Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Hill-billy boy, part one

There is something impersonal about flights. While it is no doubt a cut above the sterile steel atmosphere of Kolkata's metro trains, air travel is a poor substitute for a train journey. For one, I find the trained excessive courtesy of on-flight staff painful for both parties involved. Even if I'm the only one complaining about this, rouge-laden cheeks don't look nice.

Still, we took a flight from Kolkata to Lucknow on the 7th of June (to save on time, what else?). It was a one-and-a-half hour shuttle from 38 degrees to 38 degrees with the on-board temperature dipping to around 8. You can imagine the kind of torture inflicted on our skin when we stepped outside into the Amausi International Airport on the flanges of Lucknow. It was a relief when we checked into an AC room at our hotel just outside Lucknow Junction. 

UP's capital is dirty and crumbling. Some people live in houses built during Lucknow's moment of glory (the architecture speaks) and the city banks on historical heritage for the tourism industry. Yet the maintenance of some of these historical monuments are so poor you fear they're going to come apart any moment. The main streets, at least in the areas I have been, are clogged with swarming masses of people, blaring loudspeakers, sales calls and all the rubbish which such a populace should produce. I am no admirer of some of Kolkata's shopping districts, what with all thirty years of stagnation and turmoil, but we still fare better in matters of cleanliness. If you have been through the market just outside Sealdah station, large portions of Lucknow look just like that. Things being so, we stayed indoors throughout the day though I briefly toyed with the idea of revisiting the famed maze in Bada Imambara (this wasn't our first trip to the city).

Next morning around 8, we boarded the Garib Rath to Kathgodam. All in all it was a comfortable and enjoyable ride, though I must complaint about the inappropriate name. The train is fully air-conditioned - definitely not a luxury one offers to the garib passenger. I'll let the rath pass as poetic licence (was Lalu a closet poet too, like Mamata?). However, if the chariot used during Puri's Rath Yatra is any standard to judge by, I prefer travelling by a "poor man's chariot"; thank you! My co-passengers were fun. There was the civil-servant who was on his way to Rampur, and the pretty young girl going home to Rudrapur. Both of them had some moments of confusion, I presume, seeing a boy sitting alone with a book (Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel, for the curious) laughing every now and then. I, in turn, was amused by the perfunctory nods Mr. Civil-Servant gave to my father who bombarded him with the most obvious opinions on the most obvious of things. Sometime late in the day, the pretty girl brought out her laptop and played mainstream pop for the benefit of her co-travellers. I don't know how many enjoyed her idea of public service. I'd much rather listen to the train going "ghatak-ghatak".

As the train rolled into the foothills - around Haldwani, if my memory serves me right - we saw the mountains in the distance through tinted glass and smoke from urban industries. To someone living in the plains, that triggers a sense of delight best left undescribed. Kathgodam is a quiet little station: crowded in this time of the year mainly due to the influx of tourists. The station's main-entrance is in some sort of European architecture (my little knowledge prevents me from being more accurate), clean and well-maintained. A sight to look, I promise!

Our car, which was to be our transport for the next eight days, was waiting for us there. I know some people feel dizzy on mountainous roads - those that go round and round, up and up. Boy, do I love them! It's a delight to see that ten minutes of steep climb has succeeded in bringing you just 30 metres above the point you started from! Does that say something about human endeavour? The temperature fell as we rose, the sky was cloud-capped, and we saw the huge shadows of mountains and clouds shift on other mountains. Inspite of maa's feeble complaints, I kept the windows open. The wind played in my hair. We were on our way to Almora.

It took a goodish three-and-a-half hours to reach, and as we passed through those little hill towns I kept struggling with my memory trying to recall where I'd seen these names. Bhowali? Was it Ruskin Bond or Jim Corbett? Anyway, Bhowali has a nice fruit market (quite famous in those parts, wiki tells me). I, unfortunately, could not partake of its pleasures for the simple reason that I don't like fruits (except maybe those small, red Himachali apples). I prefer their visual appeal. 

We stopped just outside Almora at the Ramakrishna Mission. Bunda (pronounce boonda), our driver, stretched his legs and let his concentration slip for a while (I've tried keeping my eyes on both the road and the scenery and it has given me a sort of natural admiration for this man). We made our way down the stairs. Some bengali women sat by the entrance chatting. I don't know if this is a trait peculiar to us, but we bengalis love to let other bengalis know our shared linguistic identity when in some foreign land. Baba, who was talking in a low voice until then, suddenly beamed up at the sight and sound of those women and raised his voice as if to announce our arrival. A hitchhiker lost in the forest for days on end would probably not be as enthusiastic at the sight of fellow humans. It was sunset time, and the Mission has an unobstructed view of the sky. The result was that we had a stunning series of sunset snaps.

Almora, being a district town, was understandably crowded. Our hotel, Bhagwati Palace, was a little way down the Link road. Yet we could not get into our rooms. Some local politico had booked the whole place for a night - it was his daughter's wedding. A politico being more important than us, we were carted off some way up the steep Mall road to Hotel Shyam, Bhagwati's sibling (they're owned by the same man). Our room in Shyam was on the 4th floor. The stairs was steep, the stairwell cramped. It's obvious that whoever planned the building compressed as much utility as possible into as little a place. Which was fine for me and didi, not as much for maa and baba. Anyway, a fourth floor room with a big balcony facing the valley offers a good vantage point. So we hoped, only to be slightly disappointed by the sight. The panorama doesn't hold a light to Mussoorie's excellent view of the Doon valley - quite literally too! Still a higher altitude offers cleaner air, so we made our peace for the day.

