me all over, and apparently disappointed at not having been able to discover something seriously incriminating, contented himself with confiscating a box of matches – luckily there were only two matches left in it. The other, full box came back safely with me: a government functionary is too lazy to pat all one’s pockets conscientiously. God works everything for the best. The trip would have been a complete write-off but for a very sweet stewardess who charmed me with a winning smile: not the kind of dry, mechanical, official smile that they normally greet you with, but the real thing. I must have earned it by thanking her very earnestly for a small favour, because she looked pleasantly embarrassed. Later, when I was watching the clouds from my window, she called me again and again when she came round to serve Howrah kfast, but I couldn’t hear her. When she finally tapped me on the shoulder I pulled out the cotton wool earplugs and grinned broadly, at which she too couldn’t help smiling back in a most unofficial way. Nothing more happened, but I did get one last dazzling smile while getting off which made my day. brea
This town is nothing to write home about – there are thousands of identical towns all over
, the same drab, dusty dinginess, the same mindless immemorial workaday routine. Most of the better hotels have been commandeered by government officials on one pretext or another. I found this one almost at the end of a seedy by-lane. There are three hotels in a row, mine being the newest – one wing is still under construction, in fact, which is why I got a decent room on the cheap, considering all the dust and noise around. There’s a huge pond clogged with green algae just outside my window and a slum beyond it, and a few scattered shanty shops; it gets very quiet after seven in the evening, barring the music from a transistor radio blaring somewhere. The power goes off every now and then, and the mosquitoes are terrific. The food is just about okay, and cheap if you stick to a vegetarian menu. India
You step out of the lane and there’s the main bus terminus. The bazaar stretches for a mile or so along the main road, pouring into side streets wherever it can. A special kind of relaxation is possible when you have ample time on your hands, so I sat on a bench in a roadside cobbler’s shop on the pretext of getting my shoes shined and whiled away half an hour in the afternoon, chatting with him and other customers and watching passers-by. Then I ferreted out the local
Rotary Club district governor’s house and presented myself: here I am, so is the interview going to be held on schedule? He is an amiable wealthy elderly Marwari who has built a very nice, sprawling garden villa for himself; I made friends with both him and his son quickly. The son is about my age, and has his own business in Jaipur; he has a pretty wife and an equally pretty sister.
I am well set-up for the night now. It’s been a long day. Getting very sleepy, too: had better stop scribbling for now.
Saturday: If there’s nothing else to be said for working hard over long stretches, one must admit that it makes the occasional idling truly a treat to cherish. This is the profound truth I have been happily reflecting upon the whole day today. I do hope there won’t be a price to pay later on! I lazed in bed till eight in the morning, got up for two leisurely cups of tea, paced about in the sun on the roof for a while, then shaved, exercised, ploughed through a hearty
kfast, bathed and went out for another stroll. The walk put a keen edge to my hunger again soon enough, and I satisfied it like a good boy, put some sounff in my mouth, came back to my room and got into bed – next time I looked at my watch it was four in the afternoon. I went out for yet another walk around, what else? – exploring the town until the sun set. Schools, hostels and government offices are a dime a dozen here. I took a good look at everything from the deputy commissioner’s bungalow to the workplaces of the census taker and the ‘malaria officer’ – heaven knows what the last mentioned functionary does! I watched with the brea ightful ease of someone who doesn’t have anything to do a snub-nosed traffic policeman busily earning his daily del bread. I read signboards for a long time until it became clear to me what they meant, because the Assamese use the Bengali script with innovative touches of their own. As dusk began to settle I timidly crawled back to the hotel, since the streets are rather dark, everyone is a stranger, terrorists often go on the rampage without warning, and the truckloads of soldiers swarming all over the place are on a hair-trigger alert, with a tendency, apparently, to look askance at bearded youths like me: why ask for trouble? I sat doing nothing by candle light in my room for an hour, there being a power cut again, then wrote a little, and listened to some music. Wrapped heavily in blankets, I reflected on this chance to enjoy an extended winter: back at home, seven long hs of blazing summer were waiting for me. The interview is due tomorrow, the thing that I have come all this way for; I wonder what fate has in store. I put on the blazer and knotted my tie before the mirror and took a good look at myself. It’s been ages, so I have gotten out of practice, but I don’t look too bad, really. mont
It’s eleven in the night now. I had better pull down the mosquito net and call it a day.
