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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pages from a travel diary

[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 month 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 Calcutta, snatched a few hours of sleep, then took the early morning flight to Jorhat, Assam. 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.
            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 breath, 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.
            A senior friend in Durgapur had asked me conversationally one day about a 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 USA 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 urge; 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.
            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 Howrah 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 breakfast, 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.
            This town is nothing to write home about – there are thousands of identical towns all over India, 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.
            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 breakfast, 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 delightful ease of someone who doesn’t have anything to do a snub-nosed traffic policeman busily earning his daily 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 months 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.
            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 Eastern Hotel there. 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 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?

18 comments:

Rajdeep said...

Wonderful! Yeh dil maange more...

Sunup said...

Really sir, I envy your skill. I simply have no words to describe your writing. I am a travel freak and have traveled much, wrote about my travels, and read many a travelogue. But this piece is one of the best I have ever come across. And I am not saying it just because you are my Sir.

Regards

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

so well written, makes one feel like being there and re-living every moment! cheers

Rashmi Datta said...

This post is a lovely read,Sir.The description is so vivid,I felt as though I was looking at you through a small window from above.
I have always loved your posts labelled 'personal' for it gives insights into your life which is both inspiring and exciting.
In particular,I learned a few things from this post-
1.One should work really hard to enjoy leisure in the right way.
2.You can make,with ease, very fast acquaintances with the poor and rich alike and with people from different regions.
3.Your writings twenty years ago seem as though you have written it yesterday(which emphasises how you have adhered to your principles for decades).
Thank you for the post.
It would be really nice of you if you could give an account of your trip to the USA and the Rotary Club's Group Study Exchange program.
Warm regards
Rashmi
P.S. Did you meet the smiling stewardess in your return journey?

Shilpi said...

Ah! This is an engrossing read (and amusing among other things). I felt as though I were there.

You have the blessed ability of seeing life and the world in so many different ways, Suvro da, and in such fine detail that it fairly boggles the mind unless one simply goes along on the ride. Then it's a good and unforgettable trip, I think, if one can get the hang of it....

I wonder how you felt on reading this. Do you think you're still the same?

And not to promote smoking on your blog: but the best way to read this is to go to a quiet corner with a cup of coffee and a smoke (and maybe if one so desires with some very fine and low music playing on the comp.).

Good thing about the internet, I say. Cell phones I can live without but the internet is indeed a piece of modern technology that I'm grateful about.

Thanks for this one. God bless.

Shilpi

Noodle said...

Enjoyed it thoroughly :) It's the fastest i have read an account this long. I am also eager to know what happened in April. Did you go halfway across the globe?

- Chitra

Sandipan Chattaraj said...

A great read and that it was written 20 years earlier made it more interesting. However, as has been rightly pointed out, the writing style is intact, as if frozen for 20 years, which is exemplary. Life, romanced by a 27 year old with a mix of awe and practicality, seemed really exciting. I especially liked the attention to details that has been paid in the travelogue in so concise a manner. The answers of the questions raised are welcome.

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
Please post more of these travelogues. Reading it was just like those instances when you narrated stories in the classes. You had told us about a trip to the USA in our classes, was this the prelude to that trip?

Thanks and with regards,
Sayantika

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks to those who commented. Yes, that trip did indeed come about, and it was one of the loveliest experiences I've ever had. About that, maybe some other time. As I said to someone who recently complained that I don't write often enough about my travels, I don't because there are so few enthusiastic comments (that fellow himself hasn't bothered to take note of this post in six days, so I have no idea whether he has read it!). Always makes me feel that I am boring my readers, most of whom are perhaps uninterested in this sort of thing.

Subha said...

Wonderful post, Sir !

I found this portion especially funny - "and an old gentleman complained that the music system had been turned off: ‘Aren’t we paying full fares or what, son?’"

By the way, I have a question. Did the same stewardess accompany you on the return journey?

Abhirup said...

Dear Sir,

It is relatively easier to write about popular tourist spots that have a lot of places to describe. To write about the small towns like Jorhat, the likes of which are scattered all over India and which are often nondescript, is much more tough. But that is precisely what you have managed to do so well in this blogpost. I have never been to Jorhat (or any place in Assam for that matter), but that didn't prevent me from visualizing the places you have mentioned, because your account of them is so vivid.

I also love the humourous bits (such as the "malaria officer" part, and that episode of conversation in French). I would have liked a more detailed description of your Kaziranga trip, though. Maybe you can write about that, or about your visit to other national parks, in another blogpost? And of course, it would be great if you can also put up some pictures of the flora and the fauna you saw in those places.

Thanks a lot for sharing this with us.

With regards,
Abhirup Mascharak.

Abhirup said...

A correction: I wrote "more tough" in my previous comment, instead of "tougher." Sorry about the error.

Anupam said...

Sir,
It was an wonderful experience to go through your travelogue.Enjoyed the piece thoroughly.
Regards
Anupam Banerjee.

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

This is beautiful read. I wonder how many people these days write in their notebooks. Suvroda, I literally got transported to Jorhat through your words. I would be interested to learn more about the Group who went for the program. It sounds like quite a diverse group of ‘smart’ people.

I wonder how many people scribble these days. I have met people who have even forgotten to write properly thanks to excessive usage of computer. We have someone at workplace who only uses capital letters to take work notes.

Certainly would love to hear more about your scribbles. I wonder whether you would like your readers to know how your thoughts on certain things may have changed over the last 20 years.

Regards

Tanmoy

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you, Tanmoy.

I put up little bits and pieces from my old diaries here only with caution and apprehension, having seen the kind of utterly inane and obtuse comments they sometimes draw from people who are often complete strangers, or refuse to tell me who they are. But I shall keep your request in mind.

And - to all those who are so curious - no, I didn't meet that stewardess again. Real life is no fairy tale, and I was writing real life here. Unlike some people I know, I hate to dress up fact with self-indulgent fiction!

Subha said...

Sir, your travel diary has done me good. I have also started writing about my travels.

I have in fact written about my recent trip to Gumla.

Dipayan G said...

That made for a pretty delightful read, Sir. Getting to know a part of your experiences as a young man was nice and interesting. Your writing is amazing, as you paint images through your writing, and the reader hardly has to make an effort to imagine your depictions. I shall look forward to more such travelogues of yours especially of those written during the pre-Internet, pre-cellphone era.

Just imagining how the Dum Dum airport would have looked like back in the 1990s from the one in 2011...

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Nice to see some new and appreciative comments here - thank you, Subhadip and Dipayan.

About writing more on my travels, well, maybe some other day! Frankly, considering how few have bothered to comment (as against the number of visitors), I am not at all sure that more such stuff is expected by too many people...