I missed out on the planned holidaying and travelling last year owing to the accident. I became mobile again by December, and the New Year resolution was to make up for the lost year. Three quarters of the year has passed, and that is the vow I have been assiduously fulfilling, as any regular reader of this blog should know.
This month all the schools have examinations, so my kids gratefully gave me leave, and I escaped for a couple of days at once. Two days again, Friday and Saturday, the 9th and 10th September. Early morning set-off, and I headed for Murshidabad with Firoz at the wheel. Strange that the town is so rich in history and only 170 or so kilometres away, yet I had not visited it in all these years!
Thanks to our incumbent President, the ride was silk smooth via Shantiniketan and Nannoor till Kirnahar. The whole countryside along the way was lush green, thanks to the season and the recent rains; in some places vast swathes of paddy were under water, and the kaash flowers were growing in wild profusion everywhere. Then from Kandi onwards the road condition deteriorated, and there was a massive traffic jam while entering Berhampore (apparently a daily affair now, what with all the vehicles and too few roads), so it took all of five hours to arrive at the gates of the Hazarduari palace, though I had – foolishly – reckoned on four. I put up at a modest hotel for a change, Manjusha, because it was right in the heart of the tourist circuit, located bang on the bank of the full and fast-flowing Bhagirathi, I took an instant liking to the proprietor, and because he promised to show me round his magic garden. About that more later.
A bath, a quick lunch and a snooze was followed by a round-the-town tour in a reserved ‘Toto’, now the vehicle of choice, the rickshaws having completely vanished and the tongas nearly so. We stopped at so many places I have lost count, but the highlights were the Katra mosque, the 1100-odd graves of Mir Jaffar’s descendants (there are graves for favourite slaves and pet pigeons too), the Nashipur rajbati, the Kathgola garden villa (built by a family of very successful smugglers in the 18th century), the house (actually the kutcherry) of the Jagat Seths – for a brief period one of the richest families in the world, which controlled a large fraction of the entire country’s trade and money supply – capped with a trip to the Motijheel. Kudos to our current CM for visualizing and laying out the new Park-cum-tourism complex there – look it up on the net, it’s still a work in progress. I particularly enjoyed the sound and light show.
So much for the first day. Happily tired out, I went to sleep at an uncharacteristically early hour, no drink or sleeping pill needed. Early next morning, Sanjoy the same Toto driver took us across the river on a boat, and we looked around. This time the big attraction was the Khoshbaag garden, where the nawabs Alivardi Khan and Siraj lie buried. At the Kiriteshwari temple – supposed to be one of the 51 peeths dedicated to the Mother Goddess – the priest insisted that he had seen me before somewhere, and asked for a cigarette. On the way back, we toured the Hazarduari (900 real doors, 100 false). Grand enough, if you consider that all that pomp and pelf was put on display after the nawabs had lost their freedom and power completely. To think that this city once ruled Bengal, Bihar and Odisha together, financed the Mughal throne, and getting their hands on it set the British on the way to a world-girdling empire! All that remains is crumbling buildings, the jute and silk trades, the Toto driving syndicate, the mango orchards, and thousands of young men gone far away to work as masons and builders. And sighs. Nineveh and Tyre. sic transit gloria mundi…
I am glad, by the way, that the Archaeological Survey of India has maintained so many monuments and laid out nice, neat gardens around them. I saw some few repair and renovation works in progress, too, but one could wish for more. Perhaps that will happen if Murshidabad is brought back to the centre of the tourism map from the fringes. Funny to learn that for a few days post 15th August 1947 it became part of (East-) Pakistan, only to be returned. But it is quite evident that Hindu and Muslim have been living cheek by jowl here for ages without much friction, leave alone overt and violent conflict. Heartening, that.
So at mid-day we returned to the hotel. As he had promised, the proprietor showed us around his garden. My God, if anyone has a green thumb, this man does, or maybe he has been blessed by the Ganga, but he has built up a botanical miracle in that half acre of his. What didn’t I see? Rare and precious plants from all around the country, indeed the globe, were blooming there, camellia, dolonchampa, rudraksha, triphola, jayitri-jayphol, camphor, white and red sandalwood, apples and mangoes side by side… I forget. He wouldn’t tell me his secret, fobbing me off with ‘shob i mayer ichchhe!’ I begged him to upload a video on YouTube, and promised to publicise his work all I could via tripadvisor, which keeps telling me to write reviews of places I have visited.
It was a smooth and fun drive back home, though the blazing sun kept the airconditioner running almost all the way. I drove for a bit, just to remind myself how much I enjoyed driving once. The old car glided without a hiccup all through, so my plans to buy a new one are indefinitely shelved.
The pujo is coming up, though I never go travelling during that time. It’s when the old boys come visiting. And Diwali I celebrate at home with a lot of enthusiastic teenagers. But where am I going in December, I wonder?
[for photos, click here]