Monday evening: This is the way things go: easeful idling doesn’t last long! The laziness of the first two days has been more than compensated over the next two. Ever since I walked out of the hotel in the morning yesterday, nattily attired for the interview, it’s been one hectic roller-coaster ride, until now, past eight in the evening today.
The ‘Garh-Ali’ neighbourhood is the Chowringhee of Jorhat; the venue of the interview was the upmarket
ere. It being a Sunday, and having arrived early, I found most shops still closed, and had some difficulty finding a packet of cigarettes. Diverse kinds of candidates had appeared for the interview – from a humble government engineer to a noisily garrulous journalist from Manipur with an uncanny resemblance to Ho Chi Minh. Sitting around for four hours, we were virtually forced to make each others’ acquaintances to while away the time, so we were all pretty much relaxed and the conversation was flowing freely when I was called up at last. The bar had been modestly re-decorated for the day to serve as the interview room. A panel of five gently smiling middle-aged gentlemen asked all kinds of non-too-serious questions for a space about fifteen minutes, to which I gave prompt and rather bland replies. They seemed in a bigger hurry to get through it than I was, which was most convenient for me. When the question of my knowing French arose, someone mumbled ‘Comment allez vous?’ apropos of nothing – probably the only bit of French he knew, poor chap – and I shot back ‘On va bien, merci’ in the best Parisian style out of pure reflex, which seemed to satisfy their curiosity entirely. After two or three more questions they sent me away saying ‘You have to wait some more, please don’t mind’. Two more candidates were checked out, after which they conferred among themselves for an hour before reading out the list of selected candidates – and lo! yours truly had found a place in it, as had Laba from Manipur, Goutam who runs a toy shop in Guwahati, Langba who heads a watchmaking factory in Shillong, computer scientist Ojha from Eastern Hotel th Vishwa Bharati and civil engineer Mukul from IISCO, Burnpur. By the time we parted company after heartily patting one another on the back, it was past three. I didn’t like the prospect of spending yet another fruitless day in Jorhat. Mukul and his wife had put up in the hotel adjacent to mine: after a very hurried lunch there we piled into a minibus upon a sudden decision to visit the Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary. The road was good; the trip took us a mere two hours.
A straight tree-lined path off the main road leads to the neat tourist lodge with several wings, spread over a huge campus. The place is lush and very tranquil, and we took up rooms for the night. My friend’s wife Usha had evidently fallen in love at first sight with the place – I heard her saying at least five times within an hour of arrival that she would have loved to spend a few days here if our flight tickets had not been booked in advance. After dark, the starlit sky seen from the verdant garden was a treat for the senses. I have a snug little room to myself in the outer wing; after a heavy dinner I soon fell fast asleep.
Tuesday: I was afraid that the siren nearby would scream us all into sudden terrified wakefulness at an ungodly hour – but nothing so unpleasant happened; I woke up very normally at around six. We took a jeep into the jungle on the other side of the main road, then wandered about the baada (tall grass on soft ground) on elephant back for about an hour, feasting our eyes on one-horned rhino, wild buffalo, wild boar, lots of deer and antelope, baby elephants frolicking around their mothers, pelicans and mist-shrouded, heavily wooded hills in the far distance. Of course the men who had hired out the elephant fleeced us well and proper, but it couldn’t be helped. We strolled on and off-campus till lunchtime, saw tea and coffee plantations side by side, lugged our luggage down to the bus stop, had a hearty lunch, got scared by the rumour that traffic on the highway had been held up by a murder somewhere nearby, then somehow got back to Jorhat well in time. On the way a young lady virtually sat on my lap in the overcrowded bus, and an old gentleman complained that the music system had been turned off: ‘Aren’t we paying full fares or what, son?’
I have had dinner a while ago. It was cloudy all day, and there was a gentle shower in the evening. Now I am sitting back to reflect wonderingly upon everything that has happened over these last five days. At the age of twenty seven, an opportunity like this has fallen into my lap out of the blue in the course of a little adventure. Whether I want to go, whether I can get leave, whether I will have time to make all preparations, I don’t know – but this much is certain, I can set off on a trip halfway across the world in April if I like, almost everything paid for. Imagine! – I am feeling both restless and very apprehensive. Anyway, I had better stop brooding for the present; let me get back to familiar surroundings and then I can take up the threads again. Meanwhile I hope I can get back safely and without hassles. Will the same stewardess accompany me on the flight back?