Our room service was done by a pahari man in his mid 20's, who tried to make up for the inconveniences caused by his superiors with cheerfulness. Bhaiya, as I called him, was met with as much warmth. Yet I'm a little ashamed now. The tip I paid him the next morning for his services proved to be inadequate, as the expression on his face informed me (and his services were substantial - running up and down those staircases four or five times is something). I don't know why I didn't offer him more - was it misery? Or was it something that has become deeply ingrained in my nature, growing up as I did in a middle-class family - that one mustn't be paid more than the unsaid "limit" preset for him!

We deposited our luggage in Bhagwati Palace, which had been vacated and stripped off its "VIP - Reserved" status in the morning. Then we made off for Binsar. The Wildlife Sanctuary charges a considerable entry fee, but you'll not grudge it if you love nature. The 10 kilometre uphill track till the KMVN resort is narrow, shaded on both sides with giant oak and chir trees and is one of the quietest roads I've been on. I heard distant cries of birds over the silent hum of the engine and let the wind and shade play with me again. The car can't go up beyond the KMVN resort though there's a 2 kilometre long foot-trail which ends at the Zero Point (which commands a view of  Kedarnath, Trishul and Nanda Devi). We didn't see much of that, it being a day of white cotton-clouds, though the sun shone fiercely enough where there was no leafy shade. The trail is short if you can climb fast, but I'd recommend you to take it slow and easy. The wind was cool and lazy, and I had the benefit of being alone because of walking ahead of my family. It was quiet there; so quiet that if you ignored the distant call of birds and the murmuring grating of crickets, you could here the buzz in your own head.

Walking down the foot-track, we met some bengali tourists who promptly enquired what there was to see. No tigers? No 'points'? ('Point' is the term used to designate popular tourist attractions.) What a waste of money! And all the while their children roamed around freely. It amused me to think what they'd do in case a tiger really walked into the trail.

On the way down, we stopped and picked pine cones. We filled a bagful, witnessing two oxen charging each other in the distance. They stood snarling, stared a good deal (like they do in those duels in the Westerns) and wham!

There is a modest leopard sanctuary just outside Almora. Its five inhabitants are all man-eaters, though you can't deduce that from their demeanour. Four of them stayed inside their rooms and one was basking in the sun out in the courtyard. For all the tourists and their invading cameras, it maintained an ascetic indifference. Maybe it had grown too tired of us to even react. That's the next possible stage to hatred. Sometimes I come close to their disposition too!

We were back in the room by sundown and I spent the rest of the day reading and watching TV. I'd explored enough of Almora during my early morning walk to satisfy my curiosity. Next day we were to leave for Munsiyari. The place I loved the most!

But that's for the next post.


Kaushik Chatterjee said...

You recreated and brought to life some of the ‘disabled’ images of the places I visited way back, Sudipto, and you already know, thanks to the fickle mistress, some of them were in a muddled heap crying for a rescue. You have done a very good salvation job, though!

The strains, “Jab chhor chale Lucknow nagare, hal adaam par kya guzre…”, while we bade adieu to the city of erstwhile Nawabs and lip-smacking Kawabs, the images of a leaking cool keg which accompanied us throughout our journey, (which was too expensive to be discarded just like that and too bothersome even to be carried in relays!), the chugging meter gauge train which dropped us at Kathgodam, suddenly popped up as if by a sorcerer’s trick! The frozen cotton flakes trapped in the glistening peaks at Binsar, the positively felt chilly blasts at ‘Zero Point’ while the sun glazed through the swinging blades of rhododendrons, the play of light and shade by nature as one of us recited by heart Tagore’s ‘Purashkar’ in one of those godly moments of silent solitude, were all there in my head to flaunt … thanks to you...

For tips, since ‘acronymically’ (sic) it’s ‘to insure prompt service’, someone advised me to pay it in advance, just to be a remorseless utilitarian and extract full value of the money’s worth! I’m undecided on that! Otherwise, I readily empathize you on your guilt trip for I too am quite niggardly on these occasions which require us to be a little generous and have been frequenting and skidding on these trips far too often!

Waiting for your next one!

Sudipto Basu said...

Thanks, K-da. :)

Lucknow must've been grand when Wajid Ali Shah wrote the song, but now the question "haal aadam pe kya guzri" pops up as you enter the city!

The problem with our mentality is this: we pay a generous tip in the hotel where the charges are more, irrespective of how good the room service was. Since Hotel Shyam was a budget-hotel, I paid bhaiya less. And now I regret it! He was the most helpful chap throughout the trip.

Anonymous said...

A very poignant account. Loved it thoroughly. I like it when you write it this way, caring to write about the small details, with a personal touch. The words have an easy flow, which makes the post a very comfortable read, yet leaving behind a beautiful reverie long after the reading is over.

Waiting for more...

Sudipto Basu said...

Sayantani, I pay attention to the little details while writing the difficult posts too! :P

Thanks. :)

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

@ Sudipto: Saying "not bad" and "good" aren't same, dear! :)