4 Jun 2000

Bakkhali Trip

বকখালি যাত্রা
Destination : Bakkhali Tourist Lodge wooden Cottages
Departure from Calcutta : Saturday 3.6.2000 by ভূতল পরিবহন bus
Return to Calcutta : Sunday 4.6.2000 by contract bus

articipants : Jiban Kr, Karabi & Dwaipayan (Tinti) Chaudhury
Dip Kr, Protima (Kanchan) & Swagata (Tultuli) Das
Kalipada, Tanushree & Tirthhankar (Tirthha) Das
Tapan Kr (Nara), Gargi, Arpita (Mou) & Arnab (Tulai) Das
Adwitia (Rupa) Das (Gargi's niece), Dibyojyoti (Dwijo) Choudhury (Tulai's friend)
Sukamal (Lumu) & Shubra (Baby) Kundu

Alok (Buro), Ratna & Abhishek (Dibyo) Mitra
Girishankar, Indrani & Mahashweta (Misti) Mukherjee
Lokendra Nath & Chitrita Roychoudhury

The preparation : There is only one bus per day, which leaves Calcutta and ends at Bakkhali. It is run by West Bengal Surface Transport Corpn. To obtain assured seats in this bus, one has to put all ones ingenuity and resources to overcome the hindrances the WB bureaucrats could think up. Of 39 seats, 19 can be reserved in advance from Esplanade and 20 seats are for spot booking from Karunamoyee, Salt Lake. The bus departs from Karunamoyee at 0630 am and Esplanade at 0700 am. What do you do, if your team comprises 24 adults and children converging from all points of Calcutta? Ha, ha!!! That is your problem. Thanks to the persuasive powers of Lumu, the babu sitting at the Karunamoyee end ensured the necessary number of extra seats.

Buro, our great organiser, had arranged a very sumptuous in-the-bus packed breakfast, mainly for the benefit of Lumu, who becomes hungry within a few minutes of commencement of any journey. To avoid lugging around such a big bag of breakfast packets, Buro's original plan was to arrange an unscheduled halt at Chowrasta, Behala. All our efforts to dissuade him from such illegal act fell to deaf ears. Nobody questioned the practicality of his idea though. With its quota of daily murders and mayhem, you simply needed to wave a flag of any political party at Behala to ensure a "রাস্তা রোকো”, so that Buro could climb in, with family and food. Eventually civic sense prevailed and Buro took the extra trouble of joining the group at Esplanade. The breakfast comprised of several very large sweets. Few could successfully finish eating within the extended breakfast time.

The place : It is so near Calcutta and yet so very different from the bustling metropolis. Bakkhali is only 132 km from Calcutta. We travelled from Calcutta to Namkhana by bus (105 km), took a short ferry ride across the Hatania Doania River and then another hour and a half bus journey to Bakkhali. En route, there is Diamond Harbour (48 km from Calcutta).

As Namkhana approached, one could notice a clear difference in the environment. Outside all the hardware shops, there were large quantities of iron anchors - not big like the ship's ones, as we normally see in the cinemas, but small ones for fishing boats. Some shops sold fishing nets and white plastic balls as floats for the nets. Temporary godowns with woven bamboo walls stocked huge amounts of jackfruits while more were being unloaded from big trucks. Every potter's shop had several half finished clay figures of গঙ্গা on her mount মকর In the backyard of every other house, wooden boats were being manufactured or repaired. These boats are called ভটভটি, as that is the sound their diesel engines make. Presently, we reached the left bank of River Hatania Doania. Our bus followed a truck and a car and boarded the ferry. Many of our gang had never crossed a river in a motor vehicle, which boards a ship. It was all very exiting for them. Tanushree was as thrilled as a teenage girl on meeting a Bombay filmstar.

From the right bank of River Hatania Doania upto Bakkhali, the road was like a ploughed field, although repairs were in progress. The pitch and yaw of the bus was just like a boat journey in a turbulent sea. However, such was the attraction of the surrounding fields, that we hardly noticed the discomfort. The searing heat of the high summer had dried up most of the smaller vegetation, but still the beauty of the villages stole our hearts.

The Tourist Lodge was found to be at a short distance from the bus terminus. We piled all our luggage and Lumu on a Bakkhali Taxi (flatbed "cycle van") and the rest walked to the Lodge.

During our afternoon perambulation, we discovered many hotels and lodges, large and small, lining the narrow and overcrowded main street. Bakkhali was fast losing its charm. Still, the Tourist Lodge was the best place to stay.

