Friday, May 04, 2007

Adventures with my father

The sheer adventure and thrill of travelling in India has always been a fascinating aspect of my life and the person who I can thank most for it is my father - Rabindra K Dattagupta. He had an intrinsic love for speed and adventure which rubbed off in varying degrees on my mother, sister and me. We lost him a couple of months back and this is the first tribute that I'm dedicating to him. One of my earliest memories is that of trip from Baroda in Gujarat to Durgapur in West Bengal across more than a 1000 miles with Baba (my father) behind the wheel of his Rover car (don't really remember the model of the car but I do remember addressing the vehicle as Didi or elder sister). My father loved his car intensely and was as attached to it as a member of his family. My father, in fact, loved vehicles from as far back as he could remember. As an young boy he had sold a gold coin that had been gifted to him to buy a pair of roller skates. From his first bicycle to his motor bike that he rode during his years in UK, he was never without wheels. About cars, bikes, planes and engines, Baba's knowledge was almost encyclopediac, even though there was no Internet in those days for him to refer to!

My sister and me were about 4 and 5 years old and the year was probably 1969. Baba was all set to join a new job at Durgapur and after winding up from Baroda where we had lived for a year - he decided to drive down to Kolkata and then Durgapur - a steel industry hub where we then spent a good part of our childhood. Our first stop was on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border at the Temple town of Natgauda. The temple of Srinath Ji is now famous because of devotees as famous as the Ambani brothers and their mother Kokila ben. My memories of the temple and the darshan there is not very distinct, but I do remember a huge crowd of devotees surging forward and me perched on my father's shoulders and looking over the heads of others for a clear view of the temple's deity. My mother tells me that she had to cling on to my sister who was a tiny tot and was getting suffocated amidst the huge crowd. This, of course, is the typical scene at many of India's temples where devotees throng the sanctum sanctorum for a Darshan when the doors of the temple are opened by the priests daily. While memories of the temple town of Natgauda are very faint, my father always kept a photograph from the temple in our home as a mascot that would bring us luck.
While the darshan of Srinath ji was just the beginning of our long journey across India, the next stop was Jaipur where we spent some hours with relatives who lived there. My mother, I recall, had bought dozens of traditional Gujarati, hand woven saris as gifts for all the friends and relatives who we were to meet on the way. From Jaipur we drove to Agra, where my aunt (my father's sister) Indira lived. She was a professor of English at a college in Dayalbagh in Agra. The college provided bunglows for staff members on campus. I remember my aunt's house in Agra which was an old stone and brick building with a patch of garden in front. The campus was set amidst tree-lined avenues and my aunt's English department, where she took us all along, had a lovely green lawn in front. I also have indistinct memories of my aunt rehearsing a play with her students and colleagues - later I had heard from her that it was a Shakespeare production that they had been putting up. Dayalbagh is a small locality which is set away from the main town of Agra and is very quiet and peaceful. The evenings were peaceful and the nights very dark and quiet. In fact, I remember that my sister and me were scared of the darkness and remained close to the elders after sundown. Agra was the longest stop on our journey and we spent a couple of days as a happy family there. My parents and aunt probably visited monuments such as Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, but I have no memories of them from that trip at all. Taj Mahal - which I later visited with my mother and sister when I was about 10, had a very strong impact on me.

We usually started early in the morning and Baba drove through the day with brief stops for lunch and tea. But he never drove after sundown and we usually stopped either at guest houses on the way or with friends or relatives in towns where they lived. Accompanying us on the journey was Nemai, an auto mechanic from Kolkata, who sometimes drove when Baba felt tired or drowsy. He had accompanied Baba on many long drives and had often helped repair the Rover. However, when we got to Kanpur, he had some differences of opinion with Baba and decided to continue on his journey to Kolkata by train alone. For me, the most distinct memory from the Baroda-Kolkata drive remains the ravines of Chambal. My sister and me had never seen anything so spectacular before that. Baba & Ma's stories about the dacoits who lived in Chambal and looted visitors, heightened the excitement for us. I clearly remember Baba asking us to recite our nursery rhymes loudly so that he didn't doze off while driving along the rugged and winding road through the ravines of Chambal. Ma poured out hot water from a flask to make coffee for Baba when he felt too fatigued. We spent about 10 days on the road - but for my sister and me, it was like a lifetime with new horizons opening out in front of us everyday.

The holy city of Benares was another stopover before we reached Kolkata where my grandparents lived. It's a city that I've never visited after that, though my father had told me a lot about his own visits there, to offer prayers for his forefathers. It's also a city that Satyajit Ray has given a magical touch to through his lens and creative imagination. It's a city I dream of visiting sometime to pay respects to Ray, to the holy Ganga River and now to Baba too.


Roma Bhattacharjea said...

Ishani, your evocative account of travels with your beloved late father, resonated with my recent experience of travel and adventure albeit fictional- viewing Satyajit Ray's `Sonar Kella'…

Having traveled around the world from Senegal to Tokyo, watching Satyajit Ray's `Sonar Kella' again, recently, reduced me once more to a little brown Bengali girl child palpitating with adventure and excitement induced by a journey – in this case a journey through a child's imagination to a mythical golden fort, captured by no less than mythic cinematic images of Rajasthan. Growing up in the huge metropolis of Kolkata, where the physical landscape is one of overcrowdedness, of teeming millions, outward poverty and squalor and a cacophony of sounds deep into the night – Satyajit Ray's sounds of open desert, Rajasthani folk music, the sounds of a train journey and the lilting sounds of camels in motion took us Bengali children to another world of imagination – where one journeyed intensely, to Rajasthan, to unknown worlds, to `Tanganayika', to journeys within the self.

Mukul's face, the face of the child protagonist leaves the viewer haunted. By a strange series of coincidences, the most famous face in western painting, the Mona Lisa was visited on my consciousness repeatedly, on my many visits to the Louvre, the more recent film the Da Vinci Code and through a biography of Da Vinci on the History Channel. Viewing `Sonar Kella' recently, I realized that the face of Mukul was imprinted on the consciousness of many viewers over generations with the same kind of evocative quality that one associates with the Mona Lisa. Once one has seen Mukul one can never forget him.

My uncle who is also found of traveling and adventure both to real places and through the imagination, reminds me that journeys are fundamentally about a sense of quest. It is this sense of quest that your late father shared with you as a child, he has left you an inheritance beyond words. In your case probably your father himself was a journey.

AK Menon said...


Your tribute to your father –has given a great insight into his personality and his value systems. I think you must spend more time elaborating on some of the journeys and I am positive they wd have shaped your life as well. It would be wonderful if you cd share some of those photos..which I am sure will inspire a lot of others!

I am personally able to relate to it-as me and my family have been trying to live these experiences ourselves-in the last three years and although almost all of our travel has been restricted to the South India-save a trip from Hyderabad to Mumbai. Very similar to yours- as we too start off at dawn-and stop before the headlights need to be put! Staying overnight at some pal/relations place when & wherever possible- and using the opportunity to strengthen ones bonds! An occasional detour to a place of interest..stopping by to take in the natural beauty-and enjoy the journey with absolutely no eye on the clock/ speedometer-it has been a great way to unwind in the upcountry!

Just the last yr, we hopped by at Sriperumbudur-and before long –our kids aged 10 and 5 then- unraveled history. Rajiv gandhis death, the Sivarasan and Subha saga, LTTE, IPKF, understanding why people often behave the way they do!! Personally I found it very educative-and am certain Sangeeta would agree- after all, her growing memories –are connected with the drive to South India from Gomia (Bihar) –once in two years!!

Right now we are in the midst of yet another trip-driving this time from mysore to Kerala- tought to choose between the highlights -among the Teak museum in Nilambur, Kalamandalam in Cheruthuruthy and the ayurvedic hospital on an island in the backwaters of Chettuva –each one simply outstanding!!

Lots of miles to go,...

ishani said...

Hi Achyut,

Thanks a lot for sharing your own travel tales, they are very interesting indeed. I will try to write more about the great adventures that I've had with my dad - including trekking in the Himalayas and going on long and interesting drives.