Sunday, March 16, 2008

It Is Within Walking Distance

Way back in 1976, my parents along with our good friend Debashis Sengupta, went on a hike from West Bengal's industrial town Durgapur to Tagore's educational hub Santiniketan. Here's an account that my father wrote about the trip in AVB News - the journal for employees of the company where he worked. As I typed this out, time and space were totally muddled in my mind, and I was completely transported back to my childhood long, long ago...
BY R.K. Datta Gupta
From time to time man gets restless to refresh himself in a big way from the monotonous routine of just living, and feel youthful again, never mind the age. With such an urge, when someone suggested one evening at our Club a long walk in the countryside, the idea immediately registered with three of us in a very objective manner.
Although walking is generally associated with the constitution of the stout or the aged, a leisurely trip to the nearest bazaar or the only means of locomotion for the have nots of mechanical transport we decided to give it a try as a source of refreshment. Come winter and we hatched our plan. Be it noted that this season is the finest for long walks in this country, especially in the plains. The air is cleaner, the temperature more bracing and appetites more whetted. We agreed that the walk should not be restricted to the countryside but stretched to cross country. Inhibiting thoughts such as getting waylaid and injured in lonely country or facing hostile villagers were conveniently brushed aside with the motto “No risk, no walk.” A conditioning walk took us sixteen kilometers around Durgapur one night through such ways and byeways which at other times would give one the creep on account of association with danger.