Flora : Dense casuarina groves drape the beach. Bakkhali, a part of the larger Sunderban ecosystem, was once the gift of the mangroves, which slowly pushed into the sea, building up land behind, by trapping silt in their intricate root system. The mangrove can withstand all but the most violent cyclone and tidal waves. Thanks to encroaching human habitation, they are now all gone. The WB Govt had tried to build up a casuarina forest on the beach in a vain attempt to hold back the power of the Bay of Bengal. The sea has the last laugh and is recovering its lost ground fast. Locals say, that in the recent past, the sea has gobbled up about 5kM of the beach. The dead skeletal stumps of a large number of casuarina trees line the shores and the shallow waters. They get exposed at low tide. During high tide, these tree stumps get submerged and are a risk to bathers' limbs. The beach is partly of clay, partly of sand. A small patch of mangrove stands well inland, a defeated lone surviving soldier from a large valiant brigade, now all dead.

The Tourist Lodge had a well maintained garden with springy grass, a guava tree, many coconut trees, eucalyptus trees, hibiscus and other flowering plants. The guava tree, though quite short, was lush and laden with baby guavas. All the hibiscus plants were so full of brightly coloured flowers, that it was difficult to take ones eyes off them.

Cactus grew wild all over Bakkhali having leaves like green plates with sharp spikes. In several plants the flower buds had just started to form. Only in one plant a single flower bloomed in its yellow glory. It was plucked and presented to Kanchan.

Fauna : Red crabs scurried around on the beach. In the night, the crabs are scarcely visible, only 2 ghostly spots glow in the dark - their eyes. Several song birds could be seen, including some দোয়েল and বুলবুলি | Unseen in the trees, cuckoos loudly and melodiously proclaimed their territorial rights. From a distance a চোখ গেল bird said these two words, repeating endlessly - it must have been a recurring decimal in its previous life.

The native street dogs of Bakkhali were well bred and polite. Buro, Jiban and Loken were sitting on a bench, watching with alarm, the ladies and the children gorging on তেলেভাজা across the street. Presently, a gentlemanly native dog approached, introduced himself and shyly offered his right front paw for a handshake. In a most ungentle manner, the normally gentle Buro vehemently refused to shake hands with the gentle dog. To maintain decorum, Loken shook hands with the dog several times. Probably assuming that this large crowd could be Boy Scouts (aren't we so young looking after all?) the dog then offered to shake the left hand as well, although without the Boy Scout salute. Again Loken had to do the courtesy, as Buro refused to be polite to a native. Jiban maintained a diplomatic distance, but later insisted that Loken must wash his hands with soap before touching anything or anybody. This is probably the manner in which the colonial British behaved with the native Indians in the last two centuries.

Along the seashore, fishermen were casting nets. Some of them made shallow depressions in the sand, lined them with polythene sheets and were storing small shrimps, probably for sale to shrimp farms. They were rather evasive as to the reason of storing these shrimps. Shrimp farms are ecologically very destructive and are now banned. This could be their reason for evasiveness. One local man confirmed this ecological disaster and said that some time back, there were some shrimp farms in the vicinity. The seashore was surprisingly devoid of any kind of seashells. There were a few scattered skeletal remains of small squids in the flotsam. A couple of skulls of cattle were thrown up by the sea, cleaned and bleached, complete with horns, like the deer's heads rich people used to mount on their walls. Buro opined, Kanchan would be fond of collecting such novelties. Consequently, the most attractive piece was picked up and brought back to the Tourist Lodge, duly concealed in a polythene bag, so as not to excite the local population. The skull was anonymously placed in the Ladies Dormitory. Initially, nobody knew wherefrom this attractive gift came. Chitrita immediately pointed out, that such a collection and delivery could only be done by Loken. It did not receive the welcome as anticipated. Instead of Kanchan going gaga over this gift, everybody shouted, "Go! Go!" So regrettably, the magnificent skull had to be jettisoned.

Fun & frolic : On the evening of our arrival, after a very sumptuous lunch and a siesta, the gang was ready to roam. By this time it was dusk and nobody wanted to brave the 2 kM walk to Frasergunj in the darkness. So we started walking down the "Champs Elysees" of Bakkhali - all 1 kM of it and 5M at the widest. Presently, a তেলেভাজা shop was discovered and immediately most of the ladies became very hungry indeed. Nara commandeered the filthy shop and supervised frying of a large quantity of তেলেভাজা in a dirty liquid, claimed to be cooking oil. The women and some of the children ate to their fill. This did not prevent anybody from having a hefty dinner later on. Surprisingly, no one later fell sick - this goes to prove the Power of Indian Women.

Inspite of being so close to the sea, there was hardly any breeze. The heat and humidity was very high. Just before dinner, Nara suddenly started a Kabadi match in the lawn. He ran and high kicked like a Can Can dancer. Presently, he was evicted and it became a game of Kabadi and Khokho for the women and children. In course of the games, Baby had a comfortable and restful roll in the grass, which was only partly due to her losing balance. Karabi ran around as if she was still a schoolgirl, only to wobble around painfully next day. There was the usual singing and dancing in the evening. Although we are already aware of the cultural talent in our midst, one cannot but still marvel at the quality and excellence at each performance. One wonders, why the Calcutta stations of Doordarshan and All India Radio cannot find talents half as good as in our team. This just reinstates the general public belief, that only the শালা and the শালী of the Station Directors are given any chance to perform.

New moon was on 2.6.2000. Under its late influence, in the morning of 4th, the bore tide came in. The sea, which was so placid in ebb tide on the night of our arrival, roared, reared, seethed and frothed. An enormous spherical buoy, which the sea had torn from the mooring and tossed ashore like a playful boy's ball, highlights the power of the sea. The buoy now lay helplessly on its side in shallow waters. When the high tide rolls in, it gently rolls to and fro in the waves, like a bathing elephant. After breakfast, the participants scattered like ants. Nobody knew who had gone where. A very alarmed pair of fathers, Nara and Jiban mounted a search and arrest party, to limit the effervescence of their absconding sons Tulai and Tinti respectively, suspected of leading the children's gang into the turbulent sea. As it turned out, it was their mothers, who were more in need of restraint. Almost everybody had a gala time. Karabi and Baby took the opportunity of rolling with the waves in the sand, like heroines in Hindi films.

During the return bus journey, the exhausted Buro fell asleep. Gargi and Baby, sitting within earshot, started a hilarious and highly uncomplimentary critique of his countenance. Even if poor Buro was awake, he did not find it judicious to open his eyes.

Excursions : There was a বিশালাক্ষী temple in the vicinity. On the night of our arrival, some locals pointed at an indeterminable path, in a grove of dark drooping trees, a path showing all signs of leading to a ডাকাতে কালী বাড়ি We kept the adventure pending for the daybreak. Next morning, the path had lost its ominous looks and was in fact quite pleasant. The temple was a quaint looking mud hut with tiled roof. It had an aged look. The founding date was proclaimed in large letters - "1406". Buro reverently thought it to be 1406 AD, which makes the temple 594 years old. Loken irreverently declared it as the Bengali year, which makes the temple one year old. As it turned out, it was a year old structure. The gods and goddesses inside were very much relevant to the local lifestyle - Bishnu (the God of Sustenance), Bishalakkhi with 4 arms riding on her tiger, Ganga on her mount মকর, Bonbibi (the Lady of the Forest) with 2 arms riding on her tiger, দক্ষিন রায় (The Lord of the Tigers), মনসা (The Goddess of the Snakes) etc. Missing were ওলাইচন্ডী (The Lady of Cholera or ওলাউঠা) and শীতলা (The Lady of Smallpox), which goes to show, that healthcare in remote villages have improved. Although sea fishing is a big industry, there was no popular gods responsible for fishing or for the sea, like the Christians' St Peter or St Nicholas. Buro had forgotten to take his camera to the temple. So he went back to the Tourist Lodge and took the camera and the very religious Ratna for another visit. After the pictures are circulated, we shall know what role Ratna had to play at the temple or with the camera.

Boarding & Lodging : The lodging comprised of wooden dormitories built over wooden stilts, all painted green outside and white walls inside. We had 3 rooms, one each for the men, the women and the children. This comfortable arrangement was liked by all, especially the children, who could avoid the constant unwelcome attention of their parents. The ladies held lively discussions amongst themselves - mostly unparliamentary. It could not have been very interesting for the children, as Tultuli was found to leave the room in boredom, after trying to relax in her mother's bed for some time. In the men's dormitory, cricket and relaxation was the main subject, with beer to beat the heat. Dip particularly stressed the relaxation part, by setting a glorious example at horizontal position. So did Giri in a slightly lesser scale.

A short flight of stairs led down to the garden. There were three swings in front of the Dining Room - one of them marked specifically for grown ups. A plastic boat floated in a well maintained pond, for boating purpose. A large extension of the Tourist Lodge has taken place, comprising some small bungalows and a row of rooms built on stilts like the dormitories. All new construction was of concrete instead of wood.

It was convenient that Kalibabu's bed was by the window. A hand came in through the window and tenderly shook him awake at the crack of dawn. Kalibabu was sound asleep, but she was insistent. An anonymous witness, who claimed to have closed his eyes on commencement of a romantic interlude, reported this. Hence we also claim not to know anything more about it. One hint : there was no extra-marital affair here.

By a strange coincidence, all our meals were conducted during power failure. Considering this being a West Bengal Govt Tourist Lodge, the food was very good. To the disappointment of Lumu, there was no উচ্ছেভাজা | Due to the presence of so many eminent electrical engineers, the wiring in the Dining Room had burnt out. So dinner was by candle light, but hardly romantic, due to the stifling heat. There was load shedding during lunchtime next day also.

Missed : Amongst the places not visited were Frasergunj beach & Fishing Harbour, Crocodile Project, Jambudwip etc., which are local attractions.

Memories of Bakkhali :

Next : Where shall we go next?


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