Knapsacks and rucksacks were taken down from storage, dusted and repaired, lists were drawn for minimum personal requirements of food, clothing, blankets, shoes and medicine were procured. Maps were obtained from the Town Planners and others, to collect maximum information of the proposed route. It may seem pretentious, but a two-day walk took about a fortnight’s planning and preparations.
Santiniketan on the opening day of the annual Paus Mela was unanimously selected as the destination which meant a two-day walk with a night’s rest. Starting at 6:30 a.m. on 21st December, Debashis, my wife and I walked into the orange hued sunrise along an unfinished road behind the FCI Colony due east, till we came to Arra village. Here we swung NNE and kept moving at a jolly pace of 5.6 kph. The surface was hard earth and was comfortable for our feet. The way weaved through the villages of Rupganj and Kuldiha, around ponds and harvested paddy fields. Each of these villages boasted of a primary school. Beyond Kuldiha we struck across paddy fields but found it rough going through the stubs. We passed a colonnade of stately palms on the left, across the river Kunur with its sluggish green water to the mouza of Malandighi. Sri Sarkar a veterinary, who runs a dispensary for sick animals, got off his bicycle to walk with us for about a mile, taking a healthy interest in our mode of travel and commenting when one of us said that he must be taking us for mad to go walking like this, that, what was not madness anyway! Some people were mad about eating, others for drinking, some for reading and many for talking, so what was wrong with our walking! We took leave of this friendly soul just outside Malandighi and made for an Acacia and Sal grove for a breakfast stop. It was 9:10 a.m. and we had walked about 11.3 kms. Breakfast was a picnic of bread, butter, eggs and cheese. Through Malandighi haat we plodded, making a five minute stop to find out the best route Ilambazar. A young resident of the village who is a trainee with AVB exclaimed to his friend, an employee of a neighbouring organization, when he saw a female among us, “see, see could your chaps do such a bold thing? You are always bragging of your organization outdoing ours, you bighead!” This spontaneous outburst gave us a cheer and a hearty laugh and many of the villagers joined us.
Taking the route to SHibpur we entered a forest and walked for an hour and a quarter, finding the going very drab and monotonous. The road was a surface of churned dust and even the Sal trees on either side wore a browned off look under the midday sun. Our feet were pinching as blisters were in the making. We rested somewhere between Jamban and Jatgaria villages (on the left beyond the thick screen of Sal). On the right we had left behind Saraswatiganja and entered the large mauza of Bistupur. It is a great pity we could not go through these villages and meet some more people in their habitat. A man in his village feels like a knight in his castle or a lord in his manor. He is not subdued by affected inhibitions, but feels free to talk with confidence, and it is an exhilarating experience to meet him there.
Just after midday, we walked out of the forest and arrived at Sibpur medical centre. A long and cool drink from the local well refreshed us, and we plodded on through Sibpur village(the bus terminus on the south bank of Ajay) past three waiting buses with their conductors gaping at us in anticipation. Arriving at the sand bank of the river, we met an old woman who had just crossed it. My wife struck a dialogue with granny and I invited the two to pose for a photograph. Our blistered feet were amply soothed, wading through knee-deep water of the Ajay. Clambering up the north bank of the river we stepped on Joydeb Kenduli at a distance of about 21 km from Durgapur at about 1:30 p.m. Loads were unhitched at a tea stall by the terracotta temple, and we stretched our legs to rest and consume tea by the litre. There was some excitement about the forthcoming Baul mela, an annual event during Paus Sankranti. AT 2:50 p.m. we set out again by the shorter route to Ilambazar, through the villages of Janubazar, Sugor, Nohona to the right, Kanur to the left, Bharatpur and Gangapur. The road lay due east parallel to the river bank and was more of a bullock cart track; we frequently got into a rut in the true sense of the word to the utter distress of our feet. Munching chocolate bars as we walked did for lunch.
Whenever we asked anyone, if we were on the right track, back came the tirade of cross questions, “where are you coming from, where are you going, why did you not take the bus from such and such a place?” We answered back in crisp but polite comments, sometimes spinning a yarn and sometimes telling the truth. About a mile away from Dumrud village an inspector of police, driving along on his Enfield ‘Bullet’, stopped to advise us that his odometer showed 10 kms from Ilambazar. This came as a slap on our weary spirits, as we had obviously covered only 6.4 kms from Joydeb, and still had a long way to go. We called a halt in a mango grove by a sparkling pond, to collect our wits together and muster confidence anew. The time was past 4 p.m. and we started having misgivings of reaching Ilambazar before dark. A rustic passer-by advised that we should cover the distance between Dumrud and Paer villages as it was not safe otherwise, while another one rubbed it in that it would get dark long before we reached our destination. By 4:30 p.m. with our shadows now stretching ahead to infinity, we continued our perambulation, but fortunately under the guidance of a helpful kisan, who recommended a more direct route by-passing Dumrud and Paer. After a mile, he left us, and we came to a roofless school building right plump at a cross road. Some villagers from adjoining Nohona came out to have a look at the strangers and one named Chand was good enough to put us on the right track. Another one cordially invited us to take shelter in the school house for the night, offering to take good care of us till the morning. The offer was no doubt tempting as the sun had just set.
We walked along past Kanur and approached Bharatpur. Hunger pangs were now telling, and the chill of the winter dusk was biting; so we sat down by a paddy field and ate cold meat parathas which tasted delicious. One Sri Bagdi tarried to have a chat with us and though hungry, shared our parathas only after ascertaining that we were of a caste acceptable to him! He pleased my wife by stating that the parathas were tasty, and offered to accompany us to the next village, Gangapur. Pulling on extra pullovers, we now picked our way in the dark with the help of a flashlight. We parted from Bagdi in Gangapur and walked half a mile to a cross road, where we got confused in the dark and lost our way. Seeing a light in the near distance we made for it and came to a cluster of huts where we asked for direction. In the lantern light our packs and my wife’s staff must have looked forbidding, and the worthy sons of the soil, mistaking us for Martians, were reluctant to leave their thresholds; the irony of it was that we should have been the frightened ones! After much cajoling a couple of fellows followed us at a safe distance to put us on our track again. And at last, we arrived at the outskirts of Ilambazar at 6:45 p.m. having lumbered in the dark for over an hour. We made for the post office where the post master, a kindly person, received us cordially at 7 p.m. and handed over our reservation slips for the inspection bungalow. Soaking our aching feet in scalding hot salt water, we ate more parathas for dinner and chatted over the highlights of the long days’ tramp late into the night till sweet slumber took over.
The second day’s journey started at about 10:15 a.m. after a heavy breakfast. We followed the motor road from Ilambazar to Santiniketan via Surul and Sreeniketan, a distance just over 19.3 kms. Though footsore, the going was at a steady pace and we covered the 5.6 kms. Stretch through Sal forest beyond Ilambazar in about 2 hours with a half hour’s rest. The loads on our backs had been reduced by taking out the blankets and wrapping these around abdomens or shoulders to cushion the strain of the rucksack straps, a brainwave of Debashis, the youngest in our group, but the one most concerned about the general welfare of all. Outside the forest at Ramnagar, during a 40 minute tea halt, we had a friendly argument with a couple of cowherds, who insisted they could walk 72.4 kms in a day, herding cattle too. About 4 kms out of Sreeniketan we dumped our sacks on an empty bullock cart to refrain from the temptation of dumping ourselves instead. We arrived at Surul at 2:45 p.m. and were overtaken on the way by friends driving up from Calcutta, who waved but glanced back in amazement, as they sped away. Our arrival at Surul was marred by a little accident; an urban youth rode his bicycle at speed into our group as we were lifting our sacks back from the cart, hurting my wife in her shin. After rendering first aid to her and another tea break we left for the last lap of the hike, and at 3:47 p.m. plodded past the last milestone arriving at our destination at about 4:30 p.m. An elderly gentleman, out for his constitutional stroll, walked a while with us enquiring about our purpose, and wished he was younger